Books: Art lover helped shape Greater Victoria gallery’s collection

Harold Mortimer-Lamb: The Art Lover

By Robert Amos

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TouchWood, 186 pp., $24.95

Harold Mortimer-Lamb might be the most important art lover you’ve never heard of, but Robert Amos is determined to change that.

Mortimer-Lamb spent a decade in Victoria, more than a century ago, but his influence is still felt within the walls of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. His taste in art helped shape the AGGV collection, after all.

Mortimer-Lamb came to Victoria in 1895 to become secretary of the British Columbia Mining Institute. He developed an interest in photography and helped bring about the first exhibition of photography as art in the province.

His subjects included Lt.-Gov. Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, premier Richard McBride, writer and character Clive Phillipps-Wolley and artists such as Samuel Maclure, James Bloomfield and Sophie Pemberton.

Mortimer-Lamb left Victoria in 1905, heading to Montreal first, then to Burnaby in 1920. While living in Burnaby he visited Victoria regularly.

He was an early champion of Emily Carr, writing in Saturday Night magazine about her and lobbying the National Gallery to buy her work.

He was well-connected to the Group of Seven, since he was a neighbour of Lawren Harris, a patron of Frederick Varley and the first person to write about A.Y. Jackson.

He was a founder of the Vancouver School of Art in 1925 and the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1931. At 70, Mortimer-Lamb married Varley’s 30-year-old model and lover, artist Vera Weatherbie.

In about 1952, through his friend Jack Shadbolt, Mortimer-Lamb met Colin Graham, the AGGV’s founding director.

In 1954, Mortimer-Lamb started giving works from his extensive art collection to the Victoria gallery, housed in the old Spencer mansion. The first gift was his 1904 photograph of Sophie Pemberton for her retrospective exhibition, one of the gallery’s first projects.

Mortimer-Lamb’s generosity with Victoria led to the construction of the gallery’s modern wing, which was designed to be fireproof — something the old mansion could not offer.

He offered to donate the most significant portions of his collection on the condition that a new wing would be built — and with the blessing of city council and the community, the wing was opened in 1957.

Mortimer-Lamb’s gifts set a course for the gallery’s collecting philosophy, which includes Asian art, decorative arts and Canadian art history.

Mortimer-Lamb died in 1977, and Vera died seven years later. They left the contents of their estate to the Victoria gallery — 192 works of art and more than 250 “artistic” photographs as well as his papers. The couple also gave the gallery $110,000 for the purchase of art.

Amos, who covers art for the Times Colonist, worked at the gallery when the Mortimer-Lamb bequest arrived. This book, The Art Lover, is itself a labour of love, the product of Amos’s determination that Victoria know more about the man who did so much for our art gallery.

Not surprisingly, it is beautifully illustrated, with almost 100 images that will form part of a Mortimer-Lamb exhibition at the art gallery. It is also beautifully written, and has the right look for a book that celebrates art and an art lover.

The Art Lover shines a light on a man who lived here for only a brief time, but left a lasting legacy. It also opens the door to a little-known chapter of our history, and that is always a good thing.


The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s exhibition Harold Mortimer-Lamb: The Art Lover, guest curated by Robert Amos, will open at 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 15. The official book launch, with free admission, is from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16.


The reviewer, the editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist, is the author of Making The News: A Times Colonist Look at 150 Years of History.

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