A storied space
David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, reveals what he loves most about his home library
"My grandchildren call me Grandpa Book because I read to them," says Governor General David Johnston. Given the nickname, it's fitting that the library is Johnston's favourite room in Rideau Hall, the Governor General of Canada's official residence since 1867.
"The library, for me, represents knowledge and learning," explains Johnston, whose love of books is also documented in his official coat of arms. "The library has always been the heart of learning and the passing on of the lessons of our civilization and the continuation of the sense of curiosity and creativity that causes us constantly to learn." The spacious room in the Monck Wing of Rideau Hall is a testament to Canada's literary legacy with an extraordinary collection numbering 694 books, including a complete catalogue of the Governor General's Literary Awards winners. The annual award was established in 1936 by John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir (whose portrait by Canadian artist Robert Stewart Hyndman hangs above the fireplace), but it wasn't until Adrienne Clarkson's tenure as the Governor General that the collection was completed after a nationwide call for missing books. Among Johnson's favourites are works by Hugh MacLennan, a five-time winner and former colleague from their days at McGill University.
Before it was converted to a library in 1952, the room had gone through several iterations. In 1865, when the Monck Wing was added to the original 1838 structure by Viscount Monck, Canada's first Governor General, the room was designated as a bedroom for Lady Monck. It has performed various functions since, including the Governor General's office, a boudoir, the Military Secretary's office, a smoking room, a flower room and a card room. Its current scheme has been in place since before Johnston took office in 2010.
The room boasts several historic pieces of Canadian design, including an 1820 Regency Pembroke table by Thomas Nisbet and a mid-18th-century Regency-Style settee by Alexander Lawrence. Both New Brunswick-based cabinetmakers were considered masters of their craft in their respective times. Aside from the Lord Tweedsmuir portrait, the library is home to three art works – two graphite on paper cityscapes from 1929 depicting Beaumont, Que., and an oil-on-board landscape painting from 1957: Lake Cinch Mine, by A. Y. Jackson, a prominent member of the Group of Seven. "[They] remind us that our culture is innovative," says Johnston. "The art that the Group of Seven introduced was considered somewhat awkward and unusual in the first years, but then people began to see it's a demonstration and a manifestation of Canada." Contemporary Canadian art is also represented, through a series of photographs of Radio-Canada International transmission towers, taken between 1977 and 2005 by Thaddeus Holownia.
While the library is not officially used for formal functions, its proximity to the Small Dining Room (formerly a part of Lady Monck's suite) makes it a perfect spot for pre- and post-dinner get-togethers in front of the fireplace.
When not attending official engagements or working in his office, Johnston loves to retreat to the library. "[It's] a very good atmosphere for reflections." However, his busy schedule has prevented him from taking full advantage of the incredible book collection. "I often say that I'd wish they'd give me three or four weeks and just put me in there with a few sandwiches so I can read every one," he says.
The Governor General still has a couple of months before his tenure ends to absorb the full catalogue. But it won't happen on Canada Day when Rideau Hall welcomes Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. "And I'll have the 14 grandchildren here so this place will be rocking." It seems that Grandpa Book will have to tend to his love of reading on another day.
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