“You can’t see the end.”
She’s talking about an artwork. But Helen Brink is also thinking about her late husband and print-collecting partner, Andrew. He died in late 2011 – two years ago for the rest of the world but “22 months ago” for Helen – shortly after completing a book about part of their collection.
That collection consists of more than 1,000 European prints amassed over the couple’s married lifetime of a half-century and donated to U of G’s Macdonald Stewart Art Centre (MSAC).
Those works fill a gap in the centre’s own varied collection, says Dawn Owen, MSAC curator of contemporary art.
The collection includes black and white works by printmakers from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, especially European masterworks. Among them are 50 landscapes and seascapes by French artist Claude Lorrain. Those will appear in an MSAC exhibition in early 2014.
The event will also see the launch of Ink and Light, a book about Lorrain’s prints written by Andrew Brink and published this fall by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
The Brinks donated prints in several batches beginning in 2004. Those gifts were showcased in two earlier exhibitions at the art centre.
Their donations reflect the Brink family’s long-standing connections to U of G’s founding colleges.
Andrew’s father, Alexander Brink, studied chemistry and physics at the Ontario Agricultural College; he graduated in 1919. His mother, Edith Margaret Whitelaw, completed a domestic science degree in the Macdonald Institute in 1922.
They moved to Wisconsin, where Alexander taught agricultural science and where Andrew was born. Andrew came to Canada and taught English at McMaster University.
“When Andrew, who understood their affinity and relationship to Guelph, was deciding to place his collection in a museum, he turned to the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre as a home for the collection in memory specifically of his parents,” says Owen.
Andrew and Helen Brink began collecting prints during a sabbatical in London in the late 1950s. For the next 50 years, Andrew particularly forged ties with print sellers and book dealers worldwide.
MSAC staff began cataloguing the collection this summer with help from U of G student interns in studio art and art history programs.
Most pieces are individual prints, including works by Lorrain, William Blake and Flemish artist Antoni Waterloo.
Among them, one item stands out: an oversized book of landscapes by Waterloo.
That’s a rarity, says Owen. Few complete books of prints from the period remain today, as dealers and collectors often disassembled the volumes to frame individual pieces. “It’s a real collector’s find to locate one that is still intact.”
For Helen Brink, the volume stands out for another reason.
In a print called The Trimmed Grove, two peasant women move through a pastoral landscape. The road bends out of sight beyond them and is lost amid trees, hills and skyline.
“You can’t see the end,” says Helen. “And that was very meaningful, and particularly meaningful to me since Andrew died, because that was what it really signified — that you don’t know what’s around the corner.”
Owen says the art centre has yet to assess the monetary value of the entire collection. “It has in some ways more significant cultural value than necessarily a dollar value.”
Original prints were often commissioned or bought by patrons as a status symbol, Owen explains. “Sometimes it was about the lands that the patron owned and he wanted to have images – inevitably it was a ‘he’ – like we would create a photo album today of the things in our possession.
“It was also seen not just as an archive but as a way to present, in a bound volume, evidence to a visitor to their home, to their manor, to their land — to demonstrate their importance, their wealth, their stature in society.”
At Guelph, the prints will be accessible to scholars and students interested not just in the evolution of printmaking but also in the history of agriculture, landscapes and mythology.
“The evolution from an agricultural society to an industrial society basically occurred simultaneously with the evolution of printmaking as an expressive tool,” says Owen. “There was a fascination with the rural agricultural environment as it matured and evolved and in some ways was consumed by the industrial age.”
Most of the pieces convey an idyllic, romantic picture of country life. Trees and sky and the landscape often dwarf any human figures in the pictures.
Lorrain’s works are especially remarkable for the artist’s rendering of light, she says. He was among the best-known Renaissance painters, but Owen says that, in Ink and Light, “Andrew Brink positions Claude’s print work equal to his most lauded and celebrated large paintings, and I think he makes a brilliant argument.”
The book also highlights Lorrain’s influence on the English Picturesque ideal in the late 1700s. That movement often used controlled vantage points to frame pre-industrial landscapes and gardens like a picture.