The humble patron

Canada's richest man, Ken Thomson, talks about his gift to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Call it an early Christmas present to Canadians. On Nov. 19, 2002 Kenneth Thomson, head of the Thomson empire and the country's wealthiest man, announced that he's donating almost 2,000 of his prized works of art to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The donation — worth an estimated $300 million — includes an array of late-19th-century and early-20th-century Canadian paintings, more than 200 of them by the Group of Seven, as well as Thomson's collection of rare European objets d'arts, some of which are already on loan to the AGO. Just to make sure that his art is suitably housed, Thomson earmarked $50 million for an expansion of the existing building, and an additional $20-million endowment for the gallery. The AGO has enlisted award-winning Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry to design the new wing, which is set to open in 2007.

Thomson has been amassing his cherished collection for more than half a century, but he has made some headline-grabbing acquisitions in the past few years. In July, he purchased Peter Paul Rubens' The Massacre of the Innocents for $117 million — the most ever paid for an Old Masters painting, although at the time critics questioned its authenticity. He has also repeatedly broken the record for buying the highest-priced Canadian painting. In February, he shelled out more than $5 million for Paul Kane's Scene in the Northwest — Portrait, breaking the record he set with last year's purchase of Lawren Harris's Baffin Island. Many of his Canadian paintings are on display at the Thomson Gallery in downtown Toronto.

Despite his status, Thomson is a little reticent about talking to the media. There are some things he just doesn't like to talk about — his wealth, for one. Year after year, he expresses dismay at our annual ranking of this country's rich, which invariably puts him at the top of the heap. And he doesn't often like to talk about the inner workings of Thomson Corp., which he has transformed from a conglomerate into an electronic publisher with annual revenues of US$7 billion. (Earlier this year, he stepped down as chairman and handed over the reins to son David.)

But he sure likes talking about art. At the start of his conversation with Canadian Business, Thomson said he wanted to keep it short and sweet. “I don't want you to think I'm unfriendly, [but] I don't like publicity, you know. And of course, I got my head in a hornet's nest last week,” he said, referring to the media attention that followed the AGO announcement. “Hopefully, I'm going to sort of turn off after this interview, because I just don't like the high profile,” he continued. But once he started talking about some of his favorite pieces, he went on at length, describing them with such reverence that it was clear Ken Thomson the passionate collector had, at least for a short time, eclipsed Ken Thomson the media-shy billionaire.

Canadian Business: A number of your European art objects have been on exhibit at the AGO for five years now. Looking at that collection, it's clear you have a fascination with religious subjects. Is that an expression of your faith?

Thomson: No, it isn't because they're religious. It just happened that in those days, religion produced the desire to make those things. And in those days, there were very limited subjects. I mean, religion was the first to inspire sculpture and art and so forth. But there was also love and humor and anatomy and the mortality of man, the memento mori.

CB: And obviously religion also inspired artists to carve the 15 prayer beads in your collection.

Thomson: Oh, well, those are magnificently portrayed. I love those prayer nuts. They're among my favorite things, but they're so rare.

CB: If not faith then, is your collection a reflection of your personality?

Thomson: Oh, I don't know about my personality so much as my taste. I have a sort of macabre taste, in a way. I like skulls and skeletons and the structure of the body. But I don't have a sick taste or anything; I just admire the forms and the difficulty of portraying them in sculpture. I admire how these things are done, technically and sculpturally, more than what they represent.

CB: So it's more an appreciation of the artist's skill than the subject matter?

Thomson: I would say that. For instance, the painting The Massacre of the Innocents — that's a grim subject, but the grimness of the subject doesn't even register with me. I'm not looking at the subject — I'm just looking at the portrayal of the subject. In my mind, there's a difference. I've heard people say, well, that's a lovely painting, but I couldn't live with that. “Jesus,” I'd say, “if it's that wonderful, I can live with it whatever the subject.” Almost. I don't let subjects govern my appreciation of things as much as some people.

CB: Tell us about some of your favorite sculptures at the AGO.

Thomson: I love the old man in boxwood. It's so beautiful.

CB: What about it?

Thomson: Oh, I just absolutely adore it. To begin with, I love anatomy. I love boxwood. I love beautiful carving, small carving. But despite its small scale, it's got everything. And the way I acquired him and everything — he's just part of my soul.

CB: How did you acquire him?

Thomson: That old dealer in London, Mr. Spero — I used to frequent his shop all the time, looking for boxwoods and ivory. I guess I reminded him of his old clients, because I was a young man and I was interested in these things. I think I impressed him because of my taste. One day he said, “Mr. Thomson, there's a client friend of mine in the country who has an old man in boxwood.” He pulled out a big book on the 1862 loan exhibition at the Victoria and Albert — what was then the South Kensington Museum. They had one object illustrated of each category, and in boxwood carving, it was the old man. He showed me this illustration — I nearly died. And I said, “Oh my God, is this thing available?” And he said, “It may be, but if you see it, don't look like you're looking right now, or you'll put the price right up into the sky.” So this fellow collected German Renaissance bronzes and Italian majolica. He'd made a deal for some bronze or some majolica, and he got this boxwood carving with it. “It's superb,” he said, “but I don't collect boxwood.” Can you imagine him saying that? I mean, if he had one boxwood in his whole life, that should have been it. But anyway, he was two-track minded. So I made a deal for a thousand dollars. And either I bought something else, or he threw in something else — another boxwood. I wish I'd kept it, just because of the story. I mean, it was nothing, and this was something. As we drove back, I kept the statuette on my lap, and I just treated it so carefully. I can't bear the thought that I could ever damage it. That's got to be saved forever. I mean, if that sculpture could be here 5,000 years from now, I'd be so happy, because I just absolutely adore it.

CB: But you've loaned it to the AGO. Don't you miss it?

Thomson: Well, I do in a way. But as long as I think it's safe, and it's going to be safe after I go, it makes me feel a lot better. I could have it in front of me right here, but I'd be nervous. It would have to be in a case, and then if it's in a case here, why shouldn't it be over there, where it can be protected?

CB: So do you go often to see the works in your AGO collection?

Thomson: Yes, but not as often as I should. I get tied up, you know. But I've been over a couple of times recently. When I see the objects, I get thrilled.

CB: Would you ever allow yourself the indulgence of using one of these objects for their intended purpose? Would you ever consider, for instance, saying a prayer with one of the prayer nuts?

Thomson: Well, that wouldn't be my bent, anyway. But these were not really functional. They may have been used at some time for devotional purposes, but long, long ago they became works of art that were too delicate for that. You wouldn't dare do that today. God, you'd have a heart attack.

CB: Come on. Haven't you ever wanted to just once take a sip out of a Nautilus cup?

Thomson: No, no, I've never had any temptation. I'm kind of the opposite. I'm kind of obsessed with putting it behind glass and not touching it. I love to touch these things, but every time you do things like that, it's another risk, and I'm not prepared to take it, personally. I wouldn't want to be the one, after four or five hundred years, to damage something irreparably.

CB: Are you going to display Rubens' Massacre of the Innocents in your home before you give it to the AGO?

Thomson: No. The first time it'll be displayed, I believe, will be at the National Gallery in London, maybe next year. After that, it's going to have a magnificent frame put on it, and the next time it's on view, I would hope that it would be right here in Toronto at the opening of the new AGO. It should be quite a blockbuster opening. That picture alone will make it so.

CB: When you purchased it in July, there were conflicting reports about it. Some said that your son David had bought it for you as a gift.

Thomson: No, no, that was wrong. The Globe and Mail got that wrong. People, including you, shouldn't jump to conclusions until they clarify things. They were so anxious to reveal to the world who'd bought the thing. I bought the painting, but I doubt if I'd had the courage to buy it without David. In fact, I know I wouldn't have had the courage to without him. He was sitting beside me on my right-hand side, banging me on the ribs and saying “Go!” And I realized as I moved along in the bidding that it was a once-in-my-lifetime — and maybe several lifetimes — opportunity. So, I thought, let's go for it, because this is something that I'll never, ever, have a chance to do again. David, I feel, was right, in that he strengthened my backbone.

CB: You've described David as an extraordinary collector far beyond your level. Tell me about his collecting.

Thomson: David collects in a different field, more modern. He collects all these artists that I've never even heard of. But he just doesn't see something he likes and buy it. Everything David acquires has a very special quality because he's got a fantastic eye. There's always a reason why David buys something, because it's either superb in quality or it's something that fits into a pattern of his interest. My collecting is more opportunistically driven. I have a few targets — there's no question about that — and I'm looking for an example of this or that. David's doing all of that, but he's doing it more methodically, more systematically, more efficiently than I do. And there seems to be no area that he doesn't have knowledge of. I mean, he can go into Paul Klee and all the modern things but he also knows medieval, which is my field, too. He just seems to know every darn thing I talk to him about.

CB: Well didn't he learn a lot of it from you in the first place?

Thomson: Well, maybe originally, but David's stopped learning anything from me. Now I think he's the one doing the teaching. Oh, he's terrific. I don't know anybody like him. Of course, he's my son and I'm proud of him and I'm biased and everything else. But it's not just my opinion, it's everybody's — dealers, museum people. They're flabbergasted by his knowledge and his energy in collecting. But he respects me, and he pays me the odd compliment, too. But I know I'm on safe ground when I pay him a compliment.

CB: Did your father collect art?

Thomson: No, he collected businesses, as he used to say. That was his life — building businesses. He did once buy three Krieghoff paintings. Two of them, it turned out, were a matching set — the Squaw and the Trapper — and they happened to be magnificent Krieghoffs. I've never seen two like them. The third one was not good. So he got two out of three, and they more than made up for the third one.

CB: Are those two paintings still in your collection?

Thomson: Oh, I'd never sell those. Aside from the fact that I got them through Dad, they're wonderful. He wasn't even interested in collecting, but Dad was lucky, you know? He just seemed to do the right thing.

CB: If someone was going to the Thomson Gallery to look at your Canadian paintings, which of those works would you point to as being your favorites?

Thomson: Well, Tom Thomson's my favorite artist [of the Group of Seven era]. The trouble is that all of my Tom Thomson canvases are out in Vancouver [on exhibit]. I'll tell you, when you go in the front door, there's a small Lawren Harris canvas, a street scene. It's small by Harris standards, but I think it's an absolutely marvelous picture. It's Houses, Richmond Street. Now, I don't usually point out A.J. Casson in the same breath as Harris and Thomson and J.E.H. MacDonald, but there is a Casson, House Tops in the Ward, that I think is his best painting. I've never seen a Casson I would trade this one for. Near the Casson there's a painting by MacDonald called Rowanberries. It's a MacDonald canvas from Algoma, and they're very rare. I was very fortunate to acquire that. There's also a J.W. Morrice painting, the Bull Ring. I think it's my finest Morrice. And the Red Barn is a superb A.Y. Jackson canvas. It's as good as any Jackson you'll ever see.

CB: What do you think distinguishes an artist's best work? For instance, what differentiates the Red Barn from some of Jackson's lesser paintings?

Thomson: Well, I don't know — it just comes off, you know, as you look at it. I mean, the balance, the color, the rolling snow, the quaint fence, the landscape, the sky and everything. He just put it together. It's like making an omelette: sometimes you just get the right ingredients, and it's cooked just right and it tastes wonderful? Well, he just put this one together right; it just came out right. Sometimes an artist does it, and sometimes he just doesn't quite do it the same.

CB: But not all people share your knowledge of the artists and their works.

Thomson: That's the nice thing about my collection at the AGO, I think. People can look at things for the first time, and they can be intrigued and fascinated by them. It's like a nice piece of music. If you hear a piece of music by Mozart, you don't have to tell what movement it is, the adagio or whatever. You don't need to know all that. All you have to know is, Does it sound beautiful? And in most cases with Mozart, it does. I think it's the same thing with art. I mean, if you look at something and you like it, that's the most important thing.

CB: How do you envision your gift transforming the AGO?

Thomson: First, it will be a lovely area within the gallery. If it's all kept together, as it will be — that'll be the condition — it'll be kept together in my space, and it will be displayed personally. I want to get a nice, personal feeling about it, a nice homey feeling. There will be all kinds of things: objects and paintings — Canadian paintings, basically — but many objects of different categories, from the things [that are now at the AGO] to antique ship models and Chinese snuff bottles and pens. I don't think anybody would be able to visit and not find something of interest in my space. So, if you put that within the confines of the whole gallery, and then you have adjacencies of their Canadian paintings close to mine — not in the same room, but on the other side of the wall — you're going to have a wonderful display of Canadian art. And you're going to have a completely new dimension in works of art to expand their present collection. But the Rubens painting alone — of course, it's the totality of the collection that is interesting — but that one painting will be worth a visit to the gallery. There's no question about it.

CB: If your father were alive today, how do you think he would react to your gift to the AGO?

Thomson: Oh, he'd be flabbergasted, first of all. He'd be flabbergasted that values have gone up so much with his organization. He'd have to accustom himself to the fact that it's grown so hugely since he passed away in 1976. But then I think that if he realized that I was 79, that I was getting on, that I'd spent over half my life, over half a century, collecting things, and that I could afford to do this, I think I could get to him. I know I could get to him. I think I could talk to Dad and say, “Look, Dad, this is something that reflects on you more than me, because I couldn't have done it without what you did for me. Just come in, Dad, and have a look at all these people looking at these works of art that I've collected. It'll do your heart good to see how they enjoy them.” I know I could get to him, because he was, at heart, a very nice man. And he had faith in me.