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Indian Reserve, North Vancouver, c.1905
watercolour on paper
19.4 x 27.1 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of Miss Jean McD. Russell
Alert Bay, Mortuary Boxes, 1908
watercolour and graphite on paper
54.5 x 38.3 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust
Totem Walk at Sitka, c.1907
watercolour on paper
38.5 x 38.5 cm
The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, The Thomas Gardiner Keir Bequest
Street Scene, Alert Bay, c.1908
watercolour on paper
29.9 x 24.8 cm
British Columbia Archives
Early Work (1893-1910)
Emily Carr began her art education at a young age. She took weekly lessons from Emily Woods at her elementary school, and when her public school no longer offered art classes, her father Richard Carr secured private instruction for Emily and her sisters. In nineteenth-century Victoria, art was considered a genteel diversion for both married and unmarried women, but never a serious vocation. After the death of both her parents, Carr persuaded her guardians to allow her to enrol in art school in California. She left Victoria in the summer of 1890 to attend the California School of Design in San Francisco, under the close supervision of friends and family.
The school's pedagogical approach was traditional: students began by drawing antique casts, then progressed to still life and eventually life drawing. Carr took preparatory, antique and landscape classes, but her puritanical upbringing prevented her from attending life-drawing sessions with nude models. In her book Growing Pains, she wrote that she found the outdoor landscape classes to be the most enjoyable, suggesting that her predilection for painting the natural environment en plein air commenced at an early age. Unfortunately, her family's finances were mismanaged and Carr had to leave school. She had shown little improvement after more than three years there: by her own admission, her work from this time was "humdrum and unemotional—objects honestly portrayed, nothing more."1
Carr returned to Victoria in 1893 and began painting small watercolours and holding children's art classes in the cow barn on her family's property. She stuffed her earnings into a shoe suspended from the rafters of the barn and eventually saved enough money to continue her education abroad. Carr selected London over Paris because she was not fluent in French.
Just prior to her transatlantic journey in late 1898 or early 1899, Carr travelled with her sister Lizzie to visit a Presbyterian mission in Ucluelet (Hiiats'uu), a First Nations community on Vancouver Island. A few of her sketches from this trip have survived and are reminiscent of travel illustrations in their close attention to detail and documentary nature. Carr used pencil, pen and ink, and watercolour to depict individuals and village life. Her sketches are static and flat. The pen-and-pencil drawing Three Indian Girls, Ucluelet (c.1898), for example, with its rather stiff human forms, shows that her understanding of figure drawing was immature at the time.
Carr went to London hoping to receive progressive and stimulating education, but the Westminster School of Art, affiliated with the Royal Academy, was still quite conventional. An avid student, she attended day-long life-drawing classes and evening classes in design, anatomy and clay modelling. She became dissatisfied with both the quality of her education and London itself, and joined a summer sketching class in Berkshire after her first year of studies. She returned briefly to Westminster, then left permanently and travelled to the rural art colony in St. Ives, Cornwall. There she practised plein-air seascape and landscape painting with Julius Olsson and his assistant Algernon Talmage. Olsson was a British artist who specialized in sunlit seascapes, and Talmage painted landscapes in the tradition of John Constable. Carr and Olsson quarrelled constantly, but she found Talmage more agreeable: he understood her desire to paint the trees in Tregenna Woods. Here Carr received her first extensive education in outdoor painting and in techniques useful for depicting light.2
In the spring of 1902 she studied with John Whiteley at the Meadows Studio in Bushey, Hertfordshire. Whiteley was a traditional landscape watercolourist who advanced Carr's education in the study of nature. During this time Carr suffered a breakdown, and she spent her final eighteen months in England at a sanitarium in Suffolk, where she was not permitted to paint. Little of her work from this period has survived, probably having fallen victim to one of her many bonfires, but the watercolours she produced upon her return to Canada indicate that her British education did not strengthen the expressive power of her art.
Carr moved to Vancouver after securing a teaching job at the Vancouver Ladies' Art Club and rented a studio at 570 Granville Street. Around this time she befriended Sophie Frank and became a frequent visitor to the Squamish reserve in North Vancouver, Frank's home, where she sketched scenes of Aboriginal life and culture. In works such as Indian Reserve, North Vancouver (c.1905), her sense of depth and perspective are much improved over her earlier studies, and her landscape forms have achieved greater mass. The series of small watercolours that Carr produced in and around Vancouver during this period are uninspired, if accurate, renderings of the subject matter.
A pivotal moment in her career occurred during an Alaskan holiday she took with her sister Alice in 1907. In Sitka, Carr encountered Aboriginal monumental carvings — crest poles, mortuary poles and house frontal poles — for the first time. She sketched in the First Nations village in Sitka and in "Totem Walk," where poles had been "restored" and grouped together for maximum exposure to tourists. There she met an American artist, thought to be Theodore J. Richardson, who was earning his living selling watercolours of Aboriginal villages and carvings in New York. Carr showed him her sketches of Totem Walk, and later she reported that he had been impressed, saying that her work "ha[d] the true Indian flavour."3 At this moment, Carr solidified one aspect of her artistic career: the documentation of what she viewed as the rapidly disappearing culture of First Nations communities.
The Indian people and their Art touched me deeply. By the time I reached home my mind was made up. I was going to picture totem poles in their own village settings, as complete a collection of them as I could...
Indian Art broadened my seeing, loosened the formal tightness I had learned in England's schools. Its bigness and stark reality baffled my white man's understanding. I was as Canadian-born as the Indian but behind me were Old World heredity and ancestry as well as Canadian environment. The new West called me, but my Old World heredity, the flavour of my upbringing, pulled me back. I had been schooled to see outsides only, not struggle to pierce...
Indian Art taught me directness and quick, precise decisions. When paying ten dollars a day for hire of boat and guide, one cannot afford to dawdle and haver [sic] this vantage point against that.
I learned a lot from the Indians, but who except Canada herself could help me comprehend her great woods and spaces? San Francisco had not, London had not. What about this New Art Paris talked of? It claimed bigger, broader seeing.
– "Growing Pains" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 427.
Between 1908 and 1910, Carr spent the summers travelling to First Nations villages throughout British Columbia as part of her documentary project. She had yet to focus her attention on totemic carvings; at this time she painted communities dotted with people and activity, chronicling life as she saw it. She approached her subjects with the conservative watercolour tradition that she had learned while in England. Her tonal range was limited, as in Alert Bay Mortuary Boxes (1908), for example, and she could not yet capture the details and complexities of the carvings, as evidenced in Street Scene, Alert Bay (c.1908). It was not until she went to France, to study the "New Art," that she acquired the skill to depict First Nations subject matter with the power and intensity that became her trademark.
1 Emily Carr, Growing Pains (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1946), p. 99.
2 Maria Tippett, Emily Carr: A Biography (Toronto: Stoddart, 1994), pp. 49-50.
3 Emily Carr, "Growing Pains," The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, ed. Doris Shadbolt (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997), p. 427.