Lucky find unearths Group of Seven artist's lost drawings

A collection of Group of Seven drawings has emerged from Dalhousie University's archives — validating the Halifax author and researcher who insisted they were there.

Alan Ruffman suspected a collection of drawings by Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer were held in the archives, even though they hadn't been seen for decades.

A discovery by one of the university's archives assistants has proven him right, even though she was looking for something else.

'Serendipity stepped in'

Ruffman knew the drawings existed somewhere, as two of them had been part of an exhibit on Lismer organized by the Dalhousie Art Gallery in the 1980s.

But when he went to the archive in 2015 to ask about the drawings, Ruffman was told the archives had no record of the holding.

"[I] wrote them a very long letter ... seven pages actually, saying, 'Here's what I know about these drawings'," he told CBC's Information Morning. "My letter eventually got answered 16 months later that '[the archives] had no record, the matter is closed' and there we sat.

"Until serendipity stepped in."

24 folders found

In late January, archives assistant Jennifer Lambert was looking for some old posters from the Neptune Theatre for a student project. She was going through boxes stacked six or seven shelves high in the archives' six kilometres of shelving when she saw a folder that said, "Arthur Lismer."

"So I thought, 'Well, this warrants a better look.'"

Lambert recognized the works right away and knew they were likely the drawings Ruffman had been asking about.   

There were 24 folders of pen-and-ink Lismer images in all, totalling at least 29 individual drawings. 

"I haven't stumbled upon anything this interesting, certainly," Lambert said. "It's not often that we just stumble across things because a lot of collection is processed."

The drawings had been commissioned for the centenary of Dalhousie in 1919.

"These are not artistic drawings, these were being done on contract to promote the university," Huffman said. "Some of them I think are rather pretty, especially the buildings."

Other images include sketches of the university's then-president and professors. 

'A very good day'

Ruffman said he expects the drawings will make up part of the university's celebrations for its 200th anniversary in 2018. If they do, it'll be their first time being exhibited in nearly 100 years. 

Until then, Ruffman said he's focusing on more recent successes. 

"It was a very good day at the archives. And in fact Jennifer ... found the Neptune posters as well."