Marjorie Blackburn

Other Name: Marjorie Ludwell Dampier

A Portrait of Marjorie Blackburn by Nancy Geddes Poole

Marjorie Blackburn was a remarkable woman and my dear friend who gave our city the Jet d’Eau (fountain) at the forks of the Thames and an outstanding art collection. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Marjorie Ludwell Dampier was born in 1913 in Strathroy, a substantial town in Middlesex County about twenty miles west of London, where her father was a bank manager. She entered The University of Western Ontario in 1931 where she met young Walter Blackburn: here they both competed on the badminton team. As Marjorie confided to Michael Nolan in his biography of Walter Blackburn “I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed…. Walter spotted me…. and was interested in me so it seemed right away….I always loved fun and Walter loved nothing better than to be part of it but he was not quite so good at generating it.” [1] Seven years later they were married.

While still attending university, Walter, after the untimely death of his father in 1935, became the owner/publisher of The London Free Press, the only daily newspaper in the city, as well as the only radio station. At a very young age he was thrust into a leading role in the community. As a result, their marriage, in 1938, immediately threw Marjorie into the centre of London society while raising her three children: Susan, Walter Jr., and Martha. She accepted the demands of her position with the calm and intelligence, relieved by a wicked sense of humour, that would be her trademark. My friend James Reaney confided to me that, although she was never formally part of the Blackburn organization, her sense of fun always made the company parties something to look forward to and made her loved by both the editorial and newsroom staff alike. They knew that Marjorie frequently spread oil on troubled waters.

I recall her telling me that when she married Walt, as she called him, she not only took on the family responsibilities but accepted the housekeeper who had been with the family for many years and who, despite the new bride, insisted on running the house as she always had. This housekeeper was still there when I knew Marjorie in the 1950s. The situation reminded me of the Daphne du Maurier housekeeper in her novel Rebecca. By the sixties when the children had grown, Marjorie, at last, was responsible for her own household. I recount this little story to illustrate her understanding, kindness and forbearance. Rather than disrupt Walt’s life, she just waited nearly twenty years until the housekeeper’s retirement would allow her to be mistress in her own home.

I first met Marjorie in 1953 when we were both members of The May Court Club which sponsored the annual visit to London of the National Ballet of Canada. For the week that the Ballet was in town all the members of the corps were always billeted in the homes of the May Court members. This of course included Celia Franca and Betty Oliphant, those two amazing women who created the National Ballet of Canada. The two leading dancers, Lois Smith and David Adams, were always house guests of the Blackburns who were enthusiastic supporters of the Ballet and Marjorie was the President of the London branch of the National Ballet Guild of Canada in the 1960s.

A few years later Marjorie and I were again working together as members of the Women’s Committee of the Art Museum, formed by Eleanor Somerville at the request of the Museum’s curator Clare Bice. Marjorie would be presiding at the lace-covered tea table with her childhood friend from Strathroy, Josephine Wilcox, pouring for the visitors each Sunday afternoon. I was probably the youngest member and was relegated to the kitchen keeping the kettle boiling, making tea and rinsing cups. But, when the Museum doors closed, it was Marjorie who, despite our age difference, would look for me and we would have a chat about whatever exhibition was installed that week and how the visitors had responded. We always found it exciting that so many new Canadians were finding their way to our Sunday afternoon free tea parties.

However, it was not until November 1957 that Marjorie and I began a close friendship that lasted until her death in 1993. We were part of the first women’s investment club in London: the Ciphers. The ten members met on the third Tuesday of every month for lunch at our respective homes. Each brought $10 and discussed which stock we might buy or sell. As a result, for nearly thirty years, Marjorie and I had lunch together until the mid-eighties at which time, for various personal reasons, we both resigned.

In the nineteen seventies, the challenge of building a municipal art gallery became a contentious and divisive issue in the community. Walter and Marjorie as well as The London Free Press took a firm position in opposition to the building at the forks of the Thames. They supported the plan of local artist Philip Aziz and advocated by John Robarts, David Peterson, and many others to create the new gallery around the Middlesex County Courthouse. This was a cause célèbre for years in London that extended even after the opening of the London Regional Art Gallery in May 1980.

However, it was the pragmatic Marjorie Blackburn who played an essential role in reconciling the London community when she persuaded her husband that, regardless of how hard they had fought in the past against the new building, now it was vital for them and The London Free Press to get behind the new Gallery. The paper would play its part and assist in persuading the community that the gallery was important. I vividly recall Marjorie saying to Walter, “It’s done”, and then adding “this is a beautiful setting, and I think we should do what we can to help.”[2] I remain convinced that this was a turning point in the life of the Gallery and it was Marjorie who made it happen.

Walter died in 1983 and Marjorie, with the assistance of her friend and counsel W.R.Poole QC, created the Blackburn Foundation which was dedicated to supporting a variety of projects and initiatives in health care, education, social welfare and the arts, as well as local environmental improvement projects.

It was after Walter’s death that Marjorie decided to assemble a London Free Press Art Collection, and I was delighted when she asked me to help her. We spent many happy hours visiting London and Toronto galleries and artists’ studios. On one occasion I recall crawling up a narrow, flimsy wooden stairway to the storage loft above Carmen Lamanna’s Gallery on Yonge Street in Toronto, to see a painting by Ron Martin that we both knew we must have. That same day we added an exquisite little work by John Boyle and an important work by Ray Mead. It was almost as much fun installing the art in the magnificent stairwell of The London Free Press building as it had been in assembling it. Many years later Marjorie’s grandchildren gave this collection to the London Regional Art and Historical Museum. (We also assembled a separate and interesting collection for the CFPL Television Station owned by The London Free Press.)

In 1986 Marjorie commissioned Gino Lorcini, a London sculptor, to create The Sentinel, which was installed originally on the grounds of the television station, but later was relocated to clearing among the trees directly behind the Jet d’Eau at the forks of the Thames. No location could have been more appropriate because it stands as the westerly sentinel to the fountain also donated by Marjorie to London in memory of Walter.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a Jet d’Eau at the forks of the Thames”, Walter had mused many years earlier while they watched this magnificent fountain of water rising more than sixty feet into the air at Lake Geneva. So, after Walter’s death and at one of our many lunches at the corner table in the Gallery Café, Marjorie confided that she had left $500,000 and directions for me in her will for a Jet d’Eau to be installed at the forks of the Thames as her gift to honour Walter. She asked me if I would be willing to undertake this task and I reassured her that it would be my pleasure, to make sure that this would happen. Marjorie died in 1993 at the age of eighty, her Will spoke and my adventure to make her wishes a reality began!

Little did I realize the intricacies of dealing with a navigable waterway under the federal Ministry of Transport, the Upper Thames Conservation Authority, the City of London, and the scrutiny of the Middlesex and London Health Unit. After fifteen years and two successive city engineers, the Jet d’Eau was installed and operating in the spring of 2009. At last my commitment to my friend was accomplished and, once again, Marjorie Blackburn added to the beauty of our city.

She was, indeed, “A Driving Force”! A tribute to this remarkable, modest woman is long overdue.

 

[1] Michael Nolan, Walter J. Blackburn, A Man for All Media, (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada 1989), p.45

[2] Nancy Geddes Poole, The Past…Comes Back, (printed in Canada by The Aylmer Express, 2012), p. 148.

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