Hugh Hanson Davidson: evergreen


Composer, arts activist, arts patron, philanthropist, music advisor, music critic,  traveller, raconteur, spiritual seeker. Born May 27, 1930, in Montreal, died Victoria, B.C. July 14, 2014, of complications following heart surgery, aged 84.


The qualities that people loved about Hugh were his generosity, his gregariousness and his gratitude for the joys of a life in art. They spilled onto you as a kind of blessing: he was the genial uncle who could always make you feel better. Uncle Hugh, not just to the family, but to us all. He was always happy to do what he could to increase the store of beauty and goodness in the world.

He was a walking music encyclopaedia—started out as a composer in Montreal, wrote a couple of early ballets for Brian Macdonald, but reined in his creative ambitions (not entirely completely) when he came across composers like Murray Schafer and Serge Garant because, he once said, “they were real creators. I felt it my duty to help them.”

Help them and many more besides: music producer at the CBC, publishing, record producing, music officer and later Touring Office head at the Canada Council, and cultural counsellor at Canada House in London, promoting Canadian art.

“Trade’s important, of course,” he told me at the time, “but when we’ve gone and are pushing up daisies, the only thing that will remain is the work of our artists, the Tremblays and the Jack Bushes, the people who are expressing the things of the spirit.”

With his mile-a-minute loquacity, his 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. work ethic and his inability to be abashed, all bustle and bow-tie and lovely touchy gregariousness, he added a welcome layer of colour to the good, Canadian grey that pervaded Canada House: flamboyant, suave, confiding, gossipy, quick with a quip. And his passionate belief in the ability of Canadian artists to make the world a better place made him the ideal person for the job.

He lived what he believed, and spent his life buying Canadian art and sharing his wisdom about art and music—and life in general—with hundreds who considered him their special mentor. He appreciated the well-made objects of the past, and knew what he was talking about, always ready to advise Susan on antique purchases. But the future, and what we could do to make it better, was what really mattered.

In his view of the world, it was as important to support someone who was beginning to make his or her way as it was to buy something from someone already established. There was always some new young painter whose work had caught his eye. He hung their work on his walls and talked breathlessly and excitedly about them all, his hands aflap, his eyes shining: evergreen. These constant discoveries kept him young and spry. But he gave away much more than he kept, and the Kamloops Art Gallery has long been a special beneficiary.

His generosity, his easy, loving kindness warmed you. Susan and I turned up one summer, virtually unannounced, at the family cottage beside the Ottawa river in Davidson, Quebec. The place was already filled with “rellies,” as he called them, and strays like us, and yet he found room and a makeshift bed for us on the porch, and gave us a cheery good morning as he descended for breakfast in his boxer shorts.


His tenderness for others was unquenchable; his home was filled with it, spilling like sunlight over the furniture as the plates piled up and the wine-bottles emptied. When he lived in Vancouver he loved his outings to the PNE: he was always first through the gate to inspect the prize house, he delighted in the dog show, and he sat loyally in the light rain to listen to his old pal Dal Richards, waving his salmon hot-dog in perfect time.

Hugh was a spiritual seeker throughout his life and kept us all in his prayers. He lived a life that contained sadness and disappointment as well as joy and fulfillment, the kind of life that many people have. But he lived it with a great infusion of positive energy, of generosity, and of undying hope and gratitude, for his friends and his good fortune.

He did much of his good by stealth, a quiet supplier of the necessary cash when this or that arts board ran into trouble, a generous benefactor of art galleries, and for the last 15 years of his life he served as supporter and advisor to the Victoria Symphony Orchestra. At his memorial service its members filled St. John the Divine Anglican church in Victoria with tender and beautiful music that encapsulated the essential grace and humanity of the man and allowed the hundreds present to celebrate our good fortune at having known him.



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