The art of diplomacy

Photographs by Ashley Fraser

Margaret Dickenson flutters between rooms in her three-storey canal-side home, pointing out favourites in her astonishing art collection like a bright-eyed sparrow hopping from branch to branch.

She’s eager to share everything — stories from her career as an internationally lauded cookbook author, anecdotes from husband Larry’s stellar  diplomatic and public service career and even pats for Nelson,
their neighbour’s former cat, who packed his catnip and moved in with the couple a few years ago because his original family didn’t lavish him with enough attention.

She moves quickly to a corner in the main salon to point out their latest acquisition, “Honk If You Love Jesus” by Ottawa’s Bhat Boy. Then, she mentions a curious Italian table with a bronzed wheat sheaf base in front of
the fireplace — “we have romantic dinners for two here in the winter” — before she moves to the gloriously coloured “Ferris Wheel” by Russian-born Igor Khazanov. When the influences of Belorussian-French artist Marc Chagall are noted, she claps her hands in delight and beams.

“Yes! Well spotted,” she chirps. “He studied under Chagall. There’s a Chagall right next to it!”

And so it goes, from room to room. Decorated for Christmas in this year’s colours — purple and gold — everything in the Dickenson’s gracious home has a tale, accumulated in eight diplomatic postings across 20 years. Next to a doorman’s chair (pretty much owned by Nelson along with five other soft spots), there’s a well-loved, nearly hairless Pakistani children’s rocking horse named Mickey. A baby grand piano — “Neither of us plays,” she chuckles — holds family photos, including one of a very young Margaret as Canada’s Miss Dairy Princess and another of daughter Krista and former U.S. president Bill Clinton. Tucked into a corner is a large Thai Buddha, surrounded by handmade mirrored pillows from Swat, Pakistan.

The Dickensons, both 66, clearly delight in making their favourite private space a public one. In fact, countless Ottawans have come through their doors, for charity events at which Margaret supplies finger foods with recipes from her cookbooks. She writes the recipes for the books and Larry does photography. The most recent is Margaret’s Table, which won four international awards and spawned the Rogers Cable show of the same name.

But while food is on the menu, art is clearly on the table. “We’ve had return dinner guests ask what’s new on the walls and we haven’t even poured drinks yet,” she laughs. “The tour starts the minute they come in the door.”

Yet their obsession with art happened almost by accident. Rural-born and raised — Larry’s from near London, Ont., Margaret’s from a farm near Thunder Bay — they shared creative flair, but had few outlets. After her father died when she was five, “everything went to pay off the farm,” Margaret recalls, so to amuse herself, she would collect bird feathers as decorations and sew clothes for her two dolls. “You had what you found. I would enter fairs and win craft competitions.”

Their first taste of real art came after they were posted to Moscow. Young and saddled with student loans, they nevertheless hosted dinner parties. One evening, a British guest “said dismissively that we had to have something on the walls,” Larry recalls. “So we made some pretty modest purchases, one of which we still have. But then, you start collecting. And when you’re serious about it, you say, ‘I don’t have one of these or those’.”

As the couple and their two children were posted around the globe, the art bug took serious hold and their collection grew until they “had to start selling pieces to make room. We had to get rid of a lot of art in Jakarta
when we moved back here,” admits Larry.

Still, the family home, which they’ve owned since 1976 and have now retired to, has the air of a turn-of-the-century Parisian parlour: Every available space over four floors, from their finished basement to the attic
bedroom/sitting room, carries Margaret’s thoughtful groupings of Arabic silver jewelry, Egyptian copper pots, Indonesian masks and Korean chests.

“There’s a Philip Craig, in the laundry room,” Margaret says. “We haven’t told him — he’s a dear friend. But I exercise there every day, so I enjoy it tremendously.”

As husband and wife move around the living room, pointing out their treasures — the hand-woven carpets, Italian chandeliers and Cambodian drum doubling as an end table — it’s clear that sharing their collection is
almost as important as having it. “We really value connections and we love our art; each piece is like a family pet,” says Margaret. “But our family and friends are really our greatest treasures.”

Connect with Julie Beun |life@ottawacitizen.com