Margaret and Wentworth Walker: A Memorial Tribute

Introduction

 

treeThe story of Margaret and Wentworth Walker is a remarkable account of two extraordinary people. The warmth and generosity of their support of Toronto Public Library, among many worthy causes, was matched only by their modesty and reticence. Yet as patrons of all that makes Toronto an outstanding city, they would not hesitate to encourage others to join them in continuing to build our cultural resources.

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Wentworth and Margaret Walker (date unknown).

This year, we have received a bequest made by Wentworth Walker to the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, planned in memory of Margaret Walker and completed by the Walker family, together with a special donation of books. The Margaret and Wentworth Walker Endowment Fund will greatly enhance our ability to purchase rare and notable books beyond the library’s regular budget. Though the Walkers are missed as friends and colleagues by all who had the privilege of knowing them, their legacy lives on at Osborne, and can be seen in the beautiful books and art that surround visitors to the Collection.

Leslie McGrath
Senior Department Head,
Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books
Toronto Public Library

The Walker Legacy: inspiring leadership in the matter of art

The LAMPS Newsletter, December 1919                                                       

An institution’s story is not only told by the physical bricks and mortar that construct it, but also by the people who are involved within it. The papers of Wentworth Dillon Walker and his wife Elisabeth Margaret (née Steel) Walker tell many stories of their varied contributions to Toronto’s cultural community in general and The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books and The Arts & Letters Club in particular. Though the quote above is describing Wentworth’s grandfather, Sir Edmund Walker, it could and should also be applied to Wentworth and Margaret.

Wentworth remarked that his grandfather had a “tremendous influence” in his life. Sir Edmund Walker was a founding member and inaugural chairman of the Royal Ontario Museum, endowing it financially and with pieces from his own collection. He also co-founded the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Canadian Society of Authors, and, as Honorary President, re-organized and strengthened the operation of the Mendelssohn Choir. The elder Walker was involved in an effort to establish pictorial records of World War I, as he wanted to showcase not only Canada’s role in the war, but also its artistic output, and the advancement in art over the war years more generally. Given the Walker legacy, it is unsurprising that the lasting influence of Wentworth’s grandfather was in cultural involvement and philanthropy.

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Wentworth Walker receiving the physics prize from Appleby School (now College) for 1935.

Margaret met Wentworth when they were colleagues at the National Trust Company. As both were lovers of music, art and culture—with Margaret the ardent reader, and Wentworth with his heritage of cultural patronage—their attraction was immediate and compelling. They married in 1942, with Wentworth entering the army shortly thereafter. Two years later, he was discharged for health reasons. This allowed the couple the opportunity to settle in Toronto, where they could participate in the city’s blossoming cultural community and raise their sons, Brian and Peter. Despite the horrors of war, Wentworth saw his time served as an extremely valuable experience. He remarked that it was an education in its own right, as he “learned to live with other kinds of people…becom[ing] sensitive to their interests and concerns” (Cronin). Being interpersonally attuned was a focal point for both Wentworth and Margaret, both in their immediate relationships and in the larger community.

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Membership card issued to Wentworth Walker for his 21st birthday, 1938. Courtesy of the Arts and Letters Club Archives.

For his twenty-first birthday in 1938, Wentworth received a membership to the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, a gift that he cherished for the rest of his life. This gift carried on the Walker family tradition, as both Sir Edmund and Edmund Murton Walker, Sir Edmund’s son and Wentworth’s uncle, also held memberships at the prestigious club. Wentworth’s affinity for theatre production originated from his university years, after he realized studying math and physics was not for him. An involvement with Hart House Theatre soon lead Wentworth to pursue other opportunities with the Central Ontario Region of the Dominion Drama Festival, the Toronto Children Players, and the John Holden Players, where he performed stage managing and lighting duties. Despite his predilection for theatre, “Wenty” (as he was affectionately called) was never much of an actor, seeing himself as too self-conscious, too “wooden” a character. Though he saw himself as lacking the creative skills that characterized members of the Arts and Letters Club—he never excelled at any instrument, despite his father’s artistic sensibilities and the music that enveloped his childhood—Wentworth conceived of himself as a catalyst, uniting people and ideas, an important force in his own right.

Over the course of her life, Margaret also devoted her time to numerous and varied associations. She served as an active member and President of the Association of Women Electors (alongside her good friend Theresa Falkner), an organization that encouraged women to engage with public affairs.

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“Getting out the Vote on Election Day” (Globe and Mail, Nov. 17, 1964).  Margaret Walker (2nd from right) and another member of the Association of Women Electors [AWE] advertise all candidates’ meetings before the December election.

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Globe and Mail (date unknown).

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Above: Margaret Walker (3rd from left) with other members of the AWE;  Below: Margaret Walker receives recognition of the contribution of the AWE to good government in Toronto from the Mayor, Art Eggleton (dates unknown). Courtesy of the Walker family.

For a quarter of a century, Margaret held the position of observer at the Toronto Board of Education. In this role, she wrote reports on meetings that would assist the board in its public service activities. She also held the post of the Vice-President of the North Rosedale Ratepayers Association.

It was during the postwar years that Margaret first learned of the Osborne Collection, and her affection and involvement increased over the years. A year after the Friends of the Osborne and Lillian H. Smith Collections was established in 1966, Margaret became its second Chair. That Margaret was nominated to occupy this significant role during the group’s formative years is a testament to her leadership, passion, and vision. In a letter dated January 1967, June E. Munro writes that the committee was “sure that under [Margaret’s] leadership the programme should be strengthened and extended”—and it was.

Though her tenure in this role was brief—having served from 1967-69—those three years were a monumental period in the Friends’ growth. Margaret’s chief accomplishment was securing the patronage of H.R.H. Princess Alexandra Ogilvy for the Friends in 1969, as she felt that having a royal patron would truly signify the historical background and importance of the collection. During Margaret’s tenure, the Osborne Collection became more visible and comprehensive through a visit from both H.R.H. Princess Alexandra and world-renowned children’s author Maurice Sendak, the presentation of Queen Mary’s Collection of Children’s Books, the purchase of a collection about the Taylors of Ongar, and the beginning of an advisory relationship with Oxford University Press editor William Toye. Such a relationship would become increasingly important as the Friends of the Osborne and Lillian H. Smith Collections continued to add breadth to their facsimile publication collection.

Like Margaret, Wentworth was also an appreciator of beautiful things. He joined the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario in 1963, where he fought to preserve the province’s architectural heritage through fundraising and educational initiatives. He would later serve as both a council member and as chair of the advisory board, providing architectural counselling to people who were interested in restoring interesting houses. He remained involved with the ACO until a serious accident in 1991 forced him to resign. A recognition of the beauty of the natural world also prompted Wentworth to volunteer with the Federation of Ontario Naturalists.

Though Wentworth’s career was with Shell Canada, he saw an involvement in the arts as a logical complement to his business career. Unsurprisingly, given his predilection for theatre, his initial participation in the Arts and Letters Club was performing stage and lighting duties for the club’s spring revue and Christmas parties.

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Wentworth Walker (on right), with Randolph MacDonald, at the Arts & Letters Club production of “Oblomoff” by John Coulter. Photo taken by John Fleetwood Morrow,  March 8, 1945.

He later immersed himself in the dynamic activities of the club, faithfully contributing to its newsletter, proposing new members, updating the club’s bylaws and constitution, organizing and participating in the Literary Table, and serving as club secretary (1974-76) and chair of the membership committee (1980-81). Wentworth often credited this diversity of interests and natural curiosity to his grandfather. Such enthusiastic involvement is likely what earned him a partial dedication in fellow member Susan Ioannou’s poetry collection Where the Light Waits.

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Portrait of Wentworth Walker taken by Jim Parr, March 1995. Courtesy of the Arts and Letters Club Archives.

In 2002—for his 85th birthday and his 64th anniversary of membership—Wentworth received a book with a collection of poems, drawings, quotations, paintings, and letters that celebrated him as well as his years of service to the Club.

Ever the intrepid explorer, Wentworth helped to discover a large photographic collection by venturing through an old trap door in the Club in the spring of 1966. The Club’s archive was made all the richer for this adventure, but was also enhanced through his continued donation of personal photographs, newsletters, and newspaper clippings. As an Arts and Letters Club life member, Wentworth proved to be a stabilizing force in later years, as he identified many of the photographs in the Club’s archive. Much like his father, Wentworth was an extraordinary storyteller, a gift that he used to provide an oral account of the Club at an event in 1998.

Given the centrality of art and culture to his own life, it is unsurprising that Wentworth introduced the Club to an ever-growing audience of people. He frequently extended Arts and Letters Club membership invitations to artists, professors, students, writers, and architects, as he believed that a rich tapestry of backgrounds, viewpoints, and education would benefit all members. Wentworth had an affinity for young people in particular, with his actions demonstrating open friendliness and his words revealing genuine interest.

In 1982, Wentworth’s egalitarian approach to membership was yet again widened, as Wentworth suggested that women be allowed as lunch guests at the club on Mondays. This was quite a controversial idea at the time, given that prior motions to include women in the club in a meaningful way were seen as “an offense against males” and were readily shut down (McBurney 65). Fortunately, Wentworth’s proposal was adopted, ultimately precipitating the extension of membership to women in 1985.

Over the course of their involvement with the Friends of the Osborne and Lillian H. Smith Collections, Wentworth and Margaret became valued and esteemed members. The couple donated extensively to various causes, whether it was expanding the materials in the Collection (such as their donation of two record sets of E. B. White recordings and A. A. Milne’s A Gallery of Children), disseminating research and knowledge (as they did when Wentworth sponsored lectures published as occasional papers in Margaret’s memory), recognizing an individual’s contribution to the collection, or improving the materials and facilities more generally (by donating picture frames or money for a new PA system). They also contributed to the Osborne’s extensive cataloguing project on several occasions. However, beyond their monetary beneficence to the Osborne, Wentworth and Margaret were also great contributors to the discourse that surrounded the collection, attending lectures, meetings, and strategic planning discussions. Such fervent, multifaceted involvement was not limited to their membership as Friends, but was typical of their membership in other associations as well.

Margaret and Wentworth were original donors to the Osborne and Lillian H. Smith Trust Fund when it began in 1975. After Margaret died in 1989 from a long, debilitating illness, Wentworth honoured her memory through a lifetime Friends membership, eventually becoming one of the longest-term members. In Margaret’s memory, various members made donations to the Friends. The funds were used to purchase the Cries of London, published in London by Elizabeth Newbery (1799) and two watercolour paintings by Canadian artist Brenda Clark for Monica Hughes’s Little Fingerling (1989). The always genial and gracious Wentworth made sure to thank every donor and extend his gratitude personally. Wentworth was extraordinarily aware of his relationships with others; he always made a concerted effort to note dates, circumstances, and times so that he could draw on these notes when he later reconnected with someone. It is evident how deep and meaningful his relationships were, as he was often the author of tributes to various members of the Arts and Letters Club.

A theme in Margaret’s favourite book, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, is the beauty and importance of connection and relationships; this is a belief that both Margaret and Wentworth embodied. Perhaps more important than the donations they made or the roles they took, the Walkers’ legacy continues to live on in the hearts of those that knew them. Both were exceptionally private individuals, reluctant to receive recognition for their actions or their donations. Writings to and about the couple make frequent mention of their kindness, generosity, and devotion to the welfare of others. The pair often brought people together, forging new connections and relationships. Both Wentworth and Margaret were constantly sourcing unique books on art, history, and poetry to diversify the holdings of the Arts and Letters Club. A great number of these books featured influential Canadians, as the couple thought people should know the legacy of their city, its cultural heritage, and the citizens who created it. With the organization of the Walker Family fonds and the publication of this biography, people can learn about Toronto’s cultural heritage and two of the figures who helped shape it.

Ali Versluis
Archivist for the Friends of the Osborne and Lillian H. Smith Collections

Works Cited

“Canada’s War Records on Canvas.” The LAMPS (Dec. 1919): n. pag. LAMPSLetters. Arts and Letters Club. Web. 07 July 2012.

Cronin, Fergus. Interview with Wentworth Walker. Arts and Letters Club Archives (1992): n.pag. Print.

McBurney, Margaret. The Great Adventure: 100 Years at the Arts & Letters Club. Toronto: Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, 2007. Print.

Munro, June E. Letter to Margaret Walker. January 1967.

 

For more information on Wentworth and Margaret’s activities:

Arts and Letters Club Archives at the Arts and Letters Club. 14 Elm St., Toronto.

LAMPSletters newsletters published by The Arts & Letters Club of Toronto.

Walker Family Fonds at the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books. 239 College St., Toronto.

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