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Couple caps half century, and 150 years, of Canadian decor

Design

150 years of Canadian decor

After a distinguished career marked by international travel, Joan and Derek Burney celebrate the 'many lovely things' crafted in Canada to mark the sesquicentennial

The ambience in the Burneys’ library is “high country”, decorated with casual comfort in mind but with a slightly more formal feel provided by the furniture produced in the early years of British settlement in eastern Canada. (Images from Celebrating Canada by Peter E. Baker).

Growing up as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister in Northern Ontario in the late 1950s, Joan Peden Burney was interested in the greater world beyond her doorstep.

"I knew there was so much to see – and I was so keen to see it," she recalled recently. Ms. Burney met her match in that regard, and otherwise, when she began dating Derek Burney, who was driving a cab for his mother's taxi company while he, like her, was home from studies at Queen's University. Ten months later, in 1961, they married.

Today, the couple have a sign from Burney's Taxi Company hanging in their elegant south Ottawa home. It reminds them of their roots – and how much their world has changed. Mr. Burney's career as a senior Canadian diplomat and businessman has taken them around much of the globe. Along the way, they raised four boys, became grandparents – and amassed one of the most extensive collections of Canadian antiques anywhere.

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In the dining room a three-tier chandelier is the focal point hanging over a ten-foot contemporary cherry oval table.

That last achievement is the focus of the Burneys' unique Canada 150 project – a coffee-table book three years in the making called Celebrating Canada: Decorating with History in a Contemporary Home. Published by Dundurn and written by their long-time collaborator, Quebec writer and antiques expert Peter Baker, the book details the story of – and behind – dozens of items in their home that touch on a wide range of eras and aspects of Canada's history.

That includes everything from a 1690s French (Quebec) Regime chair to Indigenous art, and carvings such as a late 18th-century Huron box; a 19th-century Newfoundland keepsake box; an 18th-century diamond point armoire; original First World War recruitment posters; and more, recently, late 20th-century folk artists.

The goal, Mr. Baker writes in his introduction, is "to renew awareness towards the material history that surrounds us no matter where we live in Canada." The Burneys home seamlessly merges past and present in the manner in which every room is decorated with pieces. That's all the more remarkable given that their now-adult children and their grandchildren are regular visitors and the grandchildren often sleep over.

"We don't want our house to be a museum," Ms. Burney says. "Many of these items were part of family households, and now they are again."

The Burneys and Mr. Baker are passionate in their belief that items from Canada's past should be incorporated into everyday life for both aesthetic and educational reasons. "Optimism and confidence about Canada's future begin with a better appreciation of our history, not fleeting flirtations with postmodern values," Mr. Burney says.

The mahogany card table in the library is a superb example of craftsmanship by John Tulles of Halifax.

And, Mr. Baker adds, "people don't realize that if you shop carefully, you can get a beautiful antique table for the same price or less than you'd pay for some modern-day mass-produced product."

The Burneys collection began modestly in 1972, when Mr. Burney was a junior public servant and the couple was raising their four boys on the one salary. Just returned from a long posting in Japan, Ms. Burney recalls she was "feeling more proudly Canadian than ever, and I wanted to acknowledge that" by collecting Canadiana. For Christmas that year, Mr. Burney bought a red-painted sap-gathering bucket "that probably cost about $10" and a book called Collecting Canada's Past.

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From there, the collection swiftly expanded as opportunities – and the couple's ability to buy – grew greater. Mr. Burney became an increasingly prominent political adviser and diplomat (serving as chief of staff to then prime minister Brian Mulroney and then as ambassador to Washington); then in business; and, in recent years, as senior strategic adviser at an international law firm.

From the outset, the couple were determined not to restrict their collecting to any one region or era, but rather, Ms. Burney says, "to reflect the entirety of our country as much as possible."

The carved deer sitting atop a desk is a good example of Quebec folk carving in the late 19th century where the artist has captured the essence of the subject with minimal detail.

In Mr. Baker, who the couple met through mutual friends in the early 1990s, they found a kindred spirit. "We quickly realized we share a love of the story behind various pieces, and not just the pieces themselves," he says.

Some favourite acquisitions reflect a mix of luck and a discerning eye. One is the 18th-century French Regime armchair in their living room. It was on offer at an auction in the United States, where it was mistakenly described as being of European-Flemish origins. But when Mr. Baker saw a photograph, he recognized its provenance – and the Burneys brought the chair back to Canada and into their home.

Ms. Burney's hope is that the book will infuse others with the same passion for Canadiana and history that has given her so much delight. "Sometimes it just takes one picture, or story, and a person discovers a whole new interest," she says.

And, she adds, a first-hand acquaintance with items from our past builds a greater appreciation of Canada. "We have created many lovely things. To be aware of that is to take even greater pride in our country." For the Burneys, that pride begins at home – and extends into everything they do.

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