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A Shattered Legacy


Lord Beaverbrook

Archives and Special Collections, Harriet Irving Library,
University of New Brunswick (HIL-UNB), PC 25 (2) No. 27 (5)

It may be that I shall be recalled chiefly as
the builder and founder of an art gallery.

— Lord Beaverbrook, 1959

Families are absolutely a necessary evil.

— Timothy Aitken, 2007


“I thought we had friends in New Brunswick”

“This was his hour”

“We must remember the greatness of the man”

“The rich man loose in the art market has a lot to learn”

“The way is dark, and the dark is very dark”

“Let them come and see the paintings where they belong”

“I will strive to climb the mountains”

“He’s not at the centre of anything”

“Families are absolutely a necessary evil”

“You really don’t want to deal with my cousin”

“One thing we can rely on is his own ego”

“He did not act in the best interests of the gallery”


The House of Beaverbrook: A partial famiily tree

The Players




A Shattered Legacy


Lady Violet Aitken arrives to testify, October 23, 2006.

Karen Ruet, Telegraph-Journal

“I thought we had friends in New Brunswick”

The muscle arrived first: a beefy fellow who wore a long moustache and a black suit. He would claim later that he was not a bodyguard at all, just “a friend of the family”; if that was true, he was the kind of friend who behaved rather like a bodyguard. He appeared in the front door of the conference centre about twenty minutes ahead of the family, striding out into the large central lobby to scan the room and taking a long look up to the second floor, where reporters lay in wait. He continued his visual sweep, noting the locations of the exits, the stairwells and the corridors, as if identifying possible escape routes. He was clearly a cautious and diligent friend.

He did not spare a glance at the bronze bust encased in glass in a display built into a brick wall just a few yards from the door. The bust of an old man, only slightly larger than life, captured its subject’s kindness, that type of kindness that a man can afford only towards the end of a life devoted to becoming wealthy. The old man had accumulated his fortune in the fading days of the British Empire and then decided to give much of it away. He’d set up a foundation as the vehicle for his good works and, thus, his immortality. The bust commemorated the gift of this modern conference centre, tucked into the southeast corner of the University of New Brunswick campus in Fredericton, the provincial capital. His name was over the door.

The journalists waiting upstairs had arrived early, the TV cameramen and newspaper photographers by necessity. They had a sensational story to cover today, but the pictures they needed to tell it would be scant. Though both sides in the bitter feud had agreed that their month-long arbitration would be open to the public — a rarity here in New Brunswick — cameras were not permitted in the rented hearing room itself. The cameramen and photographers would have to make do with what they could get in the corridor: images of the star witnesses coming up to the second floor and walking inside. they’d be able to round out their reports, of course, with archival footage: grainy black-and-white shots of Lord Beaverbrook, the long-dead press baron; perhaps an external pan of the art gallery he had built downtown as a gift to the province where he grew up; and, naturally, close-ups of several of the paintings at the heart of the drama, including the two said to have provoked all the fuss.

Downstairs, on the ground level of the conference centre, behind the two large wooden doors to the Chancellor’s room, hung a portrait that would have provided a wonderful image for the television reports. It was of Lord Beaverbrook’s daughter-in-law, Lady Violet Aitken, the wife of his son, Sir Max Aitken, who had served as chancellor of the University of New Brunswick after his father’s death. Lady Aitken herself had stepped into the role in 1981, after Sir Max became too ill to continue. Lady Aitken just happened to be the first of two witnesses — two Aitkens, in fact — scheduled to testify that morning. The portrait captured her proud bearing, her narrow features, her bright, clear blue eyes and the steely resolve that hid behind her aristocratic charm.

There was a bustle at the main entrance to the building. The beefy “friend” reappeared, ushering four people into the building: Lady Aitken, now in her eighties; her son Maxwell, who held the title created for his grandfather, Lord Beaverbrook; his sister, Laura Aitken Levi; and Maxwell’s son, also named Maxwell, who would one day inherit the title from his father. A second man, trimmer, dark-suited, his salt-and-pepper brush cut set off by a neatly trimmed goatee, followed them in. He, too, would describe himself — with a pronounced Glaswegian accent — as “a friend of the family.” As friends went, he was in remarkable physical condition, with the powerful build one might expect a bodyguard to have. His definition of friendship, it became evident as the day unfolded, included shadowing members of the Aitken family each time one of them visited the conference centre washrooms. the Glaswegian would station himself outside, his presence discouraging anyone else from heeding nature’s call while an Aitken was doing so.

The cameramen and photographers moved in close as the elevator reached the second floor and the Aitkens emerged. Kent thomson, the Toronto lawyer representing the family and its charitable foundation, had warned that none of the Aitkens would make any comment, but a few reporters gamely tossed questions their way. All four stared straight ahead and walked into the hearing room, claiming four seats that were marked Reserved: The Beaverbrook Foundation.

The small but modern hearing room had been transformed into a showcase for the very latest in litigation technology. Two long tables for each firm, separated by a centre aisle, were covered with equipment. The hardware belonging to Thomson’s firm, Davies Ward Phillips and Vineberg, was cutting edge: laptop computers were connected to large, wide-screen monitors that could display the massive database of more than fifteen thousand documents filed in the case. Each document had been individually scanned and could be called up on the screen with a click of a mouse. Other monitors were linked by a wireless connection to the court reporter, hired from a leading Toronto reporting firm, whose transcript of a witness’s words would scroll onto Thomson’s screen just moments after they’d been uttered.

These twenty-first-century resources had been marshalled to attempt to peer into the mind of Lord Beaverbrook, who had been born in the nineteenth century, left his New Brunswick home for England before the advent of air travel, became a giant of that quintessentially twentieth-century form of communication, the mass-circulation popular newspaper, and, in his twilight years, zealously collected hundreds of examples of that most traditional and low-tech art form, the oil-on-canvas painting. Now, two institutions named for him — the London-based Beaverbrook U.K. Foundation and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada — were each spending millions of dollars to prove their ownership of one hundred and thirty-three paintings he had sent to the gallery decades before.

This collision of modernity and tradition was also evident in the changing relationship between the House of Beaverbrook and the little Canadian province that the original Maxwell Aitken had called home. Once, newspaper editors here would report Lord Beaverbrook’s every movement, pronouncement and charitable gift. Premiers and senior officials of the New Brunswick government would rush to the airport or train station to greet him, hats in hand, showing a deference — a servility, even —normally reserved for royalty. But New Brunswick had changed by 2006: great importance was still attached to tradition, but the deference was gone. An aitken — a Lord Beaverbrook — could no longer arrive in the province and have his will be done without question. Grandson Maxwell had not only been refused what he considered a reasonable request, he had also found himself branded a villain.

One of those who had refused to acquiesce to his wishes sat in the far corner of the hearing room, in the very last of the chairs set aside for curious members of the public. Judy Budovitch, dressed in black, her face betraying a momentary sadness as she watched the Aitkens file in, was no ordinary bystander. She had given years of her life to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, most recently as the chair of its board of governors, and she’d come to know all of the Aitkens before the ownership dispute had so damaged their ties to New Brunswick. “I’m relieved that it’s coming to a conclusion,” Budovitch had told reporters the day the hearings began. “I would have hoped that we could have resolved it in a more amicable way, but this is certainly one way to do it.” She defended yet again the gallery board’s refusal to hand over the paintings. “We are public trustees. We are a public board. And we can’t give away work that the public may own.”

Almost two decades earlier, Budovitch had worked closely with Lady Aitken on a fundraising campaign for the gallery. “She was very nice,” Budovitch had testified about Lady Aitken, “and couldn’t have been nicer to me personally. She couldn’t have been more supportive of the institution. And I have nothing to say about her but the most positive things, both as a person and as a supporter of the gallery. She was as good as we could ever expect to have.” That seemed like such a long time ago now as Lady Aitken rose from her seat and walked confidently to the front of the room to begin her testimony. Even the very name of that 1988 fundraising campaign, Cherish the Gift, would be drawn into the dispute as one side tried to use it to chip away at the other’s case.

There were actually two Beaverbrook art disputes unfolding in New Brunswick in the autumn of 2006, one prompted by the other. They had become indistinguishable in the public mind: which grandson was involved here? Was this the dispute that included the works by Dali? The 2003 request by the Beaverbrook U.K. Foundation, run by Maxwell, and the gallery’s subsequent refusal to grant it — the dispute coming to a head today — had prompted the second dispute, between the gallery and the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation, overseen by Maxwell’s cousin Timothy, another Beaverbrook grandson. More than two hundred paintings were at stake in the two disputes. The more placid Maxwell had agreed to have his fight resolved in this speedier, less costly hearing under New Brunswick’s arbitration Act; the irascible Timothy had spurned that idea, choosing to let the Canadian battle unfold in the New Brunswick courts. That trial date was still nowhere in sight when Maxwell and his mother arrived in Fredericton to testify at the arbitration on this October morning in 2006.

New Brunswick’s arbitration law allows the parties in a dispute to choose their arbitrator; the British foundation and the gallery had gone to the pinnacle of Canada’s legal system, selecting Peter Cory, a retired justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, now working in a high-end arbitration firm in Toronto. Cory sat at the front of the room behind a large folding table, under which everyone in attendance could, day after day, catch a glimpse of his pant legs riding up to reveal the pale flesh of the esteemed jurist’s lanky shins. A smile crossed his aquiline features as he greeted Lady Aitken and invited her to take a seat. About to celebrate his own eighty-first birthday, Cory would show fondness and sympathy for the more elderly witnesses, of which there would be several. Cory’s profile on the federal justice department’s web site notes that he was “hardly a ‘retiring’ judge.” Before coming to Fredericton, he’d been engaged in untangling the facts behind a series of sectarian killings in Northern Ireland. Once his work in New Brunswick was done, he’d be off to Afghanistan to help set up that country’s judiciary. At times during the Beaverbrook arbitration, that task would seem straightforward compared to divining the intentions of a dead press baron.

Cory looked up at the foundation’s lawyer, kent Thomson, and with a nod instructed Thomson to begin his examination of Lady Aitken.

She told her own story first. Her maiden name was de Trafford, and her family line had been established in Britain “apparently before William the Conqueror, but you never know with these things”; her self-effacing remark drew a little grin from the court reporter. Violet de Trafford had met Lord Beaverbrook’s son, Max Aitken, in 1949, when he was a British MP and she was working for another member at Westminster. “Max, for me, at that age — I was quite younger than him — I was absolutely bowled over by him,” Lady Aitken said, her eyes as sparkling and her posture as proud as in the portrait downstairs. “He was a war hero. He was someone who had enormous charm.” She became his third wife on New Year’s Day, 1951. At Lord Beaverbrook’s suggestion, the wedding took place at a Presbyterian church in Montego Bay, Jamaica. But Max had a hard time living up to the expectations of his father, she added. Even though Lord Beaverbrook had ceded nominal control of his newspaper empire to his son, Beaverbrook would call Max from anywhere in the world, she said, at any time, to dictate what he wanted done. Max had borne the brunt of his father’s never-ending need to be in control.

Thomson carefully led Lady Aitken through the layers of context and meaning that he would need later on. When he asked her about Cherkley Court, she spoke nostalgically of the four-hundred-acre estate in Surrey which Lord Beaverbrook had purchased in 1911, with its “quite big” main house and its smaller cottages, one of which she and Max had lived in after they were married. And she described, at thomson’s request, several of the people who had played supporting roles in the life of the great man: his London assistant, A.G. Millar, “the original detail man”; his Fredericton courtier, Michael Wardell, who “would have no nonsense from my father-in-law”; and Lady Dunn, known to her friends as Christofor, the widow of Beaverbrook’s friend Sir James Dunn. Beaverbrook himself married Christofor in 1963, a year before his death; she thus became Lady Beaverbrook and a bane to her newly acquired family. “She was inclined to alienate,” Lady Aitken allowed, “but he liked her, so who were we to say?”

Slowly but surely, Thomson nudged his witness’s narrative toward its inevitable conclusion. After Beaverbrook died in 1964, Lady Aitken testified, her husband Max had inherited several of his father’s titles. Though he declined to take the peerage itself, declaring memorably that, “in my lifetime, there will be only one Lord Beaverbrook,”1 Sir Max had become chair of the Beaverbrook U.K. Foundation, chancellor of the University of New Brunswick, and co-custodian, with Christofor, of the art gallery. This brought him and Lady Aitken to Fredericton several times. “We used to go check on our paintings to see if they were displayed and if they were in good condition,” she said. Her husband, she added, was disturbed that the works weren’t always hanging. “It was very much a worry if they were being properly observed.”

Now Thomson brought her right up to the genesis of the dispute. Christofor, Lady Beaverbrook, increasingly eccentric and reclusive, had lived at Cherkley until her death in 1994. Only then did the Aitkens realize just how badly she’d allowed the house to deteriorate. Having regained control of the property, the family, through the Beaverbrook Foundation, now had to decide what to do with it. Given that there was no real memorial to Beaverbrook in England and that Cherkley was “absolutely full of history,” the trustees decided to make it a public building, a heritage site that could be rented for conferences, meetings and weddings. By 2002, work was well underway on extensive and expensive renovations.

At the same time, however, a change in British law had forced the foundation to obtain, for insurance purposes, a new valuation of the paintings it owned at the gallery in Fredericton. Upon returning to England, a Sotheby’s official informed the foundation trustees that their art — particularly J.M.W. Turner’s The Fountain of Indolence and Lucian Freud’s Hotel Bedroom — were worth millions of dollars more than anyone had known. That was going to mean much higher insurance premiums, which the foundation had always paid on the gallery’s behalf. “It was costing us a great deal of money for those and the other paintings,” Lady Aitken said, and “it seemed to us that perhaps they weren’t seen by enough people.”

Several of the reporters and other Frederictonians who had crowded into the small hearing room looked at each other knowingly. Lady Aitken’s testimony had been worth the wait. From the moment the dispute had erupted in the spring of 2004, there had been speculation, including by the media, that this battle was really about the Turner and the Freud. But no one had ever confirmed that. Until now. The gallery always needed money, Lady Aitken said, so the trustees had deemed it “sensible” to offer its board of governors a deal: return the Turner and the Freud to their owner, the foundation, which could in turn sell them, reducing the increased insurance cost. The foundation would use the money to fund its charitable works in England, to pay the insurance on its remaining paintings in Fredericton, and to make a large donation to the gallery’s endowment fund. This perfectly logical proposition appeared to benefit everyone.

The controversy “could have been resolved,” Lady Aitken said, “with a bit of common sense and a bit of forward-looking that would have ensured the future of the gallery.” But the gallery’s board had decided instead to verify the foundation’s supposed ownership of the works. Contrary to what everyone had acknowledged and believed for four decades, the board later reported to Maxwell, the foundation’s ownership of the paintings was not clear at all.


Turner’s Fountain of Indolence and Freud’s Hotel Bedroom are very different paintings, created more than a century apart, but the battle between the foundation and the gallery linked them in the public consciousness. In the language of the dispute, they were now a pair, the-Turner-and-the-Freud. That was what people called them, and that was what people came to see. For the gallery, the bright side of the dispute was the jump in the number of visitors following the 2004 news reports that the foundation wanted to remove the-Turner-and-the-Freud.

Laura Ritchie, the acting registrar of the gallery when the arbitration hearings unfolded in the fall of 2006, told me that Turner’s Fountain of Indolence, painted in 1834, “is a good example, a prime example, of the romantic Picturesque British landscape,” a reference to the Picturesque movement in which artists saw landscape, not as mere background, but as the thematic centre of their works. “We’re lucky to have this piece in our collection because it’s one of the few masterworks that we have that represents so poignantly a particular time period in art history. . . . That’s of real importance: that we can say we contribute to the great chain of art history in terms of British landscape painting.” The picture is a realistic depiction of a fanciful scene, a group of Cupid-like figures cavorting around a fountain beneath Greek or Roman pillars. It is based on a poem by James Thomson, “The Castle of Indolence,” the first canto of which describes the scene Turner painted:

. . . they to the fountain sped
That in the middle of the court up-threw
A stream, high spouting from its liquid bed,
And falling back again in drizzly dew;
There each deep draughts, as deep he thirsted drew,
It was a fountain of nepenthe rare;
Whence, as Dan Homer sings, huge pleasaunce grew,
And sweet oblivion of vile earthly care;
Fair gladsome waking thoughts, and joyous dreams
more fair.

This rite perform’d, all inly pleas’d and still,
Withouten tromp, was proclamation made:
“Ye sons of Indolence, do what you will,
And wander where you list, through hall or glade;
Be no man’s pleasure for another stay’d;

Let each as likes him best his hours employ,
And curs’d be he who minds his neighbour’s trade;
Here dwells kind ease and unreproving joy:
He little merits bliss who others can annoy.”

“It’s a pleasureful scene,” Ritchie said with some understatement. “You would enjoy being there.” Its value to the gallery was considerable; it was, after all, part of the original collection Lord Beaverbrook assembled in the 1950s. “the turner, The Fountain of Indolence, that’s a name that rings true to a lot of people as a prominent work at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery,” she said.

The other half of the-Turner-and-the-Freud pair, Freud’s Hotel Bedroom, Was equally irreplaceable, “one of our best examples of modern British painting,” Ritchie said, and the only canvas of the artist’s on display in a public gallery in Canada. Beaverbrook had acquired it in 1955, when Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, entered it in the Young Artists Exhibition sponsored by the press baron’s flagship newspaper, the Daily Express. The jury, which included Graham Sutherland, another painter represented in the gallery, awarded young Freud second place, and Beaverbrook immediately added Hotel Bedroom To his collection. “From the get-go Lord Beaverbrook knew that Lucian Freud was going to be a prominent figure in art history, which he has proven to be,” Ritchie said. Freud’s renown reached such heights that when he asked, in 2000, if he could paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth to present to her as a gift, she agreed.

Hotel Bedroom, Which Freud created just as he was shifting from surrealism to realism, depicts him in shadow at a window, glaring at his second wife, Caroline Blackwood, who lies in bed in the foreground, apparently in distress. “I actually heard that she wasn’t that flattered at all” by the painting, Ritchie said. Blackwood herself would recall, “It was the winter, when everyone was freezing in Paris, and that’s why I was sort of huddled under the bed clothes. . . . We were tense because [Lucian] didn’t have a studio, and the room was so small that Lucian broke the window because he couldn’t get distance enough to paint. It was never repaired, and that’s why I look so miserable and cold.”3

“It’s personally not one of my favourites, but I think its story is one of the more interesting,” Ritchie said, adding that the layout is adapted from another work Freud had done of himself with his first wife. Because Hotel Bedroom was smaller than the Turner, Ritchie said, it was visually accessible to gallery visitors. Its size also meant that it was more easily loaned. In 1998, it had been a cornerstone of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery’s exhibition Sargent to Freud, which had toured internationally until 2000.

In 2005, the gallery’s director, Bernard Riordon, had decided to capitalize on the renewed interest that the dispute had provoked in the-Turner-and-the-Freud. He assembled all 211 of the works in both disputes into an exhibition, Art in Dispute, that transformed the legal feud into a marketing coup. Gallery staff had filled each wall from ceiling to floor with the paintings, creating a powerful tableau of Beaverbrook’s legacy. Thousands upon thousands came to see the show, shattering previous gallery records. It had been a triumph for the New Brunswick-born Riordon, who, after a successful career at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, had come home for a short stint at the Beaverbrook before retirement. He had his ambitions for the gallery, calling it “a sleeping giant” that he hoped to awaken. Instead, he found himself caught up in a tangle of court filings, procedural motions and affidavits. In that swirl of rancour, Art in Dispute had been a precious moment in which the beauty of the art itself had come to the fore. “Some people said it was very cheeky, in the sense of in-your-face to the other side,” riordon says. “It wasn’t meant that way.”

Had the director wanted to be truly cheeky or in-your-face, he might have left a large empty space on one of the walls of the exhibition, measuring about five-and-a-half feet by four, to symbolize the third painting at the heart of the dispute, one that no one had seen in New Brunswick for a generation: Thomas Gainsborough’s Peasant Girl Gathering Faggots. It had been Beaverbrook’s favourite, and he had thrilled in its purchase and in its arrival at his Fredericton gallery. Less than two decades later, in 1977, it had been removed, and its fate, as much as that of the-Turner-and-the-Freud, would come to symbolize what the gallery saw as an attack on its collection.


Faye Matchett was feeling as besieged as Bernard Riordon in the midst of the battle over Beaverbrook’s art. Unlike the gallery director, however, she lacked even the minimal resources to turn the nastiness into something beneficial.

Matchett had been one of five people to apply for the job of caretaker of the Old Manse, the house in the town of Newcastle where Lord Beaverbrook had spent his childhood. The job involved living in and maintaining the Second Empire-style house, built in 1879 and now owned by the city, and sprucing up its small collection of Beaverbrook artifacts. “In the end I was the only one interviewed,” Matchett said as she led me through the house in October 2006. “I was interested in coming here because of the beauty of the home and the privilege to live in it. I wish I had got to know Lord Beaverbrook. Unfortunately, I didn’t, but it’s a very big honour to live here. And I give a hundred per cent to it. I’d love to see it back the way he had it. That is my dream. And I wish he was still living so he could see it. I think he would be very proud.”

More likely, Beaverbrook — who devoted a great deal of time and attention to the monuments to himself scattered around New Brunswick — would be appalled and would quickly put in place one of his elaborate schemes to correct the situation. For the Old Manse was in terrible shape during my tour. Some rooms managed to be rough approximations of what they might have been in the last decade of the nineteenth century, but others, such as those still rented out by the city to distance-education programs, utterly lacked historical character. There were water stains on the ceilings where rain had leaked through the damaged roof. Outside, paint was peeling off the walls, and the front steps were so rotten they had been declared unsafe.

Matchett’s grasp of the Beaverbrook legend seemed equally ramshackle. She was hired as a caretaker, after all, not a historian. She related, inaccurately, that Beaverbrook’s entire family “went back to england” when he was seventeen, when in fact his parents and siblings had remained in Canada. In one of the few rooms with a decent collection of artifacts, she pointed out an ornate walking stick “that belonged to R.J. Bennett. He was prime minister of Great Britain.” While Beaverbrook had known several British prime ministers and had even helped remove one from office, the walking stick had, in fact, belonged to his lifelong friend R.B. Bennett, the eleventh prime minister of Canada.

But how much could one expect, really, when there wasn’t enough money for basic maintenance to keep the harsh weather at bay, never mind a few decent display cases or a trained historian to work on the collection? Once, the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation had given the city of Miramichi — an amalgamation of the old towns of Newcastle, where Max grew up, and Chatham, where he first worked with R.B. Bennett — ten thousand dollars a year, half for the house and half to maintain the small main square a few blocks away, where Beaverbrook’s ashes are encased in a plinth topped with a massive bust of the man. In 2004, even that tiny subsidy had vanished when the foundation cancelled all its support of New Brunswick causes to protest the gallery’s and the provincial government’s intransigence in the art dispute.

“This summer, when we had two students here,” Matchett said, “I actually got one of the students to e-mail this grandson who’s in the dispute to say, We would love you to come and visit your grandfather’s home. Like, come and see what he’s doing to his grandfather’s home, how it’s deteriorating. Of course, we never got any response from him.”

She paused to look at a newspaper front page from 1954, commemorating Beaverbrook’s seventy-fifth birthday. In a photograph, the aging press baron clutches his grandson Maxwell, just a toddler, on his knee. “He’s a darling there in the picture,” Matchett said, “but he’s not now. Sometimes I think money’s the root of all evil. They’re not poor by any means and they want to do something like this, take all this art back there.”

Matchett’s understanding of the dispute was no better than her knowledge of Beaverbrook’s impressive life story, but she was not alone. Like many other New Brunswickers, she had accepted the conventional wisdom that the Aitkens stood to profit personally from the sale of the-Turner-and-the-Freud. That perception had been shaped in 2004, early in the dispute, by a few acerbic remarks from a former gallery curator, some carelessly written newspaper headlines, and a couple of angry outbursts from Maxwell’s cousin timothy. The perception had stuck. And though most New Brunswickers’ lives would not be materially affected at all by the removal of two paintings from an art gallery that most of them had never visited, people in the province were outraged by the very thought of it.

New Brunswickers, particularly those in Fredericton, had rallied to the gallery’s side to the extent that the provincial government felt compelled, in 2004, to lend the gallery $1 million of public money so it could hire the very best lawyers to fight the Aitkens. And they would need the very best lawyers, for there was a paper trail dating back forty years that showed, with remarkable consistency and precision, that the gallery did not own the paintings. It had, in fact, repeatedly acknowledged for years that they were owned by the very foundation that now wanted them back.

This forced the gallery’s lawyers to come up with a rather elaborate explanation for how gallery officials had, for four decades, apparently overlooked the evidence that they now suddenly claimed to have uncovered. This oversight was, according to one gallery document, the result of “a series of abuses” following the death of Lord Beaverbrook.4 The lawyers were alleging, in effect, a conspiracy by his heirs to deliberately misrepresent the ownership of the paintings to the very gallery staff responsible for the ownership records and to conceal evidence that Beaverbrook had intended all along to give the paintings to New Brunswick as outright gifts.

Kent thomson, one foot tapping silently behind the podium on which his notes rested, asked Lady Aitken how she’d reacted to that allegation of a conspiracy. “Complete shock and anger,” she replied, her words increasingly clipped. “I can’t understand the vilification. It’s unbelievable, besides being totally libellous.” What had angered her and the family even more, however, was the suggestion that she, her son and other members of the Aitken family stood to gain personally from the sale of the two paintings. “It is outrageous to suggest it. There is no question of benefiting.”

And then there was the final indignity. In the rush of media coverage after the dispute became public in 2004, when journalists were tracking down anyone they could find with a connection to the gallery, no one — not one person — had even remotely suggested that, just possibly, the Aitkens might be right, that they perhaps could have a case, that the foundations might be perfectly entitled to ask for the return of the paintings. “We thought we had friends in New Brunswick,” Lady Aitken said. “We always worked in partnership. there wasn’t one single person who stood up in our defence.”

“I thought we had friends in New Brunswick,” she repeated. “obviously I was mistaken.”

And with that, Thomson thanked her, and the arbitrator, Peter Cory, suggested it was time for a break. Thomson led the Aitkens out of the room, past the reporters again and into a small office off a side corridor that was reserved for his firm’s use.

When Lady Aitken returned to the witness chair after the break, the gallery’s lawyer, Larry Lowenstein, rose and told Cory that he would not be cross-examining her.

“Nobody is going to ask me any questions?” she asked, her blue eyes darting from Lowenstein to Thomson to Cory.

“There will be no questions,” Cory said with a smile, “as much as everyone would have appreciated it.”

Lowenstein would explain to reporters later, “those are the decisions counsel makes, as to whether the witness has said things that are relevant or harmful to the real issues in the dispute, and you can draw your own conclusions.” He was suggesting that because Lady Aitken had acknowledged she had never seen the ownership documents for the paintings, her opinions and observations, though entertaining and occasionally sensational, were meaningless to the case. He did not need to challenge her on anything she’d said.

Cory called an early lunch break and again the Aitkens dispersed, retreating to the lawyers’ room. thomson’s junior colleagues were sent out to bring them plates of food, which had been laid out on a table as part of the conference centre’s services. Reporters spent the lunch break analyzing with each other what Lady Aitken had said, filing early versions of their stories or trying to get the two muscular “friends” to cough up information.

At one o’clock the hearing resumed. Maxwell, his left arm tucked into his pocket to conceal a birth defect, walked up the centre aisle of the room, past the tables of lawyers, towards the witness chair. His grandfather had not left him any money, a fact much commented upon over the years. Fortunately, Beaverbrook hadn’t passed on his puckish features, either. Maxwell is handsome, if blandly so, and his eyes that afternoon conveyed a hint of boredom but also a sense of duty.

Maxwell was not in an introspective mood during this visit to New Brunswick. He was here to perform a task, an unpleasant but unavoidable one. “We had a very focused three days,” he would explain later.5 He had not taken the time to travel up to Miramichi to assess the state of the old Manse or to inspect the little park around his grandfather’s ashes. Nor had he paid a discreet visit to the art gallery to gaze at the Turner and the Freud. During the lunch break, he had remained cloistered with his family and the lawyers, choosing not to slip downstairs into the darkened Chancellor’s Room to study the portrait of his mother.

And Maxwell had certainly not stopped to look at the bronze bust of the old man behind the glass, the man whose name was above the door of the conference centre. If he had, he might have realized that it, too, said much about the status of the House of Beaverbrook in New Brunswick.

Wu Yee-Sun, the man cast in bronze, had grown up in Hong Kong, rising to become chairman of Wing Lung Bank and then using a considerable portion of his riches to promote his passion, the botanical art of Penjing.6 He had also established a foundation for charitable works, and because members of his family had studied at the University of New Brunswick, the foundation helped to build the Wu Centre, now the venue for the final unravelling of the Beaverbrook connection to New Brunswick. The bust represented a new benefactor, a new orientation, and a new era for a university and a city peppered with buildings named Beaverbrook or Aitken. The British Empire that Maxwell’s grandfather had loved and had sought to revive and sustain was gone; at the start of the new century, New Brunswick was looking to Asia for its future, to Beijing and Hong Kong and Singapore. London was no longer the centre of the universe, and the whims and requests and demands that emanated from that city no longer prompted the worthies of little Fredericton to snap to attention.

Maxwell, who, unlike his father, Sir Max, had claimed the title Lord Beaverbrook, settled into his seat. There had been a time when that name had meant something — everything — in this province. No longer. It was now just another name over a door.

His mother’s words from earlier in the day still hung in the air: “I thought we had friends in New Brunswick. Obviously I was mistaken.”

The Age of Beaverbrook had come to an end.


Cherkley Court, 1925.

Beaverbrook U.K. Foundation

“This was his hour”

The Aitken family’s long journey to that 2006 arbitration hearing began one day in the spring of 1889, as the steamboat Miramichi, named for the river on which it travelled, prepared for the five-mile journey upstream from Douglastown to Newcastle, a logging community in northeast New Brunswick. That particular morning, nineteen-year-old R.B. Bennett, the schoolmaster in Douglastown, was waiting at the wharf when he was spotted by a ten-year-old boy with sparkling eyes and a broad, grinning mouth: William Maxwell Aitken. Dick Bennett “was slight of figure, with a freckled face,” his new acquaintance would remember. “He was wearing a Derby hat a bit too big for him. His clothes were neat and for our community he would be described as a well-dressed young man.” Young Max was returning home to Newcastle, the county seat, where his father, the Reverend William Aitken, was the minister at St. James Presbyterian Church. Bennett paid the ten-cent fare, Aitken boarded for free, and, he would recall, “in that short journey I formed a strong friendship that lasted for more than fifty years.”1

The two friends were very different. The schoolmaster, a Methodist from Albert County almost a hundred miles to the south, “was noted for rectitude and godliness. I had a bad reputation for mischievous conduct.”2 But Aitken had found a mentor and idol to inspire him. “Bennett, who was marked with distinguished abilities and splendid force of character even in his young manhood, exercised a complete influence on me. He aroused my ambitions and steadied my purpose.”3 Their encounter marked the start of a pattern: for many years, young Aitken would attach himself to older, wiser men to learn the ways of the world. His father later wrote Bennett, “Your influence on him in the past has, I know, been very beneficial. Max is the better for having someone near him, to whom he can look with respect and for guidance.”4 So powerful was the bond that, Aitken later wrote, when Bennett left teaching a year later to pursue a career in law, “I settled that I would be a lawyer too under his influence.”5

Max did not immediately adopt Bennett’s self-discipline, however. At sixteen he sat for the entrance examinations for the law school at Dalhousie University in Halifax. The third day was devoted to “Greek or Latin or both and my hostility to these dead languages overwhelmed me from the very outset. Revulsion set in. The paper was solemnly returned to the examiner with my declaration that a university career held no attractions as it involved unnecessary and even useless labour in futile educational pursuits.”6 In those days, a degree in law was not required, provided that one articled with a lawyer. Bennett had joined the firm of Lemuel J. Tweedie in Chatham, a nearby town on the Miramichi River, so Aitken persuaded Tweedie to take him on as well. Even then, there were indications of how Aitken would reverse his apprenticeships to become the dominant force. “Do you know that after he had been in my office for a month,” Tweedie told Aitken’s future business partner in Chatham, H.E. Borradaile, “I was not sure whether he was working for me or I for him.” And when Chatham was incorporated into a town in 1896, Aitken, then seventeen years old, encouraged Bennett to seek office as an alderman and organized his successful election campaign, using his bicycle to distribute leaflets for the man who would one day become prime minister of Canada. Borradaile recounted how Aitken watched one spring as the current pushed the river ice up onto the banks to snap the trunk of a large tree. “If I could harness that power,” Aitken told him, “there would be nothing I could not do.”7

Remote Newcastle, with its population of 1,500 and its reliance on the logging industry, was not large enough to accommodate the ambitions of young Max Aitken. Throughout his life he would nurture the myth that his early life had been hard. But though the Manse where the Aitkens lived lacked electricity and plumbing, it was one of the first houses in town to have a telephone, and the Reverend Aitken had the means to build up a large library that included Charlotte Brontë and Don Quixote.8 Max, the youngest of ten children, had been born in Maple, Ontario, his father’s second Canadian posting after arriving from Scotland, and was a year old when the family moved to Newcastle. He found family life happy but formal, saying it was “difficult to recollect any evidence of warmth in the relations of my parents and yet there is no occasion when a quarrel comes to my memory. My mother invariably spoke of her husband and to him as Mr. Aitken. And I cannot recall any time when my mother was called Jane.”9 While watching his father officiate at funerals, young Max acquired his lifelong preoccupation with illness and death.

Max was something of a loner within the family, and he had a mischievous streak. He would claim that he inherited his high spirits from his mother and received his intelligence from an accident in which a mowing machine struck him in the head. “When I returned to consciousness after the accident, I was a clever boy! . . . The crack which the wheel gave to my skull possibly gave the brain room to expand, which it needed.” His penchant for enterprise manifested itself first in journalism, when, at thirteen, he launched a little newspaper called The Leader. Reverend Aitken quickly shut it down, however, when delays pushed the Saturday production of the paper into the early hours of Sunday, a violation of the Sabbath.10 Max then became the Newcastle correspondent and salesman for the Daily Sun, a newspaper published in the industrial port city of Saint John, two hundred and fifty miles to the south. When his salary did not arrive promptly, he began paying himself — much to the consternation of the paper’s distant managers — out of the subscription fees he’d collected, an early lesson, one biography noted, in the principle that “keeping pieces of paper was an important element of the art of self-defence.”11

Aitken was disappointed and saddened when Dick Bennett, his idol, left Chatham in 1897 to take an offer from a Conservative law firm in Calgary. Passed over to replace him as a partner in Tweedie’s firm, Aitken went through a nomadic phase, heading first to Saint John to try his luck at the law school there. Lonely and homesick, he followed Bennett to Calgary six months later and helped with Bennett’s 1898 campaign for a seat in the territorial legislature. Aitken “had sworn off drinking and smoking the year before, but there is no evidence he was able to hold to that.” Bennett told him, “‘If only your industry equalled your energy!’”12 Rather than become a lawyer, Aitken invested in a bowling alley, was soon bored, and moved to Edmonton, where he encountered James Dunn, another expatriate New Brunswicker whom he and Bennett had both known back home. When Dunn decided to make his fortune in Montreal instead, declaring that “the west must pay tribute to the east,” Aitken followed him and continued on to New Brunswick. In Saint John again, he tried selling insurance.

Then, during a fishing party on his twenty-first birthday, he had his epiphany. He met a young man from Nova Scotia, his name soon forgotten, who had gone to the United States and found great success. “Something in the expatriate lad’s manner and way of talking, his delineation of new ideas of effort and achievement set the match to the tow of latent and fiery ambition which must have been present below the threshold in the mind of one of his hearers,” Aitken would explain. “I never loafed again. I seemed to shake off in an hour of reflection the careless habits of my early years. My intellectual makeup remained the same, but a sudden and tremendous reinforcement was given to the active and aggressive side of my character. Effort was worth while, labour was rewarding, ambition was a worthy goal.”13

Aitken settled in Halifax, the commercial centre of the Maritimes. He began selling bonds and latched on to another mentor, the well-connected financier John F. Stairs. Aitken went to work for Stairs, investing his profits in a company he set up, Royal Securities Corporation, with Stairs and other partners. It was soon raising capital for electricity projects in the Caribbean and South America. Aitken’s successes mounted, and when Stairs died in 1904, he was able to take over the business and put together ever larger deals. In 1906 he took over the Montreal Trust Company and moved to Montreal with his wife, Gladys, whom he’d married earlier that year.14

Three years later came Aitken’s greatest coup, the so-called Canada Cement affair, which increased his fortune while at the same time darkening his reputation. Even his most tenacious biographers, Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie, acknowledge the difficulty of precisely reconstructing the sequence of events.15 The allegation was that, in overseeing the merger of several cement companies to create a near-monopoly, Aitken misled investors and issued himself bonds and shares in a way that vastly padded his profits. At the same time, 1910, he and Gladys and their two young children, Janet and Max, left Canada to live in England; this move was seen as further proof of his guilt. A 1996 analysis by Gregory Marchildon, a professor of economic history, makes a persuasive case that Aitken’s profit was not the $12 million alleged by his chief accuser, Sandford Fleming, but was closer to $600,000. “Aitken had a right under the raw logic of capitalism to take a cut” of the successful merger, Marchildon concluded.16 At the time, however, the deal attracted the scrutiny of the federal government; one cabinet minister warned him he would “incur strictures” if he kept it up.17

While the controversy simmered in Canada, Aitken began his remarkable rise in England. His purchase of controlling interest in rolls-Royce in the summer of 1910 brought him into contact with men of influence in the Conservative Party, then known as the Conservative-Unionists. By the end of the year, with the support of a fellow expatriate New Brunswicker, Andrew Bonar Law, a member of the British House of Commons, he’d been nominated as the party’s candidate for Ashton-under-Lyne, near Manchester, and became an MP. Law became Aitken’s new Bennett.

The following spring, Aitken was knighted, he said, for “the purposes of rewarding me for services to come.”18 This meant, in Aitken’s case, something other than a simple donation to the party in exchange for an honour: his biographer A.J.P. Taylor suggests that Aitken’s subsequent investment in the Globe Newspaper was backed by party funds, making him a conduit that allowed the Conservatives to influence the paper toward their own ends. Though he showed little interest in the running of the paper, it was the first, early sign of the power and influence he would one day enjoy. That he held such a position in England makes it hard to imagine why he still held out hope of returning to New Brunswick and launching a political career there. In any event, that ambition was quashed when the Canada Cement affair was injected into Canada’s 1911 reciprocity election, turning him into a liability for the Canadian Conservatives.


Five days after the election, in which his Halifax friend Robert Borden became Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, Aitken confirmed that he was in England for good. He paid £25,000 for Cherkley Court, a large grey stone house in the Surrey countryside one hour by car from London. “For the next fifty-three years, Cherkley saw as much political, social and sexual intrigue as any house in England,” his biographers would write.19 The house featured a porticoed entrance, towers and a terrace looking onto the gardens, as well as a stable, a mile-long driveway and a forest of yews and beeches that afforded the new owner the privacy he sought. It lacked central heating, electricity and modern plumbing, all of which Aitken installed, along with a swimming pool and tennis court. “Architecturally it had little to recommend it,” his daughter Janet recalled, “but the view from each of its thirty-one rooms was breathtaking.” Among the guests in the early years were some of the most powerful men in England, including Andrew Bonar Law, by then leader of the Conservatives, Liberal leader David Lloyd George, and, later, Winston Churchill. Among the writers in Aitken’s ever-widening social circle were W.B. Yeats, H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling. Janet said her father “was a good host but a bad guest,” avoiding social events he could not control and preferring that people come to him.20 Which they did. “History has been made, conversation has sparkled, thoughts have been bold and ambition has run high” on the veranda at Cherkley, Aitken’s acolyte Michael Wardell would reminisce many years later.21

At Cherkley, Aitken plotted many of the moves that solidified his power. He had bought into the Globe to create a soft landing for the editor of another paper that was floundering, the Daily Express; the Conservatives wanted the Express to survive, but they wanted its editor, R.D. Blumenfeld, out. When the Express went into receivership, Aitken moved to buy it but was outbid by a faction of Tory supporters anxious to maintain their own influence on the paper. In 1916, he finally acquired control, just as a leadership crisis within the British government was reaching a climax. Aitken’s friend Bonar Law had agreed to bring the Conservatives into a coalition government headed by Liberal Herbert Asquith. With the First World War going badly for the British, asquith’s position was soon besieged. Aitken sought to manoeuvre Law, his fellow New Brunswicker, into the prime minister’s chair, but Law’s participation in the coalition had cost him support within his own party. Law “did not possess that supreme passion of patriotism which enables a man to be ruthless for the public good,”22 in Aitken’s words, and another Liberal, David Lloyd George, emerged as prime minister, supported by both Law and Aitken. In the midst of this drama — one that would contribute much to his legend — Aitken was elevated from his simple knighthood to the House of Lords, over the objections of King George V, and took the title Lord Beaverbrook, after a stream near Newcastle.

Beaverbrook joined the cabinet in January 1918 as Minister of Information, a position Lloyd George felt suited him given his success as the quasi-official, self-appointed “Canadian eye Witness,” the Dominion’s publicist for its contribution to the war effort. In this role, he fed stories to Canadian war correspondents, brought Canadian authors to Europe to write books, and created the Canadian War Memorials Fund, which commissioned British and Canadian artists to paint scenes of the battlefield. “the function of propaganda is the formation of public opinion,” Beaverbrook would explain. “the method is to tell the truth but to present it in an acceptable form.”23 To achieve this, naturally, the minister needed access to all the intelligence of the war, which in turn only enhanced his standing. At the same time, his eminence led to clashes with the Foreign Office; this inability to work peaceably with others in authority demonstrated “that Beaverbrook was ill-suited to be a minister except in abnormal circumstances, a fact he fully appreciated himself. He would not be a subordinate unless he could turn his leader into a hero as he did with John F. Stairs, Bonar Law and later Churchill. He had to be the boss, issuing orders without respect for protocol or the rights of others.”24 He resigned from the cabinet in October, a month before the armistice.

The fall of the Lloyd George coalition government in 1922 gives another glimpse of the extent to which Beaverbrook, in just over a decade, had mastered the Byzantine workings of British politics: he orchestrated Andrew Bonar Law’s return from retirement and ascension into the prime minister’s chair. When Law was diagnosed with cancer and resigned only seven months later, however, Beaverbrook’s leverage was gone. He was no admirer of Law’s replacement, Stanley Baldwin, and declared his independence from Baldwin’s Conservative government. “If I am expected to conform blindly to anything that executive may choose to do, however wrong I may think it,” he told Churchill, “I would rather go back to my own little village in Canada — where there is good fishing.”25 Instead of returning home, he devoted his full attention to the Daily Express, having sold the money-losing Globe in 1914. “What we want,” he once explained, “is a newspaper which fulfils neither the desires of the extreme highbrow, nor of the groper in the mud of life, but of the ordinary men and women of culture in any walk of life who require sound news and good views put before them in an attractive manner.”26 He invested more money in the paper, gave it a flashier appearance, and installed better managers, though he was forever looking over their shoulders, barking instructions.27 He inspired fear but also affection and loyalty, creating “an atmosphere that reflected his own combative nature: here on the sunny side of the street was the Beaverbrook press, and on the other side was the rest of the world. His staff knew they had to satisfy one reader only.”28

In coordination with his friend Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, Beaverbrook used the Express to champion the cause of Empire Free Trade, the belief that Britain and its dominions, including Canada, should lower tariffs against each other but raise them to keep out the goods of other nations. The power of the press to advance a cause, Beaverbrook said, was “a flaming sword which will cut through any political armour.” even some great newspapers, he continued, could not influence policy or break governments because “they do not know how to strike or when to strike. . . . They are in themselves unloaded guns. But teach the man behind them how to load and what to shoot at, and they become deadly.”29

Beaverbrook’s efforts went far beyond a mere editorial crusade: in 1930, he established a new political party, the United Empire Party, designed to contest by-elections and thereby harass the Conservatives into adopting a more robustly pro-Empire policy. But the crusade backfired by giving Baldwin an opening to make Beaverbrook and Rothermere the issue during a 1931 by-election. In a fiery speech, he denounced their papers as “engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes of two men. . . . What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” Baldwin’s Conservative candidate won and a truce was declared, with Beaverbrook ending the crusade and Baldwin adopting some quotas and duties on agricultural imports.30

Beaverbrook’s single-mindedness on Empire Free Trade nearly cost him the friendship of his onetime mentor, R.B. Bennett, who had become leader of the Conservatives in Canada. In May of 1930, Beaverbrook gave an interview to the toronto Globe praising the budget of Bennett’s Liberal opponent, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, because it lowered the tariff on British goods. But the newspaper held the interview until the election campaign later that year, making it appear that Beaverbrook was intervening against his old friend.31 Bennett won the election but felt betrayed, and at an Imperial Conference later that year declared that Empire Free trade was “neither desirable nor possible.”32 Instead, he offered a modest tariff deal to Baldwin, who accepted it, marginalizing Beaverbrook. “He was hitting back and, according to his life-long practise, he was hitting hard,” Beaverbrook concluded.33 the two old Chatham friends reconciled, but Bennett still would not embrace the cause, rebuffing Beaverbrook’s offer to advise him as chairman of the 1932 Imperial Conference, held in Ottawa. The bond endured, however: following Bennett’s stinging, Depression-induced defeat in the election of 1935, he exiled himself to England, buying Juniper Hill, a sixty-acre estate adjacent to Cherkley, and becoming a frequent guest of his former protégé.


Beaverbrook often found himself on the wrong side of history, crusading to save an empire that was destined to wither away, arguing against modern notions such as independence for India, or declaring Joseph Stalin “an excellent character.” In the abdication crisis of 1936, his dislike of stuffy, puritanical British manners led him to side with the king.34 Beaverbrook agreed to Edward’s request that the Express not report on his relationship with Wallis Simpson, nor on her divorce — her second — and he persuaded other proprietors to do likewise, even though American and European newspapers were carrying these stories. When it became clear that Edward intended to marry her, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told the monarch that the British people and the government were opposed, raising the possibility of a constitutional crisis if the King defied the will of Parliament. Beaverbrook, en route by ship to the United States as the controversy broke, disembarked in New York and promptly turned around and sailed home. He urged the King to play for time and sought in vain to meet with Mrs. Simpson to persuade her to withdraw. Instead, Edward abdicated on December 10. “I thought he made the wrong decision,” Beaverbrook said much later. “I think he should have stayed. [The British people] would have accepted her. . . . Responsibility would have made her, I think. She would have been a different character altogether, probably. He was wrong to run away from his responsibilities. If he wanted to marry the woman of his choice, why not?”35 Given edward’s apparent disdain for the will of Parliament and his subsequently revealed sympathy for Adolf Hitler, many came to see the abdication as a fortunate turn of events.

Beaverbrook’s most profound error, though he was hardly alone in it, was his opposition to war with Germany. Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, dined at Cherkley in 1936 and invited Beaverbrook to the Berlin Olympics. He accepted, accompanied by his daughter Janet and son Max. During the opening ceremonies, Janet was summoned to meet Hitler. His hand “felt boneless, like a piece of wet meat, clammy and soft,” she remembered. “there was nothing there; no warmth, no voice, not even an awareness.

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