The never-ending story of a catalogue raisonné
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, December 26, 1998)

He learned drawing from a correspondence school and then failed as a magazine illustrator, so he had to settle for being a great artist instead. That youthful detour remains an endearing passage in the life of David Milne (1882-1953), the most sophisticated of Canadian painters. He's never been as famous as the Group of Seven or Emily Carr, because he didn't embrace national mythology. His concerns were less obvious: He tried to suggest a whole world with a few spare brush strokes. He saw visual magic in everyday existence and painted even Bay Street at night as a glowing wonder. He was a virtuoso.

It's pleasant to think of him examining David B. Milne: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings (University of Toronto Press, two volumes, 1,324 pages, $500), by David Milne Jr. and David Silcox, the most ambitious piece of Canadian art scholarship in history and the first such catalogue ever devoted to a Canadian. One imagines him turning its handsome pages with eagerness and surprise, then remarking on the price -- more money than he usually saw at one time.

A catalogue raisonné identifies and illustrates all of an artist's work in one medium, such as painting or drawing. Its publication is a miracle to anyone who wants to know an art career intimately (at least one eminent Toronto lawyer found these volumes under his Christmas tree yesterday). It's even harder to create than it looks. As scholars chase down the art, the project expands -- and even when it's over, it's not over. Since everything can be revised, nothing is ever quite finished. In 1906 a Rembrandt catalogue appeared, 237 years after his death. It cited 558 paintings, surely an authoritative list. But scholars have been revising it ever since, and now they recognize only about 300 authentic Rembrandts.

As Silcox says, there's no proper time in a scholar's life to start work on a catalogue raisonné. If you're young, you don't know enough to plan it properly. If you're old, you may not live to finish it. Milne himself made a stab at cataloguing his work, and so did his dealer, Douglas Duncan. In 1964, when Silcox decided to complete the task, he saw it as a minor undertaking, a matter of tidying up research already accomplished.

It turned out to be a lot more complicated. In 1970 he joined forces with David Milne Jr., who was just 12 when his father died but grew up to be a tireless promoter of Milne's reputation. Milne Jr. and Silcox believed at one point that they would finish in 1972, but Milne's art was vaster and more widely scattered than they had understood. There were periods when Silcox's other careers as author, teacher and arts bureaucrat got in the way; when he grew really busy, they set aside their project for eight years. In 1991 Silcox established an office at Massey College in Toronto and, with two associate scholars, Elizabeth Driver and Liz Wylie, began pressing slowly but steadily toward publication. He spent much of his time raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to subsidize everything from salaries to printing. Early this month, the two volumes finally appeared, in an edition of 1,000.

As collaborators, Milne Jr. and Silcox seem to have had the usual Gilbert-and-Sullivan disagreements. Silcox was also preparing his critical biography of Milne, and Milne Jr. worried that Silcox would lose interest in the catalogue when he finished that book. So, as executor of his father's estate, he withheld permission to quote from letters and reproduce art, thereby making it impossible to write a biography. Whatever tension this created at the time, it was resolved. Silcox now says Milne Jr. was probably right about the catalogue. In 1996, with all permissions given, Silcox brought out Painting Place, the biography. He now thinks that the delay improved it.

The catalogue reads as another kind of life story, a saga told through millions of details. Absorbing the precise facts, we can follow Milne's year-by-year development in a way that he, a highly self-conscious self-improver, would approve and envy. The two volumes not only document every known painting, they also identify 14 works falsely attributed to Milne, and possibly forged. On one issue of authenticity, the authors remain divided: Chimney at Palgrave, owned by a Toronto collector and perhaps painted around 1932, looks to Milne Jr. suspiciously inconsistent with related works, but Silcox is confident it's authentic. Perhaps the final decision will have to await the next catalogue raisonné of David Milne, far in the next century.

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