The foundations of Glenbow were effectively laid by one individual: Eric Lafferty Harvie. An inveterate collector, Harvie amassed an eclectic blend of materials from the Canadian West and around the world. His true legacy, however, lies in his gift to this province: in 1966, Harvie and his family donated the entirety of his collection, which spanned art, cultural and military history, Indigenous studies and an archive and library, along with $5,000,000 to the people of Alberta, leading to the establishment of the Glenbow we know today.
In preparation for her presentation, Betenia discussed Harvie’s fascinating life and legacy with Glenbow News.
Just who was Eric Harvie?
Eric Harvie was a lawyer and one of Alberta’s earliest and most successful oil men. He was originally from a large family in Orillia, Ontario. He had an uncle who lived in Calgary, and when he visited the west when he was quite young he fell in love with it. He became a passionate Westerner. He loved this place.
When he was a young man and studying to be a lawyer he came out to do his articling at a Calgary law office, and he stayed here. He got his law degree from the University of Alberta. As part of his law practice he became involved in various businesses, including burgeoning oil businesses and eventually set up an independent sideline – completely separate from his law practice – to buy mineral rights to various pieces of land all over the province. He did this for years and never made very much money from it. Then he had the good fortune to own the mineral rights to the piece of land where Leduc No. 1 was located. When oil was struck, he leased it to Imperial Oil and did very well off of it. He also owned the mineral rights to Redwater No. 1, which was an even bigger strike. So, in short order he went from small scale lawyer, and relatively successful businessman to becoming one of the wealthiest people in Canada.
He was married to one of the members of the Southam family.
It’s interesting because she was very aware of what came with great wealth, so
they were very careful and very thoughtful from the very beginning. They were
very private people and they wanted to stay very private people. And they
wanted to use that money in ways that would mean something. Glenbow is just one way in which they would do
Which brings us to collecting. What motivated him to put together this huge collection?
I think he was always a passionate collector. There are stories of Eric Harvie’s basement and how crammed full of stuff it was. Eventually Dorothy, his wife, wouldn’t go into it. There’s a story about Harvie, with one of his staff, driving up to a basement window at night and putting stuff in through the window so Dorothy wouldn’t know.
Everyone seems to agree that he was also encouraged and
motivated by his friendship with Norman Luxton – I’ll talk a bit more about
that on Friday.
But, he was also very interested in and passionate about the history of western Canada and southern Alberta, and he realized that nobody was collecting material associated with that history. So, in the 1950’s and 1960’s he made a concerted effort to collect objects, artwork and papers and photographs related to pioneers and settlers in this part of the world and to First Nations culture and history, when very few people were really doing it. He was one of the first to realize how important it was.
At some point, did he branch out beyond that original vision?
It grew into much more international collecting. He had staff whom he directed to collect material on the Canadian West, and he did it in creative ways. At one point he gave all the members of the Glenbow staff, and their families, $1,000 to go out and collect what they found important.
But it did grow. There’s a story about one particular large collection that came in – some of it was international in nature, and one thing I’ve read said that was partly what set him off to collect more internationally. Staff collected material from the West; Harvie collected internationally, through professional collectors who he hired and through his travels. He and his wife travelled broadly – he would buy material and have it shipped back to Calgary. He also had a great passion for buying large collections. One of my favourite examples actually came a bit later. There was a museum in Laconia, New Hampshire run by a couple named the Schullers, who collected medieval arms and armour from Europe; furniture, and samurai armour. They were looking to sell their museum and Harvie heard about it. He sent staff to look at it, and bought the entire museum’s collection.
He shopped in bulk.
He did. If he wanted one particular part of a collection and he had to buy the whole collection to get that one part, he would do that.
Now if we go to the historical art gallery on the second floor – Picturing the Northwest – would it be fair to say that that kind of art reflected Harvie’s taste?
Yes, I think that would be accurate. There was an absolute restriction with Mr. Harvie and art: it could never be abstract.
Yet, at some point in the 60s we see material coming into the collection that’s not necessarily in that tradition of representational mode.
We start to see more of it. But most of the art collected during that time was representational, albeit some would be more modernist. Harvie was the force behind collecting Carl Rungius, Emily Carr, William Bradford, Thomas Mower Martin… some of our cornerstone paintings.
So, ultimately what do you think his legacy is?
In the end, he gave back virtually all his wealth through various means. With Glenbow, he created what became one of the premier cultural institutions in Canada and a centre for art and culture in Calgary. He built the core of what has become one of the largest art collections in the country and the largest art collection in western Canada. He built a Cultural History collection reflecting how pioneers and immigrants lived, worked, dressed, played, and worshiped in this part of Canada. He built an Indigenous Studies and World Cultures collection. He built a Military History collection. He built a large archive and library. All of these things have continued to grow and evolve after his gift to the people of Alberta. His legacy is this place that has become a cultural cornerstone for Calgary.