Emily Carr, Canadian artist and writer - by Rosalie Warren

There’s nothing like starting the new year with a new enthusiasm, interest, hobby, craze, obsession – whatever you care to call it. You may remember that my last month’s Authors Electric piece came from Vancouver, British Columbia, where I was having a wonderful stay with my daughter Em. Rather than generally continuing to rave about Vancouver this month – something I could very easily do – I will home in on a discovery I made on an earlier visit, which grabbed me even more tightly this time.

Emily Carr. No, not my daughter Emily, though I sometimes wonder why so many of my favourite people have the name ‘Emily’. There’s Emily Brontë, of course, and Emily Dickinson. My dear grandmother was called Emily, which is partly why my daughter has that name. And now a new Emily joins my list. Some of you may well know Emily Carr and her work better than I do, but for those who don’t, she was a British Columbian artist, born in Victoria, Vancouver Island, who worked in the first half of the twentieth century. An adventurous and ambitious young woman, she went first to San Francisco and then spent time in London and France training to be an artist. From her early career she had great interest in the First Nations peoples of B.C., and respected their art and culture in a way that was rare in those times. First Nations totems, boats and dwellings feature in much of her early work. As time went on, and following her stay in Europe, she was influenced by the expressionists and Scottish colourists before going on to develop a later, modernist style that was very much her own.

'The Little Pine' by Emily Carr (1871-1945). 1931. Vancouver Art Gallery

Recognition came late in life for her – giving her only a few years of what might be called ‘success’ before her death at the age of 74 in 1945. She had mixed feelings about the fame she eventually achieved, admitting that the money was useful but being essentially a modest person who liked to be left alone to get on with her work. Alone, that is, if you discount her menagerie of pets – mostly dogs but including a monkey – who accompanied her on many of her extended painting trips into the forests of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. She had a restored caravan she called the Elephant, housing her and her pets, which she would park up in the woods and then get to work on her painting. The animals were clearly very well loved and cared for. She never married, and in her middle years made a living by being a landlady to a succession of tenants, struggling to find time for her art between cleaning up after them, whitewashing walls, looking after the garden and cooking meals. Oh, and helping them sort out their personal lives, organise their weddings and so on. All this is told with great energy and humour in part of Carr’s autobiography (oh, yes, she was a writer too), The House of All Sorts. She also wrote short stories based on her own life, the community in which she lived and, once again, the First Nations people, whose traditional tales she absorbed and loved. She was way ahead of her time in being interested in the conservation of both the natural and the cultural environment.

'British Columbia Indian Village' by Emily Carr. 1928-1930. Vancouver Art Gallery.
I was lucky enough to see two exhibitions of Carr’s work while in Vancouver: the permanent collection in Vancouver Art Gallery and a second exhibition at the equally wonderful Audain Art Museum at the ski resort of Whistler, a couple of hours up into the Rockies from Vancouver. I came home with several books about Carr, some prints, of course, and a calendar featuring her work. 

What is so special about her art? Emily Carr was clearly obsessed by the landscape of her homeland, and in particular its trees. If I tell you that, walking among her paintings, I could smell the richness of the undergrowth, maybe that gives you a clue. That’s how vividly she portrays the life of trees, especially cedars and pines. If you love trees as I do, you may well love her work too. As time went on her trees became increasingly abstract, and she tells in her biography of her struggles to capture them in paint. Rarely was she satisfied with a finished piece of work, or if she was, she didn’t say so in her diary. She was always trying to get closer to her subjects, to do better. It’s all about the light, of course, and how it falls through the branches. It’s also about the quietness of the deep forest. If ever a work of art could foster synaesthesia, hers do. Some of her later pieces contrast young trees with the mature ones, and you sense she is reflecting on her time of life.

'Young Tree' by Emily Carr. 1931. Vancouver Art Gallery.

I hope I’ve begun to explain why Emily Carr’s work means so much to me. I found myself wandering, semi-lost, among the pines and cedars of Stanley Park, Vancouver, looking at the winter sunlight caught up in the branches and tangles in a way I’d never quite seen it before. I can’t wait to go back there and see both the reality and the way she portrayed it so perfectly again.

Sunlight through trees in Stanley Park, Vancouver, Dec 2017

You can find out more about Emily Carr and view some of her paintings on the Vancouver Art Gallery website here, but if you ever get the chance I'd strongly recommend you go and see her work in Vancouver and elsewhere for yourself. 

For her stories, diaries, etc and the many books about Emily Carr and her work, see her Amazon page here. If you are interested in this fascinating woman, I'd particularly recommend her journal, where she tells with vivid detail and a lot of humour of her struggles with life, her sisters and her art.

Happy New Year!

Best wishes,

Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren


Umberto Tosi said…
You paint a vivid, intriguing portrait of Emily Carr. Now I want to read more about her and see her works up close. I've always been captivated by those same kinds of natural settings. The cathedral-like forests of American Northwest evoke deep spiritual consciousness that instantly overrides my normally sceptical rationality. Thanks for another engaging post, Rosalie!
Rosalie Warren said…
Thank you, Umberto. I hope you enjoy finding out more about Emily Carr. Like you, I am a rationalist in many ways - with the exception of when I am in a forest or beside the sea.
Kathleen Jones said…
Thanks Ros. I love her paintings and her books.and it was great to visit her house. But even better to spend time on the islands that she painted. Very special. Wish I could get back to BC.
Rosalie Warren said…
Kathleen, I would love to visit Haida Gwaii! Perhaps on one of my trips to Vancouver I will get there (I have your book). I have been to Victoria but did not know about Emily Carr at the time.

Hope you can get back to BC sometime.
Jane said…
Emily has been a powerful influence on my life.

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