Friday, 27 September 2013



Emily Carr is probably the best-known Canadian artist to have depicted Northwest Coast First Nations subject matter. Walter J. Phillips is also well known for his interpretations of the native villages at Alert Bay, Mamalilicoola, and Karlukwees; they both excelled at the depiction of totem poles. However, Carr and Phillips were by no means the only artists to have travelled into the more remote regions of the Pacific Northwest to lend their artistic impressions of the First Nations subject matter they encountered. By the end of the 1920s the popularity of taking sketching trips to the Skeena River Region or the West Coast to document the native villages and their totem poles was at a peak. Artists from all over the country and abroad were arriving to sketch. Joana Simpson Wilson, a proficient watercolourist, arrived at Alert Bay from Scotland in 1919 and observed the customs and designs on the First Nations people of the village. Today, many of her observations are in the National Archives of Canada.

Already by the late 19th century in Europe and North America, there existed the concept of documenting the art, culture and customs of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. This was in response to the prevailing perception that indigenous cultures were both threatened and in decline. The consensus amongst anthropologists, government bodies, and interested parties was that raising awareness about First Nations communities through the proliferation of art, literature and photography would lead to cultural tourism to these communities; and thus, ultimately towards official support for the restoration and preservation of First Nations traditions. In Canada, none supported this notion more fervently than the anthropologist, Marius Barbeau.

Marius Barbeau believed that both exposure and tourism were the key paths to the preservation of First Nations art and culture. Barbeau and artist Langdon Kihn teamed up with publicists of the Canadian National Railway to promote cultural tourism in British Columbia. There was eventual further collaboration with Indian Affairs and the government; whereby, a Totem Pole Restoration Programme was established. It focused on restoring the totem poles of well-travelled tourist routes. Curiously, the restored totem poles were often repositioned in order to face tourist paths more directly. Barbeau travelled with Kihn and later with other artists such as A.Y. Jackson, Edwin Holgate, and Anne Savage to the Skeena River region to document the totem poles of First Nations communities. He published detailed reference guides of the totem poles in the region, and assisted the Canadian National Railway making promotional materials. He ultimately was instrumental in organizing the 1927 National Gallery exhibition Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern with director Eric Brown. The continual use of Northwest Coast imagery in Canadian western art is now historically interesting in it’s own right.

Although the late 1920s was a peak time for artists travelling to sketch the Pacific Northwest, it is worth noting that artists were exploring and rendering the indigenous inhabitants of British Columbia as far back as the late 18th century through the opening years of the 20th century. Professional and amateur photographs from the late 19th to early 20th century have been paramount in preserving Northwest Coast First Nations art and culture. The Victoria-based photographer Richard Maynard accompanied ethnologists to the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1884 and documented villages and individual totem poles in his photographs. Edward Dossetter captured village architecture and life in the 1880s as well. Into the early 20th century, advances in technology allowed for silver gelatin printing directly onto postcard paper. These real photograph postcards were collected as a means of remembering vacations, and at Alert Bay where cultural tourism already existed there are many well-known images from 1910-1920 by photographers Emily Ferryman and Reverend Pedersen. The Alert Bay real photograph postcards in this show were all from the 1919 trip of a Boston gentleman, Howard Sprague.

Emily Carr and Historical Views of the Northwest Coast offers a glimpse at the various art forms that have been used to document and aestheticize the art and culture of the Pacific Northwest. The show cover historical photography from Vancouver Island, Alert Bay region and the Skeena region; as well as exhibits works by key artists that are known for their involvement in rendering First Nations art in British Columbia and the wilderness landscape, such as Emily Carr, Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, W.J. Phillips, Anne Savage, Pegi Nicol McLeod. The perseverance and excellence of these artists have made the subject of the Northwest Coast as iconic as the hills of Old Quebec, the shores of Georgian Bay and the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

By: Jill Turner

Photo Credits:

1. Emily Carr, Totem Pole 1912, watercolour, 22 x 18 in. On loan online from a private collection for the exhibition Emily Carr and Historical Views of the Northwest Coast

2. Joanna S. Wilson, Alert Bay, watercolour, circa 1919-1923

3. John Webber, Natives outside a Communal House, Nootka, British Columbia, drawing sketch, 1778, from the National Archives of Canada, C-002822

4. John Webber, At Nootka Sound, watercolour, 1778, from the Peabody Museum at Harvard University

5. Book covers of Marius Barbeau's publications

6. Map Showing the Position of Indian Villages in the 1973 facsimile edition of Barbeau's 'Totem Poles of the Gitksan, Upper Skeena River, British Columbia,' in Bulletin No. 61, Anthropological Series no. 12 Canada Dept. of Mines

7. James Blomfield, Cannery Store circa 1900, etching, from the Vancouver City Archives and published in Printmaking in British Columbia 1889-1983. Blomfield was an English illustrator who lived in B.C. for 6 years and documented Native art and design at the turn of the century.

8. and 9. Two historical photographs of Alert Bay from the first quarter of the Twentieth century

10., 11., and 12. Snapshots of the Gallery getting ready for the exhibition and sale Emily Carr and Historical Views of the Northwest Coast

Saturday, 7 September 2013



Alert Bay will feature prominently in our upcoming exhibition Emily Carr and Historical Views of the Northwest Coast, which starts on September 28th, 2013. In anticipation for the show, this latest blog post is all about Alert Bay and Canadian Art associated with it. Stay tuned for more blog updates once the show commences.

Alert Bay has long been considered a place of prominence for First Nations art and culture in British Columbia. It has been home to some of the most influential Northwest Coast carvers in the late 19th/ and 20th century; including Charlie James, Mungo Martin, Ellen Neel, and Henry Hunt. Thus, a considerable amount of exceptional visual imagery exists, or is associated with, Alert Bay considering the minute size of the village.

Consequently, for over a century the village of Alert Bay has been attracting artists working in the western tradition, as well as photographers, and tourists. Most visitors were keen to document their trips; and this was achieved through photography, souvenirs, and sketches. Although many visiting artists set out with the intention of accurately documenting the artistic features of the village; it has since been noted that there are discrepancies, inaccuracies and liberties taken for the sake of a pleasing composition. Nevertheless, the history of Alert Bay itself and its inclusion in the history of Canadian art are significant.

The village of Alert Bay did not become incorporated until 1946; at a time where it was reliant on the fishing and logging industries for its prosperity. At this time the village first acquired a bus, taxis, a fire truck, and electricity. However, thriving growth and industry in Alert Bay dates back to the last quarter of the 19th century, and its recorded history to as far back as the 18th century. Cormorant Island was not far from where Captain George Vancouver anchored at the mouth of the Namgis River in the late 18th century. At this time, the Namgis First Nation used Cormorant Island as a resting place for their ancestors, and lived there seasonally. In 1846 the Island received its official name after the H.M.S. Cormorant and in 1858 the bay became Alert Bay after the H.M.S. Alert. A growth in settlement on the Island occurred more fervently in the third quarter of the 19th century, particularly in conjunction with the establishment of a saltery by the entrepreneurial explorers Huson and Spencer. Huson and Spencer convinced the Christian missionary Reverend James Hall to re-locate from Fort Rupert to Alert Bay in 1878, where he established a mission house for teaching First Nations children. Settlement in the village continued to progress; in 1881 a store and cannery were established and in 1886 a sawmill. At around this time Christ Church was built. The town developed throughout the 1890s and through the turn of the century. A hospital was built in 1909 and the first basic telegraph was brought to Alert Bay for communication with the surrounding region.

Emily Carr first visited Alert Bay in 1907 and returned again in 1908 and 1909. She at this point had vowed to document the totem poles of British Columbia. In her journals Carr said that in 1907, “the holidays…I spent in Alaska and are important to my work because I conceived the idea of making a collection of paintings of Indian villages and totem poles.” Around this same time, the professional artists and academician Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith also took a trip to Alert Bay. He was known to have taken his own photographs to assist with later producing canvases. More than Carr, Bell-Smith suggested an interest in the landscape at large around Alert Bay, as his depictions incorporate the bay and mountains beyond. Artists continued to flock to Alert Bay, including Joana Simpson Wilson in 1919 and more famously W.J. Phillips in 1927.

In the first quarter of the 20th century Alert Bay was also a destination spot for many tourists. The Boston travel agency Raymond & Whitcomb organized personalized vacations around North America that included a stop at Alert Bay en route to Alaska. One tourist from Boston, Howard Sprague amassed an album of photographs and real photograph postcards to document his extended North American tour, along with his original trip itinerary. With the album are included many images of the totem poles and buildings of Alert Bay in 1919. The real photograph postcards attest to the interest visitors showed in the artistry of Alert Bay’s totem poles.

As briefly mentioned earlier, Charlie James was a master carver from Alert Bay. In his own time, he was innovative and his style was bold and unique. Later his style would become synonymous with traditional Kwakiutl carving. One of the most prominent features of historic Alert Bay is Charlie James’ Thunderbird and Grizzly poles. The poles tell the creation myth of the thunderbird coming to live with the first ancestors and the grizzly bear later becoming protector of the tribe after the thunderbird returned to his home. These poles are impressive works of art in their own right, and have also become the subject of numerous other works of art by artists such as Emily Carr, W.J. Phillips, and photographers.

By: Jill Turner

Photo credits

1. A carved and painted Charlie James Thunderbird and Grizzly totem pole model

2. WJ Phillips, Totems, Alert Bay colour woodblock print, 1936

3. WJ Phillips, Waterfront, Alert Bay, colour woodblock print, 1928

4. Joanna Simpson Wilson, Alert Bay, watercolour, circa 1919-1923

5. and 6. Real photograph postcards (silver gelatin prints) from the 1919 trip album of Raymond & Whitcomb client Howard Sprague of Boston