Emily Carr: Ahead of her Time
By Melissa Montgomery
Born in Victoria on a stormy night in December 1871, Emily Carr was the last of five children. Her nickname was ‘Small’. Her mother, also named Emily, was sickly and frail. Emily was raised in what is called the ‘old English’ style in which children were neither seen nor heard. Young Emily was an exception to this rule- she was her father’s favourite and she walked with him to and from work every day at his wholesale goods store. That store is still there today.
Emily did her first drawing (of the family dog) at age eight using a charred stick and a paper bag. Her father signed it for her. Her mother scolded her for getting her apron dirty. Emily began instruction in drawing when she was very young. Resident artists in the neighborhood were only too pleased to teach ‘Small”. Emily wanted to go to London England to study but her dreams were cut short when her mother died in 1886. Years of childbearing and miscarriages had finally taken their toll on Emily’s mother’s body. Heartbroken, Emily’s father passed away two years later in 1888.
Emily sent some of her drawings to the California School of Design and was accepted. In 1889, Emily Carr left Victoria BC and travelled to San Francisco California to pursue her study of drawing. She remained in San Francisco until 1893 when she returned to Victoria. Emily was introduced to what would become her life’s work in 1898 when she took a trip to Ucluelet on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. She was mesmerized by the large trees and the abundance of native art.
In 1899 Emily travelled to England and continued her studies in drawing and painting. She remained in England for five years. Ill health brought her back to Canada. Upon her return to Victoria she took a post as a cartoonist for the Victoria paper “The Week”. Emily then moved to Vancouver and then took another trip up the west coast by boat to Alaska, determined to see more native art. With this experience under her belt, Emily travelled to France in hopes of absorbing the ‘new’ culture of art that was taking place there: cubism and the use of bright colors. Emily was determined to expose herself to this latest trend. It is to be noted that it was most unusual for a single woman to travel this much at this time. It was also unusual at this time for young women to have a career and not be married. But Emily was ahead of her time.
In 1912, Emily returned once more to the west coast of Vancouver Island and armed with what she has learnt in Paris, she took a six week trip up the west coast of Vancouver Island and visited fifteen First Nations Villages. Now Emily was ready to paint. She returned to Victoria and painted. The paintings were exhibited in Vancouver BC at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Emily’s art took a twenty year break while Emily then became a landlady at the famous House of all Sorts. Like many artists, Emily struggled financially and running a boardinghouse was a good living, but unfortunately she had not time to paint. Her years as a landlady were later chronicled in her novel, the House of all Sorts, published in 1944- one year before her death.
In 1927, Emily was introduced to Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada. She was invited to exhibit her work at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and she met many of the artists who later were to become the Group of Seven. Their work influenced her greatly and from 1928 to the 1940’s was the period when Emily painted her famous trees and totem poles. Unfortunately, her health was beginning to fail and her doctor wanted her to slow down. Emily began to write.
In 1941 the non-fiction book Klee Wyck was published for which she won the Governor General’s Award. Emily’s new career was born. In 1944, The Book of Small was published. Emily died in 1945 and several more her books were posthumously published. Emily was a woman ahead of her time: an artist, a writer and wholly independent.