Grace Blackburn

Other Names: Victoria Grace Blackburn; FanFan

Blackburn was a leading figure in the arts and cultural life of London for three decades.

Victoria Grace Blackburn was born in Quebec City, likely when her father, the publisher of The London Free Press, was there on business. She attended school at Hellmuth Ladies’ College in London, Ontario and then went on to teach in the United States during the 1890s. In 1894 Blackburn began writing for The London Free Press, eventually becoming its literary and drama critic in 1900. In the early 1900s she spent a short time studying criticism in New York and then traveled further abroad to Europe with her sisters from 1906 to 1910, immersing herself in cultural affairs. Upon returning to London, Canada and The London Free Press, she took on the role of assistant managing editor which she held from 1918 to 1928. Blackburn was a leading figure in the arts and cultural life of London for three decades. In addition to her daily journalism, she also produced essays, travelogues, editorials, and poems for the paper. In addition, Blackburn is known to have written dozens of poems, two known plays, and a novel. Her collection of poetical works is written under the pen name Fanfan and her two plays, “Seal of Confession,” and “The Little Gray” are preserved in Western University Archives.

Her novel and many of her poems were focused on Canada’s involvement in the First World War. Blackburn’s determination to honour Canada’s war dead led her to support a proposed $10,000  memorial project near London, a monument of perpetual light. Although that monument was not realized, she also supported a more modest memorial that was erected in 1926. Blackburn was active within London’s theatre, as well as many clubs and associations. In 1910 she helped found the local Women’s Canadian Club and served as its president from 1918 to 1919, and then as the president of the London Women’s Press Club from 1921 to 1923. Of Blackburn’s many contributions to London in the early twentieth century, few traces remain. However, a historical plaque can still be found situated outside of the home at 652 Talbot Street where Victoria Grace Blackburn and her three sisters resided for sixteen years.

Biography by Kelsey Perreault

A Portrait of Grace (Fan Fan) Blackburn by Nancy Geddes Poole

Fan Fan –“a woman of fame and mystery in a field dominated by men!” Fan Fan, according to Nina Rattner Gelbart in her book, The King’s Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame Du Coudray, was the nickname of  Angelique Du Coudray, renowned in Europe as a woman of fame and mystery, influential and powerful in the discipline of maternity care, a field dominated by men in eighteenth century France.

When, in twentieth century Canada, Grace Blackburn began writing as a literary and drama critic for The London Free Press did these words from history strike a chord in her fertile and creative mind. Perhaps this is she chose Fan Fan as her nom de plume? While the answer remains a mystery her life is not. Victoria Grace was born on 17 April, 1865, at Quebec City, fifth daughter of Josiah Blackburn and Emma Jane Delamere; possibly when her father, the publisher of The London Free Press, was there on political or newspaper business.

Her education in London public schools and at the Hellmuth Ladies College, led to a teaching position in Faribault, Minnesota, and later as a principal at the Diocesan School of Northern Indiana in Indianapolis. Determined to broaden her horizons, Blackburn travelled to New York to study journalism, theatre, and dramatic criticism and, later, spent several years in Europe where she would have visited its great galleries and art museums.

This experience would have provided a firm foundation for her appointment in 1896 as a literary, art and drama critic at The London Free Press.

In 1923 she wrote a series of articles in The London Free Press under the headline “Private Art Collections in this City rank with the best to be found on the whole continent.” She noted “thousands of valuable paintings in London are valued at over a quarter of a million dollars” and pointed out that “one of the finest individual collections is that of C. R. Somerville,” which boasted the only known painting by noted British artist Edwin Landseer in the city. These articles were designed to assist the art community in its efforts to build a public art gallery. She continued, “a city’s culture… is usually judged…by the size and ornateness of its municipal gallery.” She went on to observe “London certainly has no art gallery. This is deplorable…” and “there are enough fine paintings in London now to make this city a Mecca for art lovers and students were they generally accessible to the public.”

This series of articles inspired a young lawyer, Sam Weir, to become a serious collector. He bought his first painting from the president of the Royal Canadian Academy, Homer Watson. According to Edward Phelps, a trustee of the Weir Foundation, Sam Weir was profoundly influenced by Grace Blackburn’s articles and became determined to acquire works by Canadian artists from Wiliam Berzy to the Group of Seven.

Another lawyer, Norman Gurd, from Sarnia who was also Chairman of its library board, read Grace Blackburn’s series of articles and was inspired to initiate a correspondence with London’s chief Librarian, Richard Crouch, that resulted in the first exhibition in London of paintings by members of the Group of Seven. According to Mr. Gurd, he corresponded with Grace Blackburn to encourage her to stir up interest in London art circles to support The Group of Seven but, despite Miss Blackburn’s efforts, the insular attitudes of this small clique of London artists effectively blocked community effort to bring their work and that of other Canadian artists to the city for another ten years. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Grace Blackburn, as the art critic for The London Free Press, played a significant role promoting art in London.

Grace Blackburn became an assistant managing editor in 1918.  I doubt that many women in 1918 enjoyed this level of responsibility. By then the newspaper was owned and published by her father, Josiah Blackburn and later by her brother Walter. She stayed in that position for a decade and was an important figure among London’s cultural elite.

Victoria Grace (Fan Fan) Blackburn was, according to James Reaney in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, tall, charming and a tastemaker, as well as a novelist and poet.  She could be hard on London. It was a city that has not believed sufficiently in itself.  She was one of the founders of London’s Women’s Canadian Club and served as its president.  According to The Art of London, Grace Blackburn was a member of the Women’s Art Club, which existed in London from 1895 until the First World War. She also served as president of the London Women’s Press Club from 1921 to 1923. She died in London, Ontario, March 4, 1928, aged 63.

Today, in a field still dominated by men, Grace (Fan Fan) Blackburn, managing editor and art critic for The London Free Press, must indeed be recognized as a driving force. She paved the way for women and art criticism at The London Free Press for the next fifty years when Beatrice Taylor, Lenore Crawford, and Janice Andreae assumed this mantle.

Read More