The Spencer Mansion: A House, a Home, and an Art Gallery

The Spencer Mansion: A House, a Home, and an Art Gallery

Robert Ratcliffe Taylor

Reviewed by Maria Tippett

Robert Ratcliffe Taylor’s The Spencer Mansion, A House, a Home and an Art Gallery is, as the title suggests, really two books. One half considers the “life and times” of the five families who made Gyppeswyk -- the Old-English name for the Suffolk town of Ipswich-- their home. The other half follows the transformation of that home into a civic art gallery. In doing these two things, Taylor takes his readers through the social, cultural, political, and architectural history of European settlement in twentieth-century Victoria.

Gyppeswyk was designed by the local architect William Ridgway Wilson and built by George Mesher in 1889. As Taylor puts it, the Italianate villa was “constructed of gold dust” (p. 2). Victoria owed its expansion to a series of gold rushes. Gyppeswyk’s first owner, Alexander Green, made enough money in the Australian and American gold fields to set himself up as a banker in Victoria. And the house’s last owner, David Spencer, whose family occupied Gyppeswyk from 1903 to 1951, was lured to British Columbia from his native Wales by the discovery of gold in the Cariboo. Though Spencer may never have made it to the gold fields, by 1863 he had opened a dry goods store in Victoria. By the time of his death in 1920, succeeding members of his family were operating stores throughout the province.

It was not just business that drove the early owners of Gyppeswyk. The Greens, the Spencers, and the other families who occupied the house were civic-minded late-Victorians who sat on the boards of charitable institutions, hosted evening musicals and supported fund-raising events. It was this spirit of philanthropy that prompted David Spencer’s daughter, Sara, to give what was by then known as the Spencer mansion to the city of Victoria as a centre for the arts in 1951. Some members of Victoria’s City Council were not “overly anxious to take possession” (135) of the mansion until the provincial government agreed to award the Victoria Arts Centre an annual grant.

The Centre’s inaugural exhibition in 1951 featured eighteenth-century portraits alongside contemporary works by Quebec’s leading abstract painters. The Centre’s first director, Colin Graham, continued this eclectic approach. A native of Vancouver, Graham attended the University of British Columbia, then Cambridge and Stanford Universities before taking a job in San Francisco’s Civic Art Museum. In 1951 he moved back to British Columbia in order to become the Victoria Art Centre’s first director. During his long association with the Centre -- it lasted until 1980 -- Graham built a permanent collection encompassing Canadian, American, and Asian art and hosted exhibitions from around the world. The Centre also became a venue for musical and theatrical events, lectures and art classes. Thanks largely to Graham’s efforts -- and to a hard-working group of volunteers -- within ten years the Centre’s membership had the highest ratio per capita of population for any art gallery in Canada.

During the course of transforming Gyppeswyk into a centre for the arts, the mansion’s graceful porte-cochere was dismantled, the Minton tiles and delicate wood-work were removed from the fireplaces, the gardens fell into ruin and, in 1958, an unsympathetic annex was attached to the north side of the house. Today the only original feature still intact is the beautifully paneled foyer where the Greens and the Spencers once greeted their guests. With this rueful observation, Robert Ratcliffe Taylor ends his well-told story of how a stately villa became a centre for the arts.

The Spencer Mansion: A House, a Home, and an Art Gallery
By Robert Ratcliffe Taylor
Victoria: TouchWood Editions, 2012. 216 pp, $19.95 paper

BC Studies 178 (Summer 2013)