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Harold Mortimer-Lamb: The Art Lover

By Robert Amos

Review By Maria Tippett

March 6, 2014

BC Studies no. 184 Winter 2014-2015  | p. 150-52

Harold Mortimer-Lamb lived an extraordinary life — all ninety-nine years of it. Born in England in 1872, he came to British Columbia at the age of seventeen, initially to work on Captain L.N. Agassiz’s Fraser Valley farm. Within two years, however, he had become a free-lance journalist writing for small town newspapers like Chilliwack’s Progress, then as a mining correspondent for Victoria’s The Province. In 1897 he moved to the capital to become director of the Mining Association of British Columbia and editor of the British Columbia Mining Record. Six years later he was editing the Canadian Mining Review and running the Canadian Mining Institute in Montreal. Despite a salary of $3,200 per annum, enormous at that time, Mortimer-Lamb returned to British Columbia in 1920. Until his retirement he was secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Mining Institute’s BC division, executive secretary of the Mining Association of British Columbia, and editor of The British Columbia Miner.

All of this might seem enough to keep any man busy. But Mortimer-Lamb had an extended family. (Kate Mortimer-Lamb, neé Lindsay, bore him six children and the family’s live-in housekeeper, Mary Williams, gave him a seventh child, Molly). And like many men of his class and generation, he had artistic ambitions. Working in the style of Pictorialist photographers he made soft-focus portraits of his family and friends. He exhibited them not only in Victoria and Montreal but also with the Royal Photographic Society in London. He then saw to it that his work — and that of other Canadian photographers — was illustrated and written about in journals like The Amateur Photographer and Photographic News.

Mortimer-Lamb’s aesthetic interests were not confined to photography. In Montreal he took art lessons and became a lay member of the Canadian Art Club. Writing in the Canadian Magazine and Britain’s The Studio, he introduced “modernist” artists like A.Y. Jackson and Tom Thomson to Canadians who had hitherto preferred to collect watered-down European paintings, and to British art connoisseurs who had wondered if there was such a thing as Canadian art.

And Mortimer-Lamb not only put his skills as a journalist at the service of Canadian art and photography. During his many business trips he amassed an enormous collection of paintings, ceramics, and photography. (After his death in 1970, the collection was dispersed between the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Vancouver Museum and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria). He helped found the Vancouver Art Gallery. With fellow photographer John Vanderpant, he established the Vanderpant Galleries in order to promote British Columbia’s artists. A social-networker before that term was invented, Mortimer-Lamb helped launch Emily Carr’s career by bringing her name to the attention of the director of the National Gallery. He was also instrumental in bringing Ontario-based F.H. Varley to the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts in 1926.

Varley is a crucial figure. His art, his teaching, and his love affair with the young art student Vera Weatherbie — whom Mortimer-Lamb would marry in 1942 — play a crucial role in Robert Amos’s Harold Mortimer-Lamb: The Art Lover. Amos justifies this with the claim that Varley’s affair with Weatherbie “has never been fully disclosed” (88). Yet as the biographer of F.H. Varley, I have to point out that this story, like much of what Amos says about Varley, was fully documented in my book Stormy Weather: F.H. Varley, A Biography (1998); so some sense of deja-vu is inevitable.

It is a pity that Amos did not give a more evenly balanced account of Harold Mortimer Lamb’s fascinating life. Certainly there is much more to be said about how Mortimer-Lamb helped create the institutional framework of the nascent mining community in British Columbia and the rest of the country. Amos might have asked why Mortimer-Lamb chose to remain a Pictorialist photographer when his friends — Alfred Stieglitz and John Vanderpant — had embraced Modernism. And why does Amos so readily grant Mortimer-Lamb’s paintings professional status? After all, this artist himself acknowledged that his work “would never really go beyond the status of an inspired amateur” (153-4).

So key questions remain. Did the over-promotion of his watered-down versions of Pierre Bonnard not have something to do with the fact that the people promoting and exhibiting Mortimer-Lamb’s work were his friends and neighbours — many of whom hoped that their institutions would be the beneficiaries of his valuable art collection? Posing, let alone fully answering, such questions would entail more research and further thought. More could be done on this subject in a different kind of book: one that remains to be written.

Harold Mortimer-Lamb: The Art Lover
Robert Amos
Victoria: TouchWood Editions, 2013. 192 pp. $24.95 paper