St John NB & The Magnificent Irvings + Art heist at Beaverbrook Gallery
Sometime in the 1980s, I met an old woman, who like my dad, was a native of St John, NB. She told me that all the little girls in this hilly city used to wait at the bottom of Princess St. hoping to catch a glimpse of my 17 yr old father Frank as he sauntered down the hill. It’s hard to imagine one’s wheezy old man as an object of desire but I accepted it as the truth. He was a handsome dude, a bit on the short side, but there’s no denying he was a charmer. The only person he seems not to have charmed was my mother. She was on the rebound when she grudgingly asked him to a company picnic sometime in the mid-1930s, ignoring him throughout, I might add. It was only when a co-worker came up to her and said “So Gaby, who’s the good-looking fella’ with your sister Myrt?” that she reacted “He’s not with Myrt! He’s with me!” She had a second look at him. This part happened in Montreal. In the late 1920s and early 30s my father and his 5 siblings left St John for Central Canada and the North Eastern U.S., though their parents and grandparents are buried there alongside the many Irish who arrived in St John Harbor in the early to mid-1800s.
There may be more of ancient Rome left standing than there is of old St John. The city has been so messed-about with that’s it’s hard to imagine what it looked like from sorrowful stories past. There was a fire there in 1877 but that seems too long ago to explain the huge gaps in it’s hilly streets. I’ve heard tell of a streetcar that went from the village of Fairville (my grandmother Johanna Gillis’s hometown) to a cantilever bridge over the St John River that customers crossed on foot before boarding another streetcar into St John proper. My 8 yr old aunt rode that streetcar to be with her mother who lay dying somewhere at an address on Main St at the age of 32. Huge chunks of the city have gone missing and replaced with big wide roads severing neighbourhoods that were once contiguous. The worse junk-food franchises are all well-represented, unfortunately. I tried to find Douglas Ave. where my father’s family had once lived but I might as well have been looking for it in Baltimore. It’s all delapidated churches catty-corner from Mickey Ds. There are few old streets in the city center that are wholly intact but caring people continue to renovate the remaining tall narrow brick and brownstone buildings. By some miracle the lovely old city market, St John High School and the Imperial Theatre escaped demolition and all seem to be thriving. There’s a boom on. The Magnificent Irvings are building yet another refinery and… St John is to be blessed with the new ‘Irving World headquarters.’ Why do I suspect the taxpayers will be footing the bill for this? (cause you’re a cynic?) Also, St John’s harbour welcomes big cruiseships now so the influx of bored tourists from these floating septic tanks has spawned a burgeoning economy of street hawkers who line the bottom of King St. I shudder to think of where the waste goes (surely not into the harbour?) but hey these things run on diesel so who cares. One thing’s for sure, the good people of St John will continue to swallow what’s served up to them and be thankful for whatever that might be..(a dose of the Norwalk virus?) Blue-cholera indeed. I confess to feeling great affection for this beleaguered little city though you wouldn’t know it from the tone of this post. It’s a treasure-trove of lovely junk from the past, an old stripper-lady with just one pastie left. I was lucky to pick up a 50s table-top Farfisa chord organ for a song. The instrument, if you can call it that, came out of some parsonage..a small poor one and was probably played by a church mouse. Just a closer walk with Thee…down to Mickey D’s.
By contrast, Fredericton, New Brunswick’s genteel (boring?) capital and home to U.N.B. (party campus?) benefited from the munificence of Max Aitken, aka Lord Beaverbrook, financier and newspaper baron. In 1959, by way of celebrating his 80th birthday, His Lordship built the Beaverbrook Art Gallery as a gift to the people of Fredericton and continued to fill it with works of art throughout his lifetime as did the Dowager Lady B. until she herself croaked. This fine Gallery has some surprisingly good and very valuable pieces (as it turns out) and Lord B. profligate heirs are trying to get their hands on 200 of them. The silly twits have gone and blown their inheritances. It’s an art heist. Both sides are spending what little resources they have on lawyers. I’m happy Lily and I got to see the collection before it ends up in the hands of private collectors, the only ones who will be able to afford the Turner (suggested price 25 mill), a nice Lucian Freud, vintage 1955, (a painting of his recently fetched 72 mil.) a couple of Botticellis, John Singer Sargents, the list goes on. Don’t Dali, go see them before the boys from Sotheby’s show up with the Ryder trucks. My personal favorite was a large Jack Bush. It’s probably safe. Canadian painters don’t have much currency in international art markets. I should mention that the Gallery is hosting a show on N.B. architecture (St John’s missing buildings are in there) and all the photos are mounted on raw Irving plywood. I hope it was was a gift. And the Provincial Assembly is getting a new copper roof.