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"Art in British Columbia"

By Bernard McEvoy

From "Opportunities" magazine - 1910


There is a sort of "invidious bar" that stands in the way of him who would write of artists - whether of the brush or pen - of any period or country. He is likely to be told that "comparisons are odious." If he should start upon the plan of making his article as inclusive as possible, he either runs outs of adjectives before the writing is complete, or he is in danger of making it look like a mere list of names, such as might remind one of a directory, or of the genealogical chapters of the Books of Chronicles. If, on the other hand, he should adopt a selective attitude, he will be complained of for exclusiveness, and a want of appreciation of native or resident genius. On a racecourse of any kind there are sure to be a few winners, but there are also numbers of who it may be said that they "also ran". And the "also rans" have as much natural expectation of being mentioned, in any dissertation on the art of a province, as the winners.

But this article does not pretend to be exhaustive or entirely comprehensive. It will have to pass over many who have done good work in the cause of art. It is not possible to speak of everybody, so that a selection must necessarily be made. If then, those who are annoyed because they are not mentioned, will make mention of it themselves to the editor, the mistake of omitting them may no doubt be rectified at a future time. Let it be understood that artists are of all people the most sensitive. It is a necessity of their being.

Of British Columbia as a field for art it is not necessary to say very much. Looked at in the large way there are few places that are not good fields for art. For art consists in making its own translation of things that exist, into pictures that suggest. Set a true artist down amidst the smoke of Pittsburg and out of his surroundings he would make pictures of beauty. On the other hand set a mere copyist amid the mountain grandeurs of British Columbia, and he may only produce the most obvious pictures of magnificent boulders and Noah's Ark trees. As a matter of fact, British Columbia is so spectacular as to present difficulties to the artist. Its mountains are too immense, its climatic effects too elusive. In its scenery there is too much of everything. The tyro does not know where to begin, and the experienced artist does not know where to stop. It may be said, however, that artists have not been slow to find British Columbia out. There has been a regular procession out here of Eastern artists. Some of them have done better than others, while all have done something. On the principle that he who would fail at a target may, perhaps, hit a haystack if he tries, the limners who have come out to paint the mountains, the rivers, and falling waters of this Province have always been able to carry back canvases that have been very interesting to dwellers in the more prosaic regions of Eastern Canada.

The scenery of British Columbia has been much more painted than its inhabitants, and it is the present weakness of the art of the Province, that is has not taken advantage of the great variety of types that are observable in almost every part of it. A cosmopolitan crowd passes through its cities. The Chinaman, the Hindu, the Indian, the Mexican; travellers from the Orient, and from the United States; loggers, Scandinavians, longshoremen, sailors, hunters, trappers and miners, are all waiting to be painted, and are presenting an opportunity to our artists of which they should not be slow to take advantage. We have one or two painters of nautical things, notably S.P. Judge, who, in this line has made what has probably been hitherto, his greatest success. But the difficulties in the way of the artist have been too great to allow of the devotion of sufficient time to the study of genre to arrive at any very great success in that direction. The day will come when the noble field for figure painting, and the painting of typical scenes in which figures occur, which British Columbia presents, will be utilized. Here and there, scattered in isolated homes, there are already a few examples of genre. But at present they are few and far between, and make no showing as compared with landscape art. Exception to the general rule is, however, found in the excellent work of Mrs. Beanlands, formerly Miss Pemberton, of Victoria, a native daughter of this Province, whose native genius, aided by her studies abroad, enabled her to produce works which were exhibited with credit not only in British Columbia but in European galleries. Among other artists who have done successful figure and portrait work, may be mentioned Miss Mason and Mrs. Bampfylde Daniell, of Victoria, both of whom have done credit to their artistic training by works which have been exhibited in the Royal Academy, London. Mrs. Daniell's early taste for art led to her removal from Devonshire - her birthplace - to the artistic circles of the metropolis, where, under specially favorable conditions, she pursued her studies under the care of many famous Royal Academicians.

It may also be said that much of the artistic skill that, under other circumstances, might have gone into pictures, has necessarily been employed in what, for want of a better name, may be called commercial art. A comparatively young and small community, as British Columbia is, despite its few historic spots, could not be expected to form very much of a market for masterpieces of genre. Yet in every centre of population there arises a necessity for the work of the illustrator, whether applied to the advertising booklet, the newspaper, the magazine, or in the thousand other ways in which "line-cuts" are used. A demand of that kind means bread and butter, if not something better, and in a country where the first necessity of the newcomer is some sort of paying work, it is natural that much artistic talent should be absorbed in a line of business, which though its returns may be regular and immediate, offers but little guarantee of fame. The newspaper illustration, the invoice or letter heading, or the cartoon, thus utilizes the brain and skill that might otherwise have produced genre pictures to be remembered.

One of the first pioneers of art in this Province was William Ferris, who came to Vancouver in 1888, after some years of the legal profession in London, where he had had the advantage of the companionship and help of many painters since famous. His week-ends and afternoons were frequently devoted to sketching with those congenial comrades, and he attained considerable dexterity with the brush. It was natural that he should, on coming to British Columbia, begin to sketch the scenery he saw around him. One of the earliest of these sketches had for its subject the wreck of the steamship "Beaver" - a picture that may now be regarded as the best actual representation of that ill-fated vessel. Sketches of Cedar Cove and various objects and scenes along the waterfront attest his skill, and are valued evidences of what Vancouver was in those early days. Along with others, he was instrumental in the inauguration of the Art, Historical and Scientific Association, which has remained in existence until this day. Under the auspices of this Asssociation Vancouver's first exhibition of art was held, consisting partly of loaned pictures and partly of work contributed by the members. It was opened by the Governor-General, who happened to be in the West, and was, for that day, a very considerable success.

Among those who contibuted to this early exhibition was H.J. De Forest, a native of the Maritime Provinces, who was prepared for an artistic career by various courses of study and a more prolonged opportunity of travel than falls to most men. When he had secured all the elementary training that Canada could give him, he started for London in 1879, where he took full advantage of study at South Kensington, following it up with further courses in Paris and Italy. During a prolonged tour that lasted until 1882, he saw most of the great masterpieces of the world, and stayed long at the principal artistic centres. Returning to Canada, he came West, and has ever since been regarded as one of the pioneers and chief exponents of the art he loves so well. An enthusiastic lover of nature, he has painted British Columbia's scenery in a way which has earned deserved encomiums from all who know his work.

Among the various societies that have from time to time been started in British Columbia to further the cause of art, the Vancouver Studio Club is entitled to a prominent place. It was started in 1904 under the presidency of Mr. H. Abbott, who still retains that position. Himself an enthusiastic amateur in water color, Mr. Abbott was always ready to do what he could in the cause of art, and in November of the same year he assisted in the gathering of an important loan collection of pictures which were exhibited under the auspices of the club, and which contained many valuable works of art. The Studio Club, then as now, conducted classes for the teaching of art, S.P. Judge and J. MacKintosh being successively its instructors. The club has held several highly creditable exhibitions, and its classes are now under the superintendence of Miss Anne Bachelor, Miss L. Beresford Tully, and Miss Walker. As an association for the encouragement of art, the Studio Club during the six years of its existence, has had a highly creditable history. Prominent among its workers have been Mrs. Russell, Mrs. Creery, and Mrs. Frame.

The British Columbia Society of Fine Arts was inaugurated in 1908 and duly incorporated by the Provincial Government; the Rt. Hon. Earl Grey, the Governor-General, accepting the office of president. It now has a membership of twenty, the object of the society being to consolidate the interests of those who are engaged in artistic pursuits, and to stimulate an appreciation of works of art on the part of the public. The society has held several exhibitions of works of art with considerable success. Among its members, in addition to William Ferris and H.J. De Forest already mentioned, is Thos. W. Fripp, a son of the eminent water colorist of the same name who was a well known member of the English Royal Society of Painters in Water Colors. Mr Fripp therefor, comes by his well known skill in the direct line of descent, and his paintings are much admired. As an exponent of British Columbia scenery in water color, he takes a high place; the excellence of his drawing, and the purity of his color, distinguishing him in a quite remarkable way. John Kyle, A.R.C.A., is another prominent and useful member of the society. Of Scottish birth, he studied art first at his native place, and was successful in taking the highest South Kensington prize in his year, open to the entire Kingdom, for Artistic Anatomy. He proceeded to South Kensington, where he went through various courses with great credit, and studied for a time afterwards in Bruges. Coming to Vancouver, he for some time held the position of art instructor in the public schools, subsequently being appointed in the same capacity in the Normal School, a post which he at present holds. Mr. Kyle has taken an important part in the establishment of technical evening classes in Vancouver, among which those devoted specially to art work may be mentioned as doing great credit to the institution and management. It is not too much to say that in his art teaching in the public schools, he has done much for art in this Province. The work of the scholars which has been shown at various exhibitions, indicates that the pupils have been taught on right principles, and we may, therefor, look for a growing number of artists in the rising generation. As a painter, Mr. Kyle�s work is of a high grade.

W.P. Weston is another member of the organization, who is engaged in teaching. He is an artist of considerable capacity, and in some of his seascapes displays a power and vision which have made his contributions in this line of art to local exhibitions very acceptable.

Allan Brooks, another member of the B.C.S.F.A., is a painstaking and exceedingly able painter of birds and game subjects. As an explorer of the mountain recesses of this Province, as a hunter and prospector, he has made a record. The clearness of his observation and the ability of his pencil are seen in his masterly book illustrations as well as in many separate paintings. His illustrations in the large and important work, "The Birds of Washington," by Dawson & Bowles, are a sufficient testimony to his great ability in this particular line.

Educated in Scotland, J. MacIntosh Gow is an able and successful painter, with a keen eye for color, and for the poetic aspects of nature. Though he works chiefly in water color, he is successful also in oil, in both devoting himself chiefly to landscape. His works always take a high place in the B.C.S.F.A. exhibitions. N.H. Hawkins is a water colour painter whose vivid impressions of nature are conveyed with a delicacy and purity of tint which give great value to his work. He is also taking much interest in figure design.

S.P. Judge, before mentioned, has made a special study of marine painting. He is also an able and brilliant artist in black and white, and a competent scenic artist. As secretary of the B.C.S.F.A., he has done very valuable service, while his ability as a teacher has been fully recognized. Stanley Tytler's Australian studies marked him, during his residence in the Commonwealth, as a competent observer of Nature's moods, and he has found in British Columbia many good subjects for his clever brush. His technique is bold, and his grasp of the principles of art comprehensive. He leans to a broad interpretation of what he sees; his capacity for selection is evident, and his method sincere and direct. Mrs. Alice Blair Thomas, B.C.S.F.A., is another broad worker in oil, whose frequently large canvases convey a poetic rendering of mountain scenery. She is equally successful in pastoral effects, while her work in water color has found many purchasers in Vancouver.

Grace Judge, B.C.S.F.A., has not only original faculty and a style of her own, but she possesses an imagination that busies itself in dainty and refined avenues of thought. In her quaint devices which have for their "motif" the dress and customs of bygone days, she displays an insight and technique that are both admirable and industrious.

Noel Bursill's training as an artist was obtained in London. His black and white work is excellent, and he has a peculiarly good sense of color, which, when displayed in an imaginative subject, is particularly pleasing. George S. Gibson is a painter of much ability, whose bold washes of color are very enjoyable to the discerning art lover. He is competent in drawing, and his capacity for the selections of the features of a scene decidedly above the average. Miss Amity Carr (sic) is another highly valued member of the B.C.S.F.A., whose poetic transcripts of British Columbia scenery are to the manner born, for she is a native of the Province. Her manner is distinctive, and her effects bold and striking.

This article would not be complete without some mention of the Island Arts Club of Victoria, which has recently held its first exhibition, and in the promotion of which Mrs. Bampfylde Daniell has been a most valuable worker. This club extends its schedule to any kind of artistic craftsmanship, and seems likely to do good work in its own district. Nor though have we spoken chiefly of painting, must we forget the sculptor Marega, whose vigorous modelling work has added a pleasing feature to Vancouver exhibitions, and who is the teacher of modelling in connection with the Vancouver evening classes before mentioned. Mr. Marega is an artist to the fingertips, and his modelling work and sculpture has a vivid and vigorous beauty that compel sincere admiration.

Ed. Note: The above article was illustrated with the following: "October Afternoon", from a picture by Thomas Bamford; "Salmon Boats", from a picture by S.P. Judge; and "A Book Plate" (Marguerite Rose Study - Her Book), by Herbert S. Study. The magazine is on file at the Vancouver Public Library Main Branch - Northwest Room.

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