Skip to main content

Art collector Jacques Barbeau sits beside the 1952 E.J. Hughes painting Steamer in Grenville Channel, B.C. at his home in Vancouver on Monday.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The artistic discovery that would change Jacques Barbeau's life happened not in a gallery or a museum but at home, when consulting the phone book. The image on the 1950s-era cover of the B.C. telephone directory, created by the artist E.J. Hughes, was powerful, colourful, sensual. And Mr. Barbeau – who knew nothing about art – was smitten.

"It was an epiphany," Mr. Barbeau told The Globe and Mail on Monday. "I never had that feeling. It's like the first girl that you see au naturel. You never forget it."

Mr. Barbeau couldn't afford to buy art then, but as he built his law career, he amassed an enormous collection of work by Mr. Hughes. On Monday, in the living room of his Shaughnessy mansion, Mr. Barbeau announced a large donation: 15 of those paintings, include the iconic 1952 oil Steamer in Grenville Channel, BC, will go to the art museum that philanthropist Michael Audain is building in Whistler.

"It's going to provide the museum with the largest display of Hughes's work in Canada," said Ian Thom, a Hughes expert who selected the work for the Audain Art Museum. Mr. Thom called the donation an "extraordinary gesture."

Edward John Hughes, who lived from 1913 to 2007, brought a distinctive style to his work depicting the West Coast – tugboats, boathouses, inlets – as well as a meticulous work ethic; it was not uncommon for him to spend six to eight months on a painting, working 12 hours a day. He was also a war artist deployed during the Second World War. The B.C. artist – who joined an exclusive club in 2011 when a painting of his sold at auction for more than $1.1-million – was taught by Group of Seven member Frederick Varley, championed by Lawren Harris, and represented by the legendary Montreal art dealer Max Stern.

It was in Montreal, several years after his phone book epiphany, that Mr. Barbeau began his collection. Back in his hometown, he had popped by to see his old home – which happened to be next door to Mr. Stern's prestigious Dominion Gallery. There was a Hughes painting in the window, and Mr. Barbeau immediately recognized the colour, tonality and the familiar B.C. scene. So in his 20-dollar suit, as he tells it, Mr. Barbeau entered the gallery and made inquiries. When it became clear that he "wasn't a heavy hitter" who could afford a Hughes painting, he was shown a cartoon – an intricate pencil drawing – and told it could be his for $400, with payments made over several months.

Sold. For years, the work hung over the mantle in his stately Vancouver home, replaced only by Steamer in Grenville Channel, BC – which cost a fair bit more (about $50,000, Mr. Barbeau recalls).

Over the years, Mr. Barbeau collected some 80 Hughes works, wrote books on the subject, and befriended the artist. He visited Mr. Hughes often on Vancouver Island. It became clear that Mr. Hughes hoped Mr. Barbeau's growing collection would be available to the public, someday.

"That was always [the message], from day one: I want my paintings to be seen by the people. The inference being that: Jacques, eventually the paintings should get out of your living room and have a wider audience. But he wasn't that type of a man to say, well, you've got to give this to a museum; he would never say that. But I got the hint."

When Mr. Barbeau heard that Mr. Audain was building a museum in Whistler that would feature B.C. art, he sent him a brief e-mail. "You can have the pick of the litter," he offered.

This led to a visit of Mr. Barbeau's home by Mr. Audain and Mr. Thom – senior curator, historical, at the Vancouver Art Gallery and a consultant to Mr. Audain as he creates his museum.

"We walked around, I made a little list and we went away and we had a little discussion, and Mr. Audain agreed with my list and we then proposed [it] to Mr. Barbeau and he said sure," Mr. Thom said.

The 15 works they selected will be permanently installed, along with four Hughes works from Mr. Audain's own collection, in the museum's Barbeau-Owen Gallery, named for Mr. Barbeau and his wife Marguerite Owen.

"It's a huge gift," says the museum's executive director Suzanne Greening. "It's unbelievable. It's so exciting to meet collectors who have such a passion."

The $30-million, 56,000-square-foot museum is under construction, scheduled to open about a year from now. It will house B.C. art – more than 180 works – from the extensive private collection of Mr. Audain and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa.

Back in Vancouver, there are still plenty of Hughes works – including that first acquisition – to animate Mr. Barbeau and Ms. Owen's stately home. But, so they won't miss the works headed north, Mr. Barbeau has had Giclée prints – reproductions – made to hang in their place.

"To me, it's serenity," said Mr. Barbeau, now 83. "I used to come [home] from work and just look at them."