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Review: Bringing Art to Life, by Andrew Horrall

Alan Jarvis in 1961

Insouciant. Erudite. Charismatic. Witty. Sexy. Charming. Handsome. These are the words commonly used to describe Alan Jarvis.

Did I mention sexy? "He could have almost any man or woman he wanted," writes Andrew Horrall. The author devotes much attention to the sex life of his subject, for good reason. Jarvis was a vigorous participant in it. He met luminaries in the highest echelons of culture and society who opened doors of opportunity - and their bedrooms - for him, through which Jarvis graciously entered.

Alan Jarvis was born in 1915 and lived in the shadow of his brother Colin, older by four years, who excelled in virtually everything - looks, brains, popularity, sportsmanship, academics. The two brothers were close but Alan repeatedly played catch-up with Colin.

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The family suffered an irrevocable blow in 1933 when Colin, at age 22, died of leukemia. Alan was shattered. He would never again "find it easy to divorce himself from his parents' aspirations, or his brother's legacy. He sensed this pressure acutely for the rest of his life," Horrall states.

In his freshman year in 1934 at University College, University of Toronto, Jarvis met Toronto bookbinder and, later, art dealer Douglas Duncan, who would be his first male lover. Twelve years his senior, Duncan filled a crucial intellectual and emotional void in Jarvis's life as a father-older-brother figure. Duncan loved art, music, architecture and, passionately, he loved Alan Jarvis.

Jarvis was awarded a Rhodes scholarship in 1938 and, following his graduation that year, he and Duncan set sail on the luxury liner Ile de France for a summer's cultural exploration of Paris and other European cities, before Jarvis reported to Oxford University.

Horrall gives relatively short shrift to Jarvis's unprecedented championing of Canadian contemporary art

Within two weeks of his arrival - the affair with Duncan unofficially over - Jarvis met a young "art keeper" with the Ashmolean Museum who introduced him to ranking figures in the art world. Jarvis would move from one gay group to another as smoothly as he did in political, academic and social circles, attracting attention in all of them. Esteemed art authority Sir Kenneth Clark called Jarvis "the handsomest man I have ever seen."

During his 17 years in England, Jarvis landed glamorous assignments. He hosted a BBC television show, made films, wrote a book on furnishings and lectured on art - he himself was a serious sculptor - and adult education. Horrall notes that he "played a small but important role in reconfiguring British society" after the Second World war as personal emissary to Sir Stafford Cripps, chancellor of the exchequer. Jarvis dubbed him "minister of treats and surprises" while living with the Cripps family.

This week's Daily Reviews

  • Monday: Shoplifting from American Apparel, by Tao Lin
  • Today: Bringing Art to Life, by Andrew Horrall
  • Wednesday: Playing Naomi, by Erika Rummel
  • Thursday: Pirate Latitudes, by Michael Crichton
  • Friday: Keynes: The Rise, Fall, and Return of the 20th Century's Most Influential Economist, by Peter Clarke

One of the casualties of Jarvis's partly chic, partly louche life was his heavy drinking, which had accelerated to breakfast starts. He realized he was not achieving the high goals expected of him, including leaving Oxford without a degree and flitting from lover to lover. Horrall believes, "Jarvis failed disastrously at fidelity and commitment to any of his partners."

A reversal of sorts occurred in an affair begun in 1952 when Jarvis lived non-monogamously with a bisexual lover; however he left in January 1955 to get married. Actually, the timing worked to Jarvis's advantage. He had already been lobbying for the director's job upcoming at the National Gallery of Canada and, with a little help from friends Clark and Cripps, in February 1955, Jarvis was offered a five-year contract as director of the gallery.

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First on Jarvis's agenda was a personal matter; he got married. At age 40, Jarvis married Betty Devlin, a girl he had known and liked since childhood who was then a widow with three children.

The radical adjustment to his marriage paled by comparison with his tenure at the National Gallery. The place was in turmoil. A key document in Canada's cultural development, the famed 1951 "Massey Report," recommended that the government provide funding for the National Gallery to acquire European Old Master art works, support Canadian art, hire additional staff and build a new National Gallery.

Horrall gives relatively short shrift to Jarvis's unprecedented championing of Canadian contemporary art. Jarvis crisscrossed the country giving speeches to arts groups, he attended artists' exhibitions, visited their studios and bought their work. He gave life - and heart - to abstract expressionist artists during the 1950s in their struggle for long-overdue recognition.

Before Jarvis's time at the Gallery, discussions had been initiated with Prince Franz Josef of Liechtenstein, who had placed pieces of his outstanding art collection on the market, including a Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece Ginerva di Benci , estimated at $2.5-million. Jarvis recklessly set in motion a plan to purchase some of these works without authorization. This caused a furor. Protracted debates raged in the House of Commons, mobilized by a chorus of philistines defying the notion that a da Vinci painting would benefit Canada in any tangible manner.

Jarvis was fired. After five years, his career in ruins, he sunk deeper and deeper into an alcoholic torpor, got divorced, and died in 1972 at age 57, in bed with a book.

An archivist and historian, Horrall obviously researched his subject well, although his excessive detail of Jarvis's failures, such as his film career in England and his National Gallery dismissal, leaves a serious gap in this biography. As a consequence, Horrall does not reach the core heat of Alan Jarvis. Too bad. This was a hot man.

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Iris Nowell writes about a few hot men in Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art, to be published in September 2010.

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