Art and culture have found a friend and a patron in Northumberland’s Bruce Bailey
My own love affair with Northumberland county is the result of a chance encounter with a rather magical character I met one lonely night in 1999 at a charity art auction preview. It wasn’t long after my marriage had broken up, and I was feeling deflated. Suddenly, this tall, handsome, nattily dressed stranger standing next to me introduced himself as Bruce Bailey, and we launched into a conversation that got pretty personal, pretty fast. I told Bruce that I was feeling blue: Because of my divorce, I was giving up my beloved Muskoka cottage. But I was adamant about getting a new country home for myself and my girls – a kind of sanctuary, where my daughters and I could savour nature together, and where I might find my footing after the heartbreak I’d been through. I explained that I wanted a charming property with a pastoral feel – something that wouldn’t remind me of the cottage life I’d had to abandon. I’d been looking at properties west of Toronto, but nothing appealed and the prices were too steep.
“Have you tried Northumberland County?” asked Bruce. “It’s really beautiful and still affordable. You’ll get much more for your money there.” I told him I’d never even heard of Northumberland County! “What are you doing this Sunday?” he asked. I said it was my younger daughter’s birthday, and wasn’t sure of our plans. “Well, that’s a coincidence, because it’s my son’s birthday too, and we’re having a big party at my farm in Northumberland. Why don’t you bring your girls and check it out?” It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
So on that sunny fall day, the girls and I and our new puppy headed for Bruce Bailey’s farm. Suffice it to say that we all fell in love with the splendour of the countryside. I decided then and there that come spring, I’d look for my own piece of heaven in this glorious county.
Our farm in Roseneath was the first property I looked at; I knew I’d come home, and my friendship with my country neighbour, Bruce, quickly blossomed. His own love affair with this neck of the woods began as a young boy. Raised in Aurora, Bruce was the son of a country lawyer. One of his dad’s clients was purchasing Vincent Massey’s old estate. When it came to closing the property deal, Bruce accompanied his dad on the drive out to Northumberland County, and it was then that the young Bruce started fantasizing about one day owning a farm.
Bruce’s father eventually bought 200 acres just east of Cobourg. It was heaven for Bruce, complete with a few horses, and he spent summers there as a teenager. One day in 1972, Bruce’s sister, who attended Trent University, took the 18-year-old Bruce to visit a friend’s stately home in Northumberland. Little did Bruce know that home would one day be his own.
Ten years later, Bruce – by then an accomplished lawyer and avid art collector – had a dream one night about acquiring a place in the country. Determined to make his dream come true, he found a real estate agent in Cobourg who had a lead on a special property. “There something that’s coming on the market that you probably won’t be interested in,” the agent told him. “It’s a white elephant, since it’s all been stripped down. I don’t think you’re going to want it.”
“But he drove me to this property anyway,” reminisces Bruce, “and as we were driving down the road, I said, ‘This is the road of my dream!’” It felt like it was meant to be. Here was the wonderful historical home Bruce had visited with his sister in his youth! He knew he had to have it. Bruce bought the old house – originally built for a British colonial officer – and went about lovingly restoring it.
Although it was first intended as a weekend place, Bruce now spends most of his time at his 600-acre estate, despite having other homes in New York and Barcelona. The elegant farmhouse has hosted many a swish gathering, and in September of 2018, Bruce’s farm was the setting for a Montreal Museum of Fine Arts fundraiser entitled “Fête Champêtre.” The memorable affair, the first arts fundraiser in history to be held in Ontario for a Quebec institution, attracted 565 guests, including Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell.
Why support Quebec culture in this way? “I went to Queen’s University in the early seventies, and one of my housemates was from Quebec,” explains Bruce. “So I had a front row seat to find out what was going on… I didn’t think Quebeckers were treated fairly or with enough respect by Ontarians. I decided that if I was successful enough to do any cultural philanthropy, I would do it for Quebec.” Bruce also claims he hosted the fête as a kind of nation-building project, realizing there really were “two solitudes” going on. “I thought maybe we could build a stronger country through a shared love of art. What are the things we really share? We love family, we love nature, and we love art.”
The extravaganza, which raised over $400,000, was such a success that there’s another one planned for next year. (It was to have been repeated this year, but the pandemic had other plans.) Complete with its gorgeous, pastoral setting, and featuring musicians, opera stars, dancers, acrobats, and even a children’s choir, the fancy dress affair provided an unparalleled theatrical experience. The romantic vision which gave birth to the event was pure Bruce, so it’s little wonder that the man is considered an artist in his own right.
“What brought people together was the mutual love that everybody had for the beauty of our county,” says Bruce. “And it got people talking: The Quebeckers were talking to the Anglos! Using the beauty of the county as a bridge, I realized that this is an amazing place where we can really bring people together and also support Canadian culture.”
Bruce’s staunch support of Canadian artists is legendary. To what does he attribute his passion? “As a lawyer who got into the investment banking business, I needed to balance the kind of people I was dealing with by having an association with artists – the more creative, bohemian side of life to balance out the corporate world. I just wanted to have a more creative aspect in my life. So, by collecting Canadian art, I actually established relationships and friendships with people such as Michael Snow, who’s now 95. And the late Paterson Ewen became a good friend as well.”
You might say that the life Bruce Bailey created for himself in Northumberland County is as artful as the range of works in his esteemed collection. Ultimately though, it’s the simple things about country living that Bruce appreciates the most. “I love the changing of the seasons,” he shares. “I love seeing all the chipmunks and the assorted birds – it’s so wonderful being in nature. And just the other night, I got on my bike and rode down the lane in darkness to watch the thousands and thousands of fireflies in a field.”
The picture Bruce paints is emblematic of his artful eye, and an ode to the magic of a most beautiful county.
Jeanne Beker is a seasoned newspaper columnist and features writer. She was editor-in-chief of FQ and SIR magazines from 2003 to 2008, and has authored five books. She is a frequent keynote speaker and guest on myriad lifestyle shows. She’s been at the creative helm of numerous fashion lines under her own eponymous label, and since 2015, has been Style Editor for The Shopping Channel, where she currently hosts the series “Style Matters.” In 2013, Jeanne was named to the Order of Canada and in 2016, she received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. Her new podcast, Beyond Style Matters launches this fall.