Private trove, public treasures

Passionate art collector John Crabb gave Winnipeggers access to his beloved Walter J. Phillips works, helped create Leo Mol Sculpture Garden


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Some people are merely art collectors. John Crabb was a passionate collector to be sure, but he was also a knowledgeable art protector and presenter.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/06/2019 (1255 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Some people are merely art collectors. John Crabb was a passionate collector to be sure, but he was also a knowledgeable art protector and presenter.

The Winnipeg businessman, who died on Feb. 25 at the age of 89, was a lifelong art appreciator involved in the creation of the Pavilion Gallery and Leo Mol Sculpture Garden in Assiniboine Park.

He was the world’s foremost collector — an estimated 1,000 pieces — of western Canadian artist Walter J. Phillips’ works.

SUPPLIED Crabb with his parents, Group Captain Herbert Philip and Doreen Crabb, as well as Trigger.

David Loch, owner of Loch Gallery, said Crabb “was a leader and not a follower.”

“He collected things he wanted to collect. He had amazing taste and a lot of knowledge… and he was a smart businessman, too. It was really mind-boggling to me that John amassed that collection.”

Loch said Crabb put together items from his Phillips’ collection for a tour across the country in 1970 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Hudson’s Bay Co.

Decades later, Crabb donated the bulk of his collection to help create the Pavilion Gallery in Assiniboine Park, which opened in 1998. A second-floor wing at the gallery is named in his honour.

Crabb told the Free Press in 1967 that he had been able to collect about 400 of Phillips’ original coloured woodcuts, oil and watercolour paintings and original wood engravings.

“There are still a few pieces missing, which I hope will turn up,” he told arts writer Peter Crossley. “The more people that see it, the happier I’ll be.”

SUPPLIED John Crabb and Gladys Phillips, wife of artist Walter J. Phillips.

By the time Crabb donated the art to the Pavilion Gallery, his Phillips’ collection had grown to about 1,000 pieces, including 360 watercolour paintings.

“John recognized it was the right thing to do after a lifetime of collecting,” Loch said. “People can go and see what a genius Phillips was and John Crabb made that possible because he recognized Phillips before anyone else did.”

In a 2002 video produced by R.W. Sandford, the Banff Centre and the Pavilion Gallery Museum, Crabb said: “There isn’t anything I’ve spent more time on in my entire life than putting the Phillips collection together.”

“It perhaps wasn’t an obsession, but in another sense it was because I was terribly afraid if I didn’t do it somebody else wouldn’t do it and it wouldn’t be there for people to enjoy. I felt everybody should do something for others and leave something behind them. If I’ve left the Phillips collection for other people to enjoy, then that is my epitaph.”

Crabb was born in Winnipeg, the only son of Herbert Philip and Doreen. He attended Queenston School before going to Quebec’s Bishop’s College and Sedburgh College. He returned to Winnipeg and graduated from St. John’s College School.

He was beginning to take architecture at the University of Manitoba before he changed direction and left school to join the insurance company of Oldfield, Kirby and Gardiner before, in 1956, becoming a self-employed general insurance agent, later founding several companies.

SUPPLIED John Crabb and wife Marilyn on the way to see Queen Elizabeth at Government House in 2010.

Crabb married Donna Jean in 1958, and they were together for 35 years and had three children — Dave, Sheryl and Douglas. He was married to Marilyn Baker for the last 22 years of his life.

Crabb’s daughter, Sheryl Thomson, said it was interesting being raised in a house full of art.

“We were never allowed to have a poster on the wall,” she said, laughing. “We all had artwork in our bedrooms. But it gave me an appreciation for art.

“He would never have lived in an open-concept house; there would not have been enough walls for art.”

Dave Crabb said the house itself was something his dad had wanted to add to his collection for a long time.

“He helped out at a party for a well-known Winnipegger who owned the house when he was a kid,” Dave said.

SUPPLIED John Crabb age 9.

“He said, ‘One day I want to own that house,’ and years later he did. That house was super-important to him.”

His father’s love of art also became part of family vacations, he said; long road trips invariably included a visit to an artist in another province.

Baker said her husband became interested in Phillips when, as a child, he helped his father fold reproductions of Phillips’ watercolour artwork to create Christmas cards sent to family and friends.

“That probably sparked his interest in Phillips, but he liked all sorts of art,” she said.

“He liked Canadian art more than English. He had art from the Group of Seven at one point and he used them to finance his collecting frenzy.”

Sheryl said her dad kept the bulk of his art in the remodelled attic of their house, which he called “his gallery,” but he didn’t want it to stay there.

SUPPLIED Crabb, age 16, working at a mining camp.

“He wanted his collection to go somewhere that the public would see it. He didn’t want it stuck in a vault somewhere.”

That, however, didn’t mean it was easy for him to part with the pieces he donated to the Pavilion Gallery.

“He kept the watercolours he liked. And he said it would have been easier to sell his children then send the Phillips to the gallery.”

Ray Phillips, Walter’s grandson, said he and other family members sold some pieces to Crabb.

“He certainly was the driving force behind getting my grandfather’s work out to the public,” he said.

“My grandfather was well respected already, but what (Crabb) did didn’t hinder my grandfather’s work… who knows what would have happened if John Crabb didn’t come around?”

SUPPLIED John Crabb in 1980.

Phillips said it was too bad that Crabb never got to meet his grandfather. Walter J. Phillips died in July 1963, just before Crabb started building his collection.

Crabb was also a great supporter of the Winnipeg Sketch Club, donating space in a building he owned on Assiniboine Avenue for almost three decades until 1997.

Loch credits Crabb for finding the building on St. Mary’s Road that is still home to his gallery.

Crabb also collected English silver objects, included Vesta cases, dating from the 1700s to the 1900s, as well as art created by other western Canadian artists, including Winnipeggers Mol and Clarence Tillenius.

“I’ll remember my dad as a man who gave me everything I could want: a good home, we always had food on the table and access to the Winter Club,” Dave said.

“He gave me the tools to grow up.”

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files John Crabb is shown in 1967 with one of his many paintings by Walter J. Phillips.

Besides Crabb’s wife, daughter and two sons, he is survived by four grandchildren.

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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