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Professor’s art collection to be showcased at the National Gallery

U of Saskatchewan’s Dennis Lanigan has had a lifelong passion for Victorian-era art.

Study of Iphigenia for “Cymon and Iphigenia,” 1883, by Frederic Leighton, from the Lanigan Collection. Photo © National Gallery of Canada.
Study of Iphigenia for “Cymon and Iphigenia,” 1883, by Frederic Leighton, from the Lanigan Collection. Photo © National Gallery of Canada.

Dennis Lanigan’s parents gave him $500 as a gift when, in 1972, he became a member of the first graduating class of University of Saskatchewan’s college of dentistry. Shortly afterward, while visiting Toronto, he spied an 1851 porcelain sculpture called Love Restraining Wrath in a Rosedale neighbourhood antique shop called Green and Co. He simply had to have it. The price was $450. This became the first artwork Dr. Lanigan ever purchased. It was definitely not the last.

The collecting continued obsessively and passionately throughout Dr. Lanigan’s career as a U of S dentistry professor and specialist in oral and maxillofacial surgery. The university salary paid his living expenses; a part-time private practice financed his art acquisitions.

Semi-retired since 2003, Dr. Lanigan has assembled one of Canada’s most impressive private collections of Victorian-era Pre-Raphaelite art, mainly drawings. One hundred of those works are to be exhibited from Oct. 9 until Jan. 3 at the National Gallery of Canada, under the title “Beauty’s Awakening: Drawings by the Pre-Raphaelites and their Contemporaries from the Lanigan Collection.” Twenty of the drawings have already been donated to the gallery; the other 80 are promised gifts. An international tour is possible.

“This is the culmination of my 40 years of collecting, to have a show at the National Gallery of the country I live in,” Dr. Lanigan said in a recent interview from his home in Saskatoon.

Dr. Lanigan, who also acquired a medical degree from the U of S in 1977, did not set out to collect art mainly from the mid-19th century Pre-Raphaelites, the so-called “dreamers” who rebelled against the conventions of the day to embrace more Romantic styles dating back to 15th-century Italy. “I think it was fate more than anything, just the luck of the draw, that led me in this direction. It wasn’t a conscious decision off the start.”

In hindsight, Dr. Lanigan says that his artistic tastes were predictable. As a child, he preferred reading tales of King Arthur and Greek myths (favourite subjects of the Pre-Raphaelites) than Hardy Boys mysteries. And, in 1972, while on a month-long dentistry residency at Uranium City, the only book for sale in the remote, northern Saskatchewan community that seemed worth buying was I, James McNeill Whistler, a fictional biography about the celebrated Victorian artist. “It was this book that first aroused my interest in Victorian art.”

For Dr. Lanigan, a large part of the joy of collecting is the scholarship involved in identifying particular works from the likes of Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti to round out his collection, much of it covering the walls of his home. The National Gallery show, however, will not leave his walls blank. “I have what is called the reserve collection,” he said.

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