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

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