"A Short Art History of British Columbia"

By Charles H. Scott A.R.C.A.
Behind The Palette, Vancouver School of Art Annual - 1946-47

     Reviewing the development of the Art of any country would appear to necessitate the giving of some information on its geography and ethnography, since these features affect the creative expression of the artist.

     A glance at the map of Canada shows British Columbia shaped like a suspended sock. The top of the sock lies against the Yukon, the foot rests firmly on the State of Washington, with the heel forming Vancouver Island and the toe cutting sharply into Alberta. The back of the sock runs north for 800 miles, forming a ravelled coast line that holds back the Pacific Coast at the cost of innumerable inlets. Within this sock lies 360,000 square miles of as variable a physiography as the most questing of artists could wish.

     This huge Province (the third largest in the Dominion) is made up of mountains valleys and plains, with climates varying from the temperate to the sub-zero. Needless to say the big proportion of the population lives in the temperate zone. In this zone lie Vancouver and Victoria, the two largest cities in the Province which together account for sixty per cent of the total population. Vancouver is the commercial and artistic capital, Victoria the legislative capital, and the mecca of those seeking relief from the hurly-burly of modern living or sub-zero temperature.

     The peoples inhabiting the Province are mixed occidentals, native Indians, and a considerable number of orientals (chiefly Chinese and, until recently, Japanese). The natural resources of the Province, viz., lumbering, fishing, mining and agriculture provide the principal sources of the peoples' employment and wealth. The small population, the nature of the basic industries, and the real-estate boom days of the first decade of the 20th century offered little encouragement to the arts in the early days of British Columbia's history.

     Even in those early days, however, there were trail-breakers in the arts as well as in the forests and mountains. The majority of them were of British stock and British schooling in the arts, a fact which influenced the art outlook of the Province for many years.

     Early artists of the first decade included Tom Fripp, who left England for farming in B.C. and stayed to paint; James Bloomfield, a decorative artist; S.P. Judge, first instructor in the Studio Club, (the first art group formed in Vancouver, now defunct); Margaret Wake, a painter of landscape and Indian portraits; Fitzmaurice, one of Canada's best cartoonists; Norman Hawkins, civil engineer and painter; Will Ferris, De Forrest, Stanley Tytler, John Kyle, and Kate Smith, all of Vancouver. Victoria provided Mr. Dean Drummond, Josephine Crease, Emily Carr and Sam Maclure. In 1906, Bernard McEvoy, Tom Fripp, S.P. Judge, and John Kyle founded the B.C. Society of Fine Arts, the first purely exhibiting society in the Province.

     Of the early painters, two at least should be specially mentioned: Emily Carr and Tom Fripp. Both painted the landscape of the country, but in an entirely different manner. Victoria-born Emily Carr skirted the rugged coast line of the Province, entered the forests with tent, dog and paints, and was receptive to the life and customs of the Native Indians with whom she made many contacts. She painted landscape with a technique based on French impressionism which later gave place to an expressionism which was well suited to the spirit-dwelling aspect of her subject matter.

     Tom Fripp came to B.C. well equipped with a 19th century water-colour technique. He painted the coast mountains rising from green waters, capped with snow and mist, and he painted them through English eyes.

     Other artists, W.P. Weston. Charles Marega, and Charles H. Scott. arrived in the Province in the early part of the second decade.

     More than one art society was formed in those early days, but one only, the B.C. Society of Fine Arts (with headquarters in Vancouver) had the guidance, fortitude and enthusiasm to win through to its present position of the major exhibiting Art Society in the Province.

     So far no Art Gallery had come into being in the Province and exhibitions of Art from the outside were restricted to occasional showings brought from the East by the Exhibition Association, to Hastings Park, where they took their place uncomfortably with the livestock, the manufactures, the products of the field and garden, and the skidroad. Exhibitions of third-rate quality works by European artists with well-known names and society affiliations were also brought to Vancouver by London dealers.

     Full-time instruction in art was inadequate at this time, there being no art school in the Province. The young art student had perforce to content himself with what the few private studios or the night classes run by School Boards could offer. Much praise is due John Kyle who not only started the Night Art classes in Vancouver, but who as Director of Technical Education for the Province, also talked art education to every School Board throughout the Province.

     In the early 1920's a new society, the B.C. Art League, was formed. The League aimed at the founding of a provincial Art School and Art Gallery.

     Bernard McEvoy and John Radford were chiefly responsible for arousing the public's interest in this new society, and in a very short time make-shift premises were acquired where showings of paintings, drawings, and sculpture took place.

     It was the hope of the Art League that both the Art Gallery and the Art School would arrive as a result of grants of money from the Provincial Treasury.

     As it happened, neither came that way: the Art School was founded in 1925 by the Vancouver School Board; and the Art Gallery in 1931 through private donors, headed by the late H.A. Stone. Nevertheless the League served to accentuate the need for both institutions and was actively responsible for interesting the School Board in financing the Art School.

     The Vancouver School of Art opened in September, 1925, on the top floor of the School Board Office building.

     G. Thornton Sharp, a city architect, was director of the School during its first year with Charles H. Scott as Principal. At the end of the first session, Mr. Sharp resigned and Mr. Scott was appointed Director.

     Within a short time departments in Drawing and Painting, Commercial Art, Design and Crafts and Modeling were in operation.

     The staff consisted of F.H. Varley, J.W.G. Macdonald, Charles Marega, Kate Smith Hoole, and Grace Melvin.

     The aim of the School was to steer a course in Art which would enable students to land either on the shores of industry or the less secure footing of the fine arts. In these formative years the school had its share of bad times. The apathy of an indifferent public had to be overcome, changes in staffing took place, the depression years of the early 1930's made civic fathers look hungrily at the lean-fed art school, and the problem of adequate spacing had to be met.

     In the course of time these conditions passed, the school was given more accommodation, and the public, including industry, came to realize the place of an Art School in the city's life.

     The School feels it has made a double contribution; one to Canadian Art and one to those industries in the city which employ the artist-designer.

     There is no space to go into the various art positions and honours achieved by former students but the School is especially proud of the fact that four of its former students and one member of the staff were appointed Canadian War Artists during World War II.

     The quality of painting in B.C. exhibitions has been greatly strengthened by the inclusion of works by former students. This reflects the good work of a loyal and enthusiastic staff consisting at present of Grace W. Melvin, Fred A. Amess, B.C. Binning, J.L. Shadbolt, and a number of other teachers, past and present, in the Day, Evening and Saturday Morning Classes.

     The present session has an over-all enrolment of eight hundred and fifty students, many of whom are discharged service men and women.

     The School conducts a Summer School during July for Teachers of the Elementary and High Schools of the Province seeking Art Education. In the Public Schools and in the Normal School, increasing importance is being given to art by teachers who are keenly aware of the cultural and social values of their subject. Many schools are not only giving opportunities for practice in the Arts to their pupils but are bringing in travelling exhibitions for the pupuils to see; Canadian films such as those covering the work of Tom Thompson and A.Y. Jackson are being shown; Art Clubs are encouraged to meet after the regular school hours; and lectures in Art appreciation, with coloured slides and prints as illustrative material, form part of the school curriculum.

     So far, the University of British Columbia has been unable to provide the opportunity for its students to gain a knowledge of the arts commensurate with the opportunities offered in the academic and scientific fields, but there are hopes both inside and outside the University that such a condition will soon be changed.

     It would indeed be a pity if our future professional men and women leave the University without having an adult knowledge and appreciation of what the arts mean in living.

     The opening of the Art Gallery in October, 1931, was a great step forward in the Art history of the city and Province. Instead of sporadic exhibitions, usually badly housed, the public are now given well-hung exhibitions drawn from the Gallery's permanent collection, supplemented with travelling exhibitions from the National Gallery, Eastern and local Art So- ... (Editor's note: original material had information missing due to production error in printing)

     This showing of constantly changing exhibitions draws a large measure of support from the public.

     The Gallery is financed by membership fees and a small annual grant from the city treasury. Present demands on the Gallery space is so great that the council are considering plans for an extension to the present building. (Editor's note: the extension opened September 26, 1951)

     Since the opening of the Gallery in 1931, over 766 special exhibitions have been held. Of this total sixty per cent were one-man shows, mainly by B.C. Artists. Attendances at the Gallery during the year 1946 totalled 98,000.

     The council, under the presidency of W.H. Malkin, is keenly alive to the educational side of an Art Gallery and misses no opportunity of providing Vancouver with exhibitions of many styles of art. In this way provincialism in Art breaks down before the wider view.

     Lawren Harris, chairman of the Exhibition Committee, has done much to introduce a breadth and tolerance to the viewing of creative work of all kinds.

     Children's Classes are held in the Art Gallery each Saturday morning, under grant from the Department of Education.

     The recently formed Ladies' Auxiliary to the Gallery, under the direction of Mrs. J.P. Fell, has increased the public's enjoyment of the Gallery and has also been responsible for increasing the Association's membership to its present total of eight hundred and twenty.

     Innovations to Gallery life brought in by the Auxiliary include Symphony Previews, Friday Evening Concerts for Servicemen and women; Painting for Pleasure Classes; Christmas Nativity Tableaux with choral music, and a series of lectures on Art subjects.

     All of this puts considerable strain on the small staff, headed by A.S. Grigsby as Curator.

     The Gallery is now an established civic institution, but so far has done little to encourage Canadian Art by the purchase of Canadian works. It should not be forgotten that the public likes to see the best that is being done in their time; visitors from abroad also like to see Canadian work. Furthermore, there is virtue in rewarding the creative artist of one's time; little virtue in purchasing tired old masters. In this respect the Gallery has a responsibility to Canadian Art which it cannot afford to ignore.

     The Labour Arts Guild, organized in July, 1944, under the direction of John Goss, eminent musician and writer, was a community effort on the part of workers in industry, business and in the various arts. It was designed to foster closer co-operation between organized labor and those engaged in advancing the progress of music, fine arts, literature and drama. The Labor Arts Guild held the conviction that the Labor Movement has need of the artist to give voice, colour and dramatic emphasis to labor's contribution to the cause of social welfare and national unity. It is equally "convinced that workers in the arts, if they would avoid isolation, futility and the shabby-genteel snobbery which in recent years has come to be associated with artistic endeavour must place their talents at the service of the politically and industrially conscious working people."

     During the first eight months of the Guild's existence four major projects were successfully undertaken. The first of these was a competitive Art exhibition, B.C. At Work.

     This was the first exhibition of its kind to be held in Canada and was unique in that the subject matter of the competitive works dealt exclusively with the industrial and working life of the Province through the media of painting, sculpture, drawing and woodcarving. And for the first time in Canadian history, Trade Unions concerned themselves with such matters by contributing over $600.00 in cash prizes.

     Other completed projects of the Guild included a series of People's Concerts held on Sunday evenings, an author's contest for the purpose of stimulating contemporary Canadian writing of one-act plays, short stories and poems on democratic themes, a stage production of Norman Corwin's famous radio drama, "Untitled". and a full-length production of Hamlet.

     The possibilities of the Guild with its backing from the Trade Unions could be of immense significance in furthering the Arts in Canada. Unfortunately, the Labor Arts Guild in not in operation at present.

     The B.C. Region of the Federation of Canadion Artists has been engaged for the past five years in Province-wide activities. Included in these activities are the sending of small travelling exhibitions of Art to the Interior towns of the Province in co-operation with the University's Department of Extension; the planning and financing of a campaign to further the Community Centre Art Brief, and co-operation with the Parks Board of the City for an Art Festival Week in Stanley Park during the summer. Excellent work has also been done by a group of Federation members known as the Art in Living Group. The chief concern of this group lies in acquainting the public of what is best and most modern in home and community planning. This it does by means of attractively designed diagrams, plans, elevations, photographs, printed matter and beautifully-made three-dimensional scale models. Mr. Fred Amess is the Chairman of the Group.

     The Art Centre Group in Victoria aims for a permanent Gallery, and for the encouragement of Canadian Art in general. A large membership has already been secured and it would appear as if Victoria's many years of lethargy in the arts is at last going to be thrown off.

     Outside of Vancouver and Victoria there are individual groups and societies in Kamloops, Vernon, Kelowna, Penticton, Nelson, Trail, Kimberley, Cranbrook and Port Alberni, all busily engaged in stimulating interest in the Arts. Such assistance as the Federation of Canadian Artists (B.C. Region) is able to give these groups is freely given, and as previously mentioned has taken the form of sending small traveling Art exhibits on tour. The demand for such exhibitions is growing and is indicative of the need of rural communities for the implementation by the Federal Government of the scheme laid down in the Brief presented in June, 1944, to the Special Committee on Replanning and Reconstruction by sixteen National Art Societies. It is significant that this Brief has come to be known as the Community Art Centres' Brief.

     In concluding this article mention should be made of the increased quality and quantity of the work exhibited by the artists of the Province. This has been largely due to the opportunity given the artists for exhibitions in the Art Gallery; to increased purchasing of works by the public; to the training given to young artists by the School of Art; and to the closer acquaintance with works contained in travelling exhibitions from the other Provinces, from Britain and from the United States.

     These various factors have contributed to a diversity of techniques and to increased quality in drawing and design in the work of our local artists. Landscape is still the prevailing note in all exhibitions, but the figure, the portrait, and the mural are making their appearance and will no doubt play a greater part in the future art expression of British Columbia.

Editors note: Some partiality is evident in this essay, particularly where Scott uses the phrase "changes in staffing took place" as the only reference, and a very oblique one, to the departure from his school of Varley and Macdonald to form the B.C. College of Arts, Ltd. Scott also neglects to mention the Art, Historical and Scientific Association of Vancouver, which played an important early role from 1894 onwards in the development of art in Vancouver.

Information provided courtesy of ECUAD Library and Archives