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Art Inspired by the Canadian Rockies, Purcell Mountains and Selkirk Mountains, 1809-2012

By Nancy Townshend

Review By Maria Tippett

May 18, 2017

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017  | p. 216-217


As Nancy Townshend writes in the preface of Art Inspired by the Canadian Rockies, Purcell Mountains and Selkirk Mountains, 1809-2012: “At one time, the Canadian Rockies, Purcell Mountains, and Selkirk Mountains existed as a tabula rasa (v).” By the end of her admirable study Townshend leaves no doubt that this area, covering some 251,997 square kilometers, has been subjected to every style — from romantic realist to post modernist — and to every medium, from oil and watercolour paint and aluminum to wood.

Townshend divides her study into three parts. What she calls “The Traditional Era (1809-1899)” includes the tentative early-nineteenth century watercolor drawings of the explorer David Thompson, the more accomplished paintings of Lucius O’Brien and Frederic Bell-Smith, along with the photographs of William McFarlane Notman, Richard Henry Trueman, and Byron Harmon. The next section, “Introduction to the Modern Era (1900-1971),” focuses on the early twentieth century British painter John Singer Sargent, the interwar artists Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald, and the post-war painters Peter Whyte and Catharine Robb White. And the final section of this book, “Introduction to the Contemporary Era (1972-2012),” considers lesser well-known artists including painter Kent Monkman and photographers Jin-me Yoon and Jan Kabatoff.

Choosing representative artists of each era might have led to the omission of some well deserving people. However, Townshend avoids this by adding more artists to her three blocks of illustrations. Thus painters John Fraser and John Curren are included in part one; painter Jack B. Taylor and photographers Bruno Engler and Nicholas Morant in part two; and work by sculptor Tony Bloom, potter Les Manning, and photographer Craig Richards, among many others, are tipped into the third block of illustrations.

Is Townshend’s catch-up manoeuver successful? One can argue that it was better to include the “also ran” than to leave them out. And, to her credit, Townshend does mention their names in the introduction to each section thereby contextualizing their work within her narrative covering two centuries of art. However, I would have liked to have learned more about them.

I got the most out of Art Inspired by the Canadian Rockies, Purcell Mountains and Selkirk Mountains by simply looking at the beautifully produced illustrations. Doing so convinced me that soaring mountain peaks, banks of conifers that can be pulled in and out of a painting like pieces of stage scenery, and lakes that give an upside-down view of the landscape are as valid a motif for contemporary painters as they were in the nineteenth century. I noted that the push-pull between the fore and the backgrounds is at work in Byron Harmon’s 1924 photograph Ascending Jonas Pass, just as it is in Tony Bloom’s aluminum sculpture Landbuoy (2011), Peter von Tiesenhausen’s installation Sanctuary (2012), and Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan’s Lesbian National Parks & Services (1997). Even Ed Bamiling’s In the Beginning – #11 (2009), which avoids any realistic rendering of the mountain landscape, nevertheless evokes an image of the igneous rocks that formed on the Canadian Shield during the Precambrian era and resonate with the ancient geological formations of the Rockies.

If any book’s illustrations can inspire a reviewer to make these kinds of observations then the author has done a good job. Let us hope that Nancy Townshend is planning a sequel to this volume that will allow her to give all the artists she illustrates in this volume their just desserts.

Art Inspired by the Canadian Rockies, Purcell Mountains and Selkirk Mountains, 1809-2012
Nancy Townshend
Calgary: Bayeux Arts Inc, 2012. 160 pp. $24.95 paper.