Victoria, British Columbia: Illuminating Emily Carr


The Fairmont Empress Hotel


Water Taxi

A tour guide quipped that Victoria, British Columbia is home to newlyweds, the nearly dead, and flower beds. Honeymooners, retired folks, and gardeners—as well as many others—will find much to like in this lovely city with its Inner Harbor dominated by the stately Fairmont Empress Hotel. Floatplanes take off and land at the rate of thousands per year. It’s even possible to fly into the cove near world-famous Butchart Gardens to check out the recovered limestone quarries that display formal and informal landscaping. Checker Taxis of the water kind dart about the harbor carrying passengers.

ForestLoverMy favorite way to enter a new landscape is through books. Victoria did not disappoint. Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover, a fictional account of painter Emily Carr, provides history and art simultaneously. Who was Emily Carr? Often paired with Georgia O’Keefe and Frida Kahlo, Carr (1871-1945) is considered a truly Canadian artist who depicted First Nations people and their culture with sensitivity and emotion. The youngest of five sisters, only one of whom married, she was a rebel who defied family to study art. Her family, and, in fact, Victoria and Vancouver society at large, could not understand her fascination with “Indian things.” She did not carry with her the prejudices that permeated her social class.

Living on next to nothing, in spite of a trust that was gripped in the iron hand of elder sisters, Carr traveled—a woman alone—to remote native villages to capture in water colors the totem poles and other figures that were rapidly being sold or taken to museums and collectors.

“My mind was made up [after seeing what had been done as a tourist site at Sitka]. I was going to picture the totem poles in their village settings, as complete a collection of them as I could.”

Canadian government outlawed totem poles for nearly 70 years (1884-1951). The painful history of subjugating First Nations culture surfaced in Truth and Reconciliation talks in June, 2015, particularly the horrific treatment of children in residential schools, leading government officials to apologize for past offenses.

Carr painted initially in watercolor as oil was prohibited for women. Eventually, she studied in Paris with post-Impressionists, who influenced her later work. The “Group of Seven,” artists who had been accepted by the Canadian Establishment touted her work.


Emily Carr Childhood Home & Museum

Vreeland traces her history from outcast to highly regarded artist representing Western Canada and British Columbia. She fails to note, however, that Carr, unsuccessful as a painter, made her name first as a writer. (And, Vreeland takes some license with facts in this novel.) A visit to the Emily Carr Family Home in Victoria reveals that Carr penned multiple books, some featuring the hapless tenants of her boarding house and others focusing on her own life: Klee Wyck, The Book of Small (1942), The House of All Sorts (1944), and (published posthumously) Growing Pains (1946), Pause, The Heart of a Peacock (1953), and Hundreds and Thousands (1966). The cats in residence continue her legacy through a blog! Her work is to be found in her childhood home, the Victoria Art Gallery, and the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Royal Museum of British Columbia in Victoria also has a good collection, but it may not be on view. Carr’s work can fetch as much as $1.5 million in the current art market.

In addition to the work about and by Carr, several book titles illuminate Victoria’s past and present.

  • The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by Jack Valliant (award winning nonfiction)
  • Read an excellent essay in The New Yorker about how Hollywood star John Barrymore stole a Totem Pole (which eventually wound up in Vincent Price’s backyard) to understand how native peoples so often lost their heritage. (This particular totem pole was from southeastern Alaska, but the same story is played out time and time again at coastal villages.)   Source:
  • Before I Wake, Robert J Wiersema, 2006 (seems to be about a tragic accident involving a child but then turns supernatural)
  • I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven. This is a classic book about a terminally ill priest who goes to live in a First Nations Village. Admittedly, I have some difficulty with the disastrous consequences of Christianity imposed on native peoples, but this is a beautifully written story about one man coming to terms with his own death. A film was made near Tofino in 1972.
  • Stanley Evans writes “Touchwood Mysteries” series, featuring Silas Seaweed, a Coast Salish cop, and these are set in Victoria. Seaweed on Ice (2010) focuses on the recovery of Nazi-stolen works of art.
  • Rebecca Godfrey writes realistic, young adult novels such as The Torn Skirt (2008). Victoria is not all manicured flowerbeds.
  • Voyages of Hope: The Saga of the Bride Ships by Peter Johnson, the story of women from England, who in 1862, sailed into Victoria as potential brides.
  • Carol Anne Shaw writes mystery/supernatural books for young readers: Hannah and the Spindle Whorl and Hannah and the Salish Sea.
  • Innocent Cities, by Jack Hodgins (set in 19th century)
  • Vancouver Island Scoundrels, Eccentrics, and Originals: Tales from the Library Vault, by Stephen Ruttan (2013)

A geographic note: Victoria is on Vancouver Island; however, Vancouver is not. It is on the mainland. Victoria can be reached only by sea or air and has no connecting roads or bridges–which is how the city wishes it to remain.


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