Scholar was a Group of One; Robert Stacey's love of Canadian art was unique
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 12 February 2008)

In his last years, Robert Stacey became one of those people who perplex and frustrate all their friends. He was a brilliant scholar who wrote about Canadian art and a spirited, lovable companion. He was also a self-destructive alcoholic. When liver failure finally killed him last November, at age 58, it was a tragedy long predicted.

On Saturday about 100 of those who admired Stacey gathered together. A screen showed parts of his life in still photos and film while his many catalogues and books covered a long table. Eight friends, including his longtime partner and editor, Maggie Keith, spoke about his qualities and their gratitude for having known him.

David Mason, a distinguished rare-books dealer, met Bob in the 1970s and liked him immediately. "I never met anyone who didn't like Bob," he said. "People might be angry at him, but they still liked him." If they were angry it was over his tardiness. When writing a catalogue or a book he could be a year or two late. He always found more to say than anyone anticipated. Often he handed in a manuscript twice as long as the one requested. If it was sent back for cutting he might return it even longer. He was infuriating but his knowledge was incomparable.

Once he wrote the catalogue text for an exhibition at the Windsor Art Gallery by Allan Harding MacKay, an excellent painter he greatly admired. The catalogue appeared three years after the show. Still, MacKay recalls that incident with pleasure. The catalogue is an exceptional piece of work.

Stacey followed Canadian art down many a twisted but captivating path. Most scholars assumed that the commercial art produced by several Group of Seven members to stay alive was inconsequential, but in 1996 Stacey proved the opposite with a beautiful book, J.E.H. MacDonald, Designer: An Anthology of Graphic Design, Illustration and Lettering. He meticulously researched a catalogue, The Hand Holding the Brush: Self-portraits by Canadian Artists, opening another field ignored by most curators. The Canadian Poster Book turned out to be crammed with surprises. Stacey often worked the edges of Canadian art, but in ways that broadened everyone's understanding.

Dennis Reid, chief curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, praised Stacey's sense of art's context -- he was "a cultural geographer." Stacey loved to write about places where artists found inspiration -- the Qu'Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan, for instance. He believed we should ignore broad schemes for nationhood and focus instead on regions that provided the seedbeds of culture: "We need to rediscover the power of place."

He analyzed the mystique surrounding Bon Echo Park, near Napanee in eastern Ontario, where natives long ago painted 260 cryptic red-ochre pictographs along the base of the granite cliff that rises 100 metres above Mazinaw Lake. Early in the 20th century, Bon Echo became an outpost of Canadian culture. The dominant personality, and co-owner of the Bon Echo Inn, was Flora Mac-Donald Denison, a pioneer woman journalist (for the young Saturday Night, among other publications) with interests in feminism, theosophy, free love, spiritualism and socialism. Above all she was a devotee of Walt Whitman. In 1920, she had a dedication, to "the democratic ideals of Walt Whitman," carved into the granite cliff. Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson and other members of the Group of Seven worked there. Flora's son, Merrill Denison, helped found an independent Canadian theatre with the plays he wrote in the 1920s. Bon Echo was Stacey's kind of place.

Christopher Moore, who worked with him on The Illustrated History of Canada, wrote on his blog that Stacey seemed to know every image of the Canadian past and what it signified. For that book, Stacey was poorly paid. As usual, he did about 10 times as much work as the fee justified. He was a freelance writer without the relentless sense of economy that craft requires.

Jeff Bradford, Stacey's friend at Northview Heights Collegiate in North York, Ont., in the 1960s, remembered how he astonished the teachers. At least one of them called him a genius. Stacey wrote, directed and acted in a high-school production called A Dream of Unreason. Once, responding to a routine assignment, he submitted his English essay in iambic pentameter. Bradford went to the University of Toronto with Stacey and later travelled with him. He spent years, he said, "at the University of Bob--a first-class education."

I once heard a psychiatrist remark that "a good head for whisky" has destroyed many people. That was the old phrase for someone who could drink vast quantities without showing it; Margaret Mitchell applied it to the father of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. It was part of Stacey's downfall. People knew him for years without ever guessing that he was killing himself.

Half a dozen years ago, when his situation became clear, friends tried hard to convert him to sobriety. He was taken to AA meetings and he tried rehab centres. One stay in rehab lasted just a single day.

After much effort, David Mason gave up trying to save Bob and began meeting him on Saturday afternoons at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern. Others began showing up, among them Richard Landon, director of the University of Toronto's rare-books library and Stan Bevington of Coach House Press. Bevington named their group "the Bob Club." It still meets. Now the members are planning a volume of his best writing.

Appropriately, Saturday's memorial event took place at the Arts & Letters Club in downtown Toronto. A founder of the club in 1908 was Stacey's grandfather, C.W. Jefferys, a painter and muralist, best known for the appearance of his many "visual reconstructions" of Canadian history in textbooks. Stacey wrote catalogues about his grandfather but never got around to producing the substantial monograph he always planned. It was one of many unfinished projects in his files when he died. On Saturday, his admirers couldn't keep their minds off all the work that might have been done if his life had gone otherwise.

People laughed with remembered pleasure as they talked of him but a sadness never left the room. As Mason said, "That good, decent, generous, brilliant man is gone. What a waste." Even so, the work he left remains a model of crisp authority and unique curiosity. Students of Canadian art will be reading it for generations to come.

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