House Beautiful: Take a virtual tour of historic Blair Gowie House

What: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria House Tour
Where: Online
When: Sept. 20 to Oct. 30
Tickets: $10 for a supporting ticket and $35 for a super supporter ticket. More information at aggv.ca/house-tour or by calling 250-384-4171.
Note: Proceeds from the tour support programming and exhibitions at the AGGV.

It seems as if just about everything is going online these days — and that includes house tours.

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The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and its volunteer group, the Gallery Associates, is launching a virtual version of the annual house tour on Sunday, and it will feature one of the city’s most fascinating and fabulous homes.

Not only is this home a mansion with historical significance, having been built for a member of the Butchart Gardens family in 1916, but it was designed by renowned local architect Samual Maclure.

In addition, it recently underwent a massive renovation. The result is a testament to the fortitude, talent and passion of owners and designers Bruce Wilkin and Ann Hillyer, who spent several years bringing the 1916 home up to present-day standards and beyond.

This is the first time the gallery has hosted an online house tour and organizers anticipate Blair Gowie, as the mansion is called, will be a big draw. (The name might have been inspired by a town in Scotland called Blairgowrie.)

While the public cannot gather in large numbers to view the property in person, aficionados of glamorous heritage buildings can make a video visit guided by Victoria appraiser Alison Ross, who explored the building with Wilkin and Hillyer.

She encouraged the owners to discuss the Runnymede-area home’s provenance while relaying anecdotes about the detailed restoration they bravely undertook.

Hosting the on-camera tour was a treat, said Ross, who noted the mostly white interior is a perfect backdrop for the owners’ unique art collection.

“Bruce and Ann always do amazing work and they have been very respectful of the character of this home, its defining elements and architecture, while at the same time bringing it up to modern standards. It needed extensive work on everything from electrical to plumbing….”

Everything in the Italian Renaissance revival-style mansion is impeccable and stylish, she said, “from the work the owners did to convert all the vintage antique lighting to the way they also added ultra-modern fixtures. That’s what they do best, mix the old and new.”

While some people are afraid to blend antiques and contemporary pieces, she said, “these two excel at combining pieces they love.”

The result, Ross said, is not an “overwrought” designer space.

“It’s not a show home. It’s a home … and really amazing.”

The mansion features extensive custom millwork, warm white walls, original wood floors that gleam like cognac and a full wall of garden-facing windows.

The couple’s art collection adds splashes of colour.

“It’s very cool,” Ross said. “[It’s] primarily post-war, but they have mixed some fantastic contemporary Canadian works with traditional landscapes and pieces from the Group of Seven. They used to have a house in Vegas and also brought some fun pieces up from there.”

While the house is mostly white inside, there are exceptions — one of the most striking is a powder room the owners painted a deep grey.

“Some say you shouldn’t use dark paint in a small, compact room, but theirs has a wonderfully right feeling. The master bath is very New York art deco.”

Ross, a personal property appraiser, insurance evaluator for art and antiques and long-time volunteer for the gallery, said it’s always fun to walk through a home in person, but in this instance, the video format has advantages, because the owners were there to answer her questions. “I tried to ask what others would want to know as well as what interested me.”

In addition to the house, the owners have renewed and refreshed the garden. Along the way, they made some interesting discoveries, like finding a rockery buried deep inside a huge grove of invasive bamboo.

The home sits on a rocky knoll surrounded by mature oaks and the owners didn’t want a garden with a heavily manicured feeling, said Ross. They have opted for more of an English country garden aesthetic.

Event co-chair Bed Kallstrom believes viewers will be thrilled by this “private” tour format. Now, more than ever, she said, the Gallery Associates group is keen to promote and support the gallery’s exhibitions and educational programs.

“We are incredibly appreciative of the community support for the house tour,” she said. The presenting sponsor is Zebra Group, along with other local businesses.

AGGV taking novel approach

The benefit the AGGV receives from the Gallery Associates through fundraising efforts like the house tour is critically important, said director Jon Tupper, who thanks the group for its creativity in putting on this year’s event in such a unique way.

“I was interested to see how they would do it … so many things have changed at the AGGV because of the pandemic.”

The gallery has had to take a novel approach to other special events, too, such as its massively popular Paint In. That annual event attracts 35,000 visitors every year. Apart from being a huge crowd pleaser, it plays a critical part in many local artists’ lives, providing enough money to pay for an entire year of studio rent, he noted.

In place of the Paint In, the gallery created a guidebook this year to connect artists with the public and encourage people to visit studios personally. These guides are still available at the gallery.

Tupper also initiated the purchase of $26,000 in works from local artists, to add to the permanent collection. “It is all part of an important role we play in the community.”

The gallery has had to get creative with exhibitions, too. One example is the Field Trip program, which highlights work across Canada and can be seen online.

Attendance at the gallery is down 70 percent, but Tupper believes that will change as people in the community look around for new, fun and interesting ways to spend time in the city.

“We are observing all the strictest protocols … we are a safe and friendly place.”

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