The Life and Art of Ina D.D. Uhthoff

The Life and Art of Ina D.D. Uhthoff

Christina Johnson-Dean

Reviewed by Maria Tippett

Like many female artists of her generation, Ina D.D. Uhtoff, née Campbell, had a difficult time sustaining a career as a professional artist. The daughter of middle-class Scottish parents, she did not lack opportunity. In 1905, the sixteen-year-old girl entered the Glasgow School of Art, then at the peak of international influence, where she came under the influence of the superb draftsman Maurice Greiffenhagen. Nor was Ina without talent. Following her graduation in 1912 she exhibited with the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts and the Royal Scottish Academy (though the author does not tell us how her work was received). Moreover, Ina was adventurous. In 1913 she travelled to British Columbia to visit friends who were homesteading at Crawford Bay on the east side of Kootenay Lake.

During her year in British Columbia, Uhtoff captured the Creston Valley landscape and the cityscape of Vancouver in sharply defined pen-and-ink sketches. And she met the homesteader, Edward “Ted” Uhthoff. The couple’s ensuing romance was interrupted by the outbreak of the Great War. Ted crossed the Atlantic with the 54th Kootenay Batallion and saw action at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. Ina returned to Glasgow where, after qualifying as an art teacher, she taught at elementary schools, and even had a solo exhibition of her Canadian work. (Again, we are not told how that work was received).

The couple married at the end of the war and returned to the Kootenays, but things were never the same. Ina found it difficult to cope with the physical work on the ranch, especially after she became a mother -- by 1922 there were two children. Mentally damaged by his wartime experiences, Ted as well as their children needed Ina’s support.

After re-locating to Victoria in the mid-1920s, Ina gave private art lessons and taught at public and private schools. She designed and administered a correspondence course in art. She became an art critic for the local newspaper. She helped established the Little Centre -- the forerunner of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, of which she later became a board member when it opened it 1951. And she established her own art school: the Victoria School of Art, which ran from 1926 to 1942.

Johnson-Dean admirably demonstrates the extent to which Uhtoff was an inspiring teacher and competent art administrator. The book shows how she helped shape the cultural history of the city; and equally how she never fell down on the job as mother. What Johnson-Dean does not do, however, is tell us enough about the development of Uhtoff’s art.

It is not enough to quote from newspaper reviews; or simply to list the contents of an artist’s work; or to expect illustrations of the paintings and drawings to speak for themselves. Uhtoff’s stunning wartime painting, Girl Welder at Work (1943), deserves comparison with other artists who worked in munitions plants. We need to know why the artist made the occasional foray into non-objective painting when she was clearly unsympathetic to that genre. I would have liked Johnson-Dean to have taken a stab at dating the works; to have shown the extent to which Uhtoff’s training at the Glasgow School of Art underpinned her vision throughout her career; and, above all, to show the degree to which Uhtoff’s work was derivative of Emily Carr, the Group of Seven, among other artists.

The book prompts us to venture further into counterfactual history. Would Ina Uhthoff’s paintings have been any different if she had lived in central Canada? Or even in Vancouver, where she would have come into contact with more artists and more ideas? What if the constraints of teaching, reviewing, and raising a family had given her more time to devote to her work? Or was she doomed, like most female artists of her generation, to the tasks of teaching and reviewing and making a living as best she could? These are some of the questions prompted by Christina Johnson-Dean’s valuable biography, which could have enhanced our understanding of Uthoff’s work and the process under which she created it.

The Life and Art of Ina D.D. Uhthoff
By Christina Johnson-Dean
Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue Publishing, 2012. 128 pp, $32.95 paperback

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.

BC Studies 178 (Summer 2013)