The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb

The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb

Adrienne Brown

Reviewed by Maria Tippett

Everyone has met artists who triumphed at art school, who showed some promise following graduation, but who then vanished from the art world. The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb tells such a story -- and twice over. There is much to learn from this impassioned study written by the couple’s daughter, Adrienne Brown.

The story revolves around Vancouver’s post-Second World War cultural institutions. Jessie Hetherington joined the Vancouver School of Art’s Saturday Morning Junior Classes at the age of nine in 1938. Eight years later she became a full-time student at the School of Art. It was here that she met her fellow-student Harry Webb: two years older, Toronto-born, and a former merchant-marine cadet officer.

Far from being on the edge of nowhere, as Emily Carr would have us believe, post-war Vancouver was an exciting place to be for any Modernist artist. Painters Donald Jarvis and Takao Tanabe had just returned from Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they had studied with the non-objective artist, Hans Hofmann. During his wartime tour of Britain, Jack Shadbolt had been smitten by the paintings of Graham Sutherland. And Shadbolt’s colleague at the Vancouver School of Art, Lionel Thomas, had recently studied with Mark Rothko in San Francisco.

Jessie and Harry Webb revelled in this eclectic atmosphere of artistic movements. Their watercolour paintings and linocut prints reflected the abstract and non-objective styles of their teachers. They also reflected their love of jazz, seen in Harry’s work, Japanese Jazz (1953). Caught up in the Art in Living Group that promoted good design in art, architecture, and interior decoration, both artists also made the city the subject of their work. Jessie produced linocuts titled West End Waterfront and Low Rent District in 1950, while Harry created a series of works related to Vancouver’s cityscape.

The Webbs not only produced works that found a place at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s 100 Years of B.C. Art in 1958, they teamed up with the accomplished printer and designer Robert Reid to design magazine and art catalogue covers. Jessie even adapted and created a mural for a poolside cabana during the province’s centennial year.

None of these activities enabled the Webbs to live as full-time artists. Harry worked at the post office and took on various other jobs outside of Vancouver. Things improved for him in 1955 when he joined Desmond Muirhead & Associates and began a long career as a landscape architect.

While Harry’s new job allowed him to apply his art to the design of gardens and malls, Jessie was left trying to make her living as an artist. There were several reasons why she was unsuccessful. For one thing she was working in a medium, the print, that did not have the gravitas of larger oil paintings. More significantly, she and Harry, as their friend Robert Reid suggested, “were never accepted by the ‘middle class’ mentality that prevailed in the mainstream of Vancouver art.”  Reid argued: “To be successful, you had to attend the right cocktail parties and be invited to Lawren Harris’s and things like that, but Harry and Jessie preferred to hang around my printing shop....” (42).

Plagued with depression and bouts of drinking in equal measure, Jessie grew apart from her family. In 1972 the couple divorced: Harry took custody of their daughter Adrienne, now fourteen; Jessie moved back with her parents, by then retired. She supported herself by taking on a series of jobs, including waitressing. But she also continued to paint and make prints. And, convinced that public recognition would come, Jessie began re-framing her own and Harry’s work a few years before she died in 2011.

There is no doubt that Harry and Jessie Webb’s early work was as good as anyone else’s in Vancouver. Yet lacking a patron or a private income, and having no inclination to enter the middle-class establishment, their fate confirmed many of Reid’s worst fears. Mother Tongue Publishing is to be congratulated for launching its timely Unheralded Artists of BC Series, and Adrienne Brown commended for retrieving the reputations of two artists who had never previously made it into the history books, and for ensuring that they are not forgotten today.

The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb
Adrienne Brown
Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue Publishing Ltd. 2014. 144 pp. $34.95 paper

BC Studies 188 (Winter 2016)