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New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, N.B., 1975.88.172

Alice Lusk Webster

by John White Alexander, 1904-5

oil on canvas, 93.2 x 53.8 cm


"The civilization of a people

 finds expression in its art."


Alice Lusk Webster




In the 1940s, Alice Lusk Webster explained her theory of art while guiding visitors through the Department of Arts and Crafts she had founded at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, New Brunswick. She proudly displayed her collection of international objects, including Chinese, Japanese and Egyptian ceramics, in carefully arranged glass cases. "The civilization of a people finds expression in its art," she asserted, "and its art is the mirror in which each stage of its development is reflected."


As Honourary Curator of the Department, Lusk Webster stressed that beauty was not confined to the so-called fine arts, but could also have a functional basis. Her collections included such everyday artefacts as hair pins, jewelry and fish hooks, many stemming from ancient times. According to her, these items could "demonstrate the continuity of man's effort to please himself in fashioning tools, utensils, and fabrics for his own use." Lusk Webster's goal was to provide a representative collection of fine art and craft for what she affectionately called the "backwoods" of New Brunswick. She hoped to encourage both a broader historical knowledge of artistic form and a more cultivated level of taste in the province.


Lusk Webster and her husband, Dr. J. Clarence Webster, were involved in the New Brunswick Museum by the 1930s, when benevolent patrons were needed in the absence of government funding. The New Brunswick Museum was created as a provincial institution in 1929 (and it officially opened in 1934), amalgamating the collections of the Gesner Museum (1842-46), the Mechanics' Institute Museum (1846-90), and the Natural History Society of New Brunswick (1862-1932), all founded in Saint John. Although members of the Natural History Society remained involved in the new institution, they were ultimately displaced by wealthy patrons such as the Websters. J. Clarence Webster served as both a board member and Honourary Curator of Canadian History until his death in 1950, while Lusk Webster founded the Department of Arts and Crafts in 1934, and was its Honourary Curator until her death in 1953. To this day, the Foundation established by the Websters continues to provide funds for the New Brunswick Museum.


Alice Lusk Webster was born in New York City in 1880, the daughter of Bellevue Hospital's Chief of Obstetrics, Dr. William Thompson Lusk, and Mathilda (Meyer) Lusk. After receiving her early education in New York, Alice attended schools in France and Germany. In 1899 she married Dr. J. Clarence Webster, then a graduate of Edinburgh University and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. For the next 20 years, Dr. and Mrs. Webster lived in Chicago where J. Clarence was the Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Rush Medical College. The couple had three children: John Clarence Webster Jr., a pilot who died in an air crash in 1931; Janet Webster Roche, who moved to France after marrying a French artist, and died after she was arrested by the Nazis during the Second World War; and William Lusk Webster, a celebrated scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, and died in 1975.


While in Chicago, the Websters managed to amass a world-renowned collection of Japanese and Chinese art. They were well connected with the world of art patrons and collectors, and even had their Asian collections exhibited



New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, N.B., 1974.143.142

Drawing: "Study of a Seated Man with a Scythe"
signed Alice Lusk, 1897
conté crayon on laid paper
Dr. William Lusk Webster Bequest

alongside those of architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1904. The Websters' art patronage shifted direction in 1919 when the declining health of J. Clarence prompted the couple to move to Shediac, New Brunswick, his birthplace. When Lusk Webster became involved in the New Brunswick Museum, she found creative ways to build up its holdings, sometimes by drawing on the value of her Asian collections. In 1934, for example, she offered her friend C. T. Currelly, director of the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology, seventeen fine Japanese paintings owned by her and her husband, in exchange for a substantial amount of Chinese art and porcelain, which she gave as a gift-in-kind to the New Brunswick Museum. She also approached her wealthy friends and family in New York, scavenging cast-off items such as broken porcelain, which she carefully reassembled and put on display in the Department of Arts and Crafts. Alice Lusk Webster was clearly an enterprising and tenacious woman. In 1940, while visiting London, England, she "secured a donation of British-Roman and early English material from the Guildhall Museum, persuaded the Dean of Westminster to part with a thirteenth-century fragment of the Abbey, and obtained a Tudor Rose from contractors repairing the Houses of Parliament." This ambitious Honourary Curator changed the face of the New Brunswick Museum, moving its collections beyond provincial and national concerns to include an extensive representation of international art.  


The diverse items collected by Lusk Webster were not only put on display in the New Brunswick Museum, but also formed part of the school loan collection that she created and personally transported to high schools in Moncton during the late 1930s. She hoped to invigorate ancient history lessons while providing cultivation to those "men and women, boys and girls, who are groping blindly for the finer things in life." Lusk Webster held that an immediate experience of Egyptian, Syrian, and Roman objects, including a sample of wheat grown 5000 years ago, scarabs, beads, cuniform tablets, fish hooks, and needles, would accomplish this end.


The unpaid work that Lusk Webster performed for the New Brunswick Museum was in keeping with both her gender and her elevated social status. Her wealth allowed her to be more outspoken in administrative meetings than the women of the Ladies' Auxiliary had been, and to amass a valuable collection that would shape the future of the Museum. Yet during her lifetime, and arguably even more recently, her work was considered secondary to the chief goals of the Museum, and linked with the "merely" decorative. In her notebooks, Alice noted how hard she worked for the Museum, even cleaning and arranging the collections, while receiving little recognition from male board members. All the same, when she died in 1953, an obituary published in the Evening Times-Globe claimed her passing was a "distinct loss to the cultural life of New Brunswick," as she had made a "significant contribution to this province's historical heritage."



From Her





















Archives of the New Brunswick Museum, Art Department Records, F544, Alice Lusk Webster's Working Files, Letters, undated.


Archives of the New Brunswick Museum, Art Department Records, F545, Alice Lusk Webster's Working Files, Lecture Notes, undated.


Evening Times-Globe. Saint John. 15 December 1953.


Royal Ontario Museum, Records of the Registration Department, undated.


Times-Globe. Saint John. 17 October 1940.