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Review

Emily Carr in England

By Kathryn Bridge

Emily Carr: Sister and I in Alaska

By David P. Silcox

January 29, 2015

Review By Maria Tippett

 

It is Emily Carr season once again. This time the focus is different. In the past we have had detailed biographies, beginning with my own, Emily Carr: A Biography in 1979 and, more recently, Susan Crean’s semi-autobiographical The Laughing One: A Journey with Emily Carr in 2001. When political correctness seeped into art history in the late 1990s a spate of exhibitions attempted to convince us that Emily Carr culpably appropriated the culture of the First Nations people for use in her paintings and short stories. But exhibitions like the National Gallery of Canada’s Emily Carr, New Perspectives on a Canadian Icon (2006) demonstrated how misleading it is to serve a current political agenda rather than enlighten our understanding of the subject under consideration.

Ever since she died in March 1945, the price for a painting by Emily Carr has continued to rise. Long gone are the days when one could walk into her sister Alice Carr’s modest Victoria cottage and purchase an oil-on-paper for twenty-five dollars. And her reputation has appreciated likewise. New editions of her books have ensured that the next generation will have access to Carr’s writings. In 2012 the artist’s inclusion in the prestigious Documenta — the international showcase for modern and contemporary art at Kassel, Germany — elevated Carr’s work to international status. And in 2014 Britain’s Dulwich Picture Gallery gave Carr her London debut by mounting the exhibition From Forest to the Sea, Emily Carr in British Columbia.

What is to come next?

Carr was a consummate doodler. This was especially true when she was away from home. During the early 1970s I came across what Carr referred to as a “funny book.” It charted, in doggerel verse and pen-and-ink sketches, a bicycle trip that Carr made in 1895 with two other women from Duncan to Cowichan Bay. There are other unpublished “funny books” including one that captures Carr’s student days at the California School of Art and Design in San Francisco. And there are a myriad of sketches executed by Carr when she worked as a cartoonist: first for the short-lived Victoria newspaper The Week, then for Vancouver’s Western Woman’s Weekly. Some of these cartoon sketches have been published: Pause: A Sketch Book appeared in 1953 and Sister and I: From Victoria to London in 2011. Now we have editions of two more “funny books:” Kathryn Bridge’s Emily Carr in England and David P. Silcox’s Emily Carr, Sister and I in Alaska.

A curator at the Royal BC Museum, Kathryn Bridge has a mission: “to bring forward to the wider public the rich and important archive of Emily Carr held by the Royal BC Museum” (5). Focusing on the years that Carr spent in England — 1899 to 1904 — and drawing on correspondence and several visual sources, Bridge gives us a rich, though rather tediously written, account of Carr’s life as a student at art schools in London and St. Ives, Cornwall, and as a rooming-house boarder and visitor among her new English acquaintances. We are also promised a “new chronological ordering of Carr’s almost five-year stay in England (5).” Thus Bridge not only challenges the time-line established by “Carr’s foundational biographers” (5) but by Carr herself: most notably in Growing Pains: The Autobiography of Emily Carr that was published a year after her death, in 1946.

There is much to learn from this re-ordering of the years that Carr spent in England. And there is also much that is new. We learn that in 1901 Carr travelled to France where, as she wrote to her Victoria friend, Mary Cridge, “the picture galleries were my great delight” (91). Bridge also convincingly shows that far from being lonely, as Carr would have us believe in her autobiographical writings, she had plenty of friends and was popular in her mischievous attention-getting way. But Bridge is less persuasive when it comes to explaining what led to the breakdown that put Carr in an East Anglia sanatorium for more than a year. Was it her brother’s death? Or news that her oldest sister Clara was to undergo an operation for breast cancer? Or was it the feeling, as Bridge also suggests, that she was not making enough progress in her art studies? Or was there something else — perhaps like the event that occurred during adolescence between Emily and her father, Richard Carr? This is territory that Bridge is reluctant to explore.

In a book devoted largely to the visual image, Bridge tells us almost nothing about the cartoon sketches themselves. As we can see, all of them were executed with a steady hand, with imaginative flair, and in various styles: from quickly executed graphite studio sketches, to spare pen and ink cartoon drawings, to colourfully finished cartoons. But how does this work relate to the cartoons she later produced for the newspapers? Does her bold use of colour suggest that, during her short visit to Paris, she might have seen exhibitions like the Exposition d’oeuvres de Vincent Van Gogh at the Galerie Bernheim Jeune? It is also worth asking whether other student-artists of her generation produced similar “funny books.”

Bridge gives equally little attention to the doggerel verse that accompanies Carr’s cartoon sketches. Were they an emotional outlet? Are they a reliable source for chronicling Carr’s years in London? And what about the style of writing? Did it play into her later short-fiction pieces?

Unlike Kathryn Bridge, in Emily Carr: Sister and I in Alaska David Silcox does address Carr’s artistic style in the sketches at hand. He notes Carr’s “remarkably keen ability to render a scene with strong composition, in perfect scale and vivid colour, and in watercolour, that most unforgiving of mediums” (8). Nor is Silcox afraid of discussing Carr’s doggerel verse. He notes how Carr delighted in making up phrases and words for effect and how her idea of narrative “was a series of small, isolated anecdotes, vividly described” (9). It must be said that there is little new in Silcox’s brief essay charting the trip that took the two Carr sisters to Alaska in 1907. But the publication of Carr’s doodles and doggerel verse in both volumes, along with the chronological re-ordering of Carr’s years in England, serves a useful function and gives future scholars of Emily Carr much to build on.

Emily Carr in England
Kathryn Bridge
Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum, 2014. 158 pp. $27.95 cloth

Emily Carr: Sister and I in Alaska
David P. Silcox
Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishing, 2014. 124 pp. $22.95 cloth