Arts & Culture

“The finest things we have” — A tour of Canada’s Crown Collection

They call it, rather grandly, the Crown Collection and trace its history back to Confederation. But in 1867, it was just called The Stuff Inside Rideau Hall.

(Above: One of the original pieces of the Crown Collection, this borne settee was ordered from Toronto cabinetmaker Jacques & Hay in 1866 when the first Governor General, the Viscount Monck, was in residence — in use ever since)
All photography:Luther Caverly

It wasn’t until almost a century later, when official residences became a sudden public-service craze — two for the Prime Minister, one for the leader of the Opposition, one for the Speaker of the House, and one for state visitors — that the government found itself with a significant inventory of home furnishings. It was then that someone began to characterize The Stuff Inside Rideau Hall (24 Sussex, Harrington Lake, Stornoway, The Farm, and 7 Rideau Gate) as the Crown Collection. It would be another couple of generations, however, before the collection would live up to its highfalutin moniker.

Today the Crown Collection consists of some 3,700 pieces of furniture, artwork, and decorative items distributed among the six National Capital-area official residences, with another 500 or so items in storage that are considered to be not quite fancy or significant or sturdy enough for the big show.

This 1932 Emily Carr painting, B.C. Forest (oil on paper), is one of hundreds of Crown Collection art pieces adorning the walls of official residences in Ottawa, including works by A.Y. Jackson, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Mary Pratt, Kenojuak Ashevak, and Attila Richard Lukacs

The collection and the decor guidelines established by the National Capital Commission after it became landlord of official residences in 1987 will determine what the public rooms within 24 Sussex will really look like when long-overdue renovations are finally made.

There was a time when a hodgepodge of personal items and government-owned furnishings could be found in the state rooms of 24 Sussex: the parlour, the study, the foyer, and the dining room. But on the NCC’s watch, the Crown Collection has grown, been winnowed, and grown again so that it now contains enough fine furniture and art to decorate even the private areas of the residence — if the tenants so wish. It goes without saying that the state rooms — those that have, upon occasion, some public function — will continue to be showrooms for the Crown Collection.

A decorative lamp with a carved bird sculpture at its base

When the NCC took over the collection, it was as likely to include a discarded Ikea bookcase or a rubbish bin as a 19th century drop-leaf table or a Group of Seven landscape.

“There were things that got added in there that really weren’t Crown Collection quality,” says Art Marcotte, director of official residences for the NCC. “They were more service-asset types of things. We’ve gone through it in the last couple of years and tried to define the Crown Collection as the finest things we had.”

A pine box decorated with painted floral motifs from the Hutterite Ewelme Colony in Fort MacLeod, Alberta, circa 1950

About 40 percent of the collection consists of furniture and furnishings, including carpets and draperies. Another quarter is artwork — mostly paintings, drawings, and etchings. The remaining 35 percent is decorative items such as silver, china, and glassware. So even the bric-a-brac in the parlour at 24 Sussex comes from the collection.

The range of the collection is impressive, from museum-quality pieces by the likes of 19th-century New Brunswick cabinetmaker Thomas Nisbet, to the huge gilded hall tables in the foyer at Rideau Hall, commissioned from renowned contemporary woodworking artist Michael Fortune. The art within the collection is similarly broad, ranging from A.Y. Jackson to Jean-Paul Riopelle and even controversial contemporary artist Attila Richard Lukacs (though thankfully no portraits of naked neo-Nazi skinheads).

The furniture of early-19th-century New Brunswick cabinetmaker Thomas Nisbet is carefully preserved by various museums, including the Royal Ontario Museum. But Nisbet’s pieces in the Crown Collection, like this Regency-style Pembroke table made of pine with mahogany veneer, are in daily use

What makes the collection unique is that all its inventory is intended for day-to-day use by real families. So the same kind of furniture that’s on display in roped-off areas at the Royal Ontario Museum or the Canadian Museum of History could be a resting place for a morning cup of coffee at 24 Sussex.

More than a third of the Crown Collection came through the auspices of the Canadiana Fund, founded by volunteers in the 1990s to collect items of significant historical and cultural interest. Often the items are donations or bequests brokered by the fund.

A hooked rug entitled Castor made by the textile artist Micheline Beauchemin in 1994 are both donations from The Friends of Rideau Hall

With the help of the fund, the Crown Collection looks for “items that have historic and significant merit, that are exceptionally noteworthy [and have] close association with Canadian history, with national life, and relevance and association either to official residences or their occupants,” says Marcotte. The fund’s contributions range from a soapstone carving by acclaimed Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak to an Empire-style mahogany settee that predates the War of 1812. “I think we’ve done a tremendous job with the help of the Canadiana Fund. We’re at a point now where the houses are full. We’ve got the quantity and we’ve got lots of quality.”

Not all items in the Crown Collection are irreplaceable antiques, however. A significant number of the wingback chairs and sleek sofas sprinkled through the living spaces hail from the 1950s, the era when the official residences were first being furnished.

A mahogany sewing table with a revolving octagonal top inlaid with tiger maple, circa 1780. Crown Collection furnishings, artwork and decorative pieces are what NCC designers will choose from in any future renovation of 24 Sussex

Antique settees are lovely to look at but not always comfortable or practical for entertaining, says Ann Malone-Bianconi, designer of official residences at the NCC. “So we have a number of sturdy pieces that can be recycled,” she says. Remove the skirting on a mid-century armchair and reupholster, and you have a serviceable piece of furniture at a bargain price, she adds.

Tenants of official residences do not have a direct say in how items of the Crown Collection are used, says Marcotte, but while new designs are guided largely by the history of the place, even including the historical placement of furniture, they might be tweaked to meet the needs of tenants. “We have to take into consideration that each and every occupant has a different situation. Some of them have young families, some of them are just a couple. Some may explain how they want to use the residence, and we provide them as best as possible with the most appropriate furniture for their lifestyles,” explains Marcotte.

A ceremonial feast bowl carved by Salish artist Lloyd Wilson in 1976
A ceremonial feast bowl carved by Salish artist Lloyd Wilson in 1976

But any new tenant who wanted to add a little hipster chic to the parlour would be out of luck. There are no painted antlers, ironic posters, or plastic tub chairs in the Crown Collection.