British Columbia Society of Artists - A History

By J. Delisle Parker, April 1950.

     The Fortieth Retrospective Exhibition of the British Columbia Society of Artists is, in a way, an expression of the growth of art in this Province. With the vast changes in the West, as well as in the entire world, during the past four decades, the manner of expression of our artists has changed too. The present display not only indicates something of these varied changes but recalls the memory and activities of the men and women who founded the Society, known until recently as the British Columbia Society of Fine Arts, and who made it the most important art organization west of Toronto.

     It may be recalled that at the time the B.C. Society of Artists was founded in 1909, the City of Vancouver was not yet a quarter of a century old and was still something of a pioneer community. It is difficult to realize how small a place Vancouver was then. The West End was in its heyday and Granville Street ended at 14th Avenue with a trail continuing up the hill where trees were being blown up in the wilderness of Shaughnessy.

     Yet back of these relatively primitive conditions an urge to cultivate, and bring before the public, the art of painting was latent in certain of its citizens. A place was found for serious art study on the top floor of the present School Board office at Hamilton and Dunsmuir. From 1912 exhibitions were held there, with gala openings embellished by an orchestra playing soft strains while the guests mingled in evening dress and discussed art or partook of refreshments.

     In 1909 the Society was duly incorporated and became the proud possessor of a charter. The original group of founders included the outstanding B.C. painter of the time, Tom W. Fripp; S.P. Judge and John Kyle, both of whom are still happily interested in art; G. L. Thornton Sharp, noted architect who laid out the first University buildings and is now retired on Vancouver Island; the well known journalist, Bernard McEvoy, and cartoonist J. Fitzmaurice, both of the Vancouver Daily Province; and Stanley D. Tytler, who passed away recently in his ninetieth year after an adventurous life, beginning with his birth during the seige of Delhi in the Indian mutiny.

     The first exhibition held in the Dominion Hall on Pender Street in April, 1909, was quite an event in Vancouver of that day. With breadth of vision and realization of a big step in development of culture in the West, His Excellency Earl Grey was asked to be Honorary President. Patrons were Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper, Honourable Richard McBride, Premier of British Columbia, Mrs. J.C. Keith, Mr. H. Abbott, Mrs. A.L. Russell, Mayor Douglas of Vancouver, and Mr. F.C. Wade, K.C. President was T.W. Fripp and Vice-President B. McEvoy. J. Kyle was honorary treasurer, and S.P. Judge honorary secretary.

     The well compiled program of the first annual exhibit in 1909 included one hundred and seventy-nine exhibits, with paintings of scenes in the Province predominating. A number of pictures of scenes in England, Scotland, Belgium and Africa figured in the display in which many of the exhibits, although in a style no longer so popular, had considerable artistic merit, as can be seen by a few examples featured in the present show.

     Among the exhibitors showing the most canvases was Emily Carr. It is interesting in view of the career of Miss Carr, which culminated in a success establishing her as one of Canada's greatest artists, to note the diversity of her subjects. Pictures shown were entitled "Wild Lilies", "Deadman's Island", "Indian Camp, Victoria", "Big Trees, Stanley Park", "Indian Village Scene, Alert Bay", "A Little Old-Fashioned Lady", "The Tawny Girl", and "Arbutus Trees". Many of Emily Carr's paintings were also shown in subsequent exhibitions.

     Emily Carr was a member of the Society from the beginning, and received recognition from many of her fellow-members, and she was made a Life Member during the Depression of 1931.

     In the 1910 catalogue appears for the first time the name of W.P. Weston, who has exhibited in every display since that date. With dozens of art teachers now in the Province it is difficult to realize that when Mr. Weston came from England in the previous year he was the only art teacher in the Province under John Kyle, art supervisor of Vancouver. Soon afterwards made art instructor at the Normal School, where he remained for thirty years, W.P. Weston not only had a profound influence on the progress of art education in the Province, but became one of its best known painters, the first Western artist to be made an A.R.C.A. (Editor: not correct, Sophie Pemberton was first B.C. ARCA), and for ten years the President of the B.C. Society of Artists.

     The Society membership has been constantly strengthened in the succeeding years by the addition of other members, which included in the early years C.H. Scott, the noted sculptor C. Marega, Mrs. Kate Smith Hoole, Margaret Wake, Harry Hood, C. Ferguson, Mrs. S. Frame, Mrs. E. Killam, Mrs. M.O. Verral, Miss B.E. Fry, Rev. W. Ogden, Mrs. Brydone Jack, James Amess, Grace Judge, Mrs. M. Aitken, and John Scott.

     In the early days the Society had to be content to hold exhibitions in any available store that might be vacant and quarters in regard to both lighting and wall space were frequently far from perfect. In 1912 the Vancouver Board of School Trustees kindly allowed the Society to use the three rooms on the third floor of the School Board Office.

     Bernard McEvoy, founder member of the Society, was the prime mover of a new organization called the Art League. To show the need of an Art Gallery in Vancouver the Art League rented vacant rooms on the upper floors of the Hudson's Bay Company's annex on Seymour Street. Besides exhibiting the pictures presented by Lord Leverhulme to the League and the City, the Art League provided an exhibition place for the B.C. Society of Artists until the erection of the permanent Art Gallery in 1931, where the Society has since held its annual display.

     Under Mr. Paul Rand's active leadership the Society has seen some reorganization in keeping with current progress. The old title of B.C. Society of Fine Arts has been legally modified to British Columbia Society of Artists. When the Society was founded with a membership of forty the population was approximately ninety-thousand, and now with the population approaching half a million, it is felt that room should be made for additional members. With this in view space in the Society has been created for twenty Associate Members, who in time can become full members. This latter provision will enable some of the younger and constantly increasing number of artists of ability in the Province to belong to the Society, enjoy its prestige and aid in its continual progress as a live organization with a notable past record.

     The foregoing history was written by J. Delisle Parker, in collaboration with the Society's historian, S.P. Judge.