National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 25, 1975

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click figure 2 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 3 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 4 here for an enlarged image

Emily Carr's "Blunden Harbour'

by Maria Tippett

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  

In his book Victorian Painters, Jeremy Maas states that no other invention ever rendered painting such a service as photography. (1) On various occasions Millais, Rossetti, and other Victorian artists made practical use of the camera. After the discovery of Tanagra in the 1870s, Whistler was able to accurately reproduce the Hellenestic terracotta statuettes and other objects of classical antiquity from an album of photographs. (2) Photography has also been a source of inspiration for Canadian artists. Peter Mellen has noted that the use of a photograph did not detract from Varley's The Sunken Road, but enabled him "to go beyond the photograph to make a powerful statement about the war." (3) A borrowed photograph (fig. I) of British Columbia's Blunden Harbour allowed Emily Carr to portray a native village (fig. 2) where her travels had never taken her.

Blunden Harbour is a small remote Kwakiutl village on a bay in Queen Charlotte Strait. In 1901, Dr Charles Frederick Newcombe, a distinguished anthropologist who had been closely associated with the Provincial Museum in Victoria since 1889, visited and photographed the village. His son, William Arnold, Who was a long-time friend of Emily Carr, "gave her valuable information and loaned her his father's unique photographs." (4) Among these was the 1901 photograph of Blunden Harbour. On the reverse side of Newcombe's Copy is the testimony that "a 4 x 5 negative was loaned to Miss Emily Carr about 1930 by W. A. Newcombe." The inscription continues that "Miss Carr painted Blunden Harbour, now in the National Gallery, Ottawa from it - never having had an opportunity of visiting this village personally." (5)

Carr had begun to take her own photographs in 1912 on her excursion to the Queen Charlotte Islands and the Nass and Skeena Rivers. Kwakiutl House (Vancouver Art Gallery) was painted with the aid of a watercolour sketch, Tsatsinuchomi (Vancouver Art Gallery), and a photograph taken in that village in 1912. (6) After Carr's "discovery" in 1927, material to paint from did not become any more plentiful than before, though access to Newcombe's photographs allowed her to supplement her small collection.

Blunden Harbour's exhibition in the National Gallery's Canadian Annual of 1933 saw it shipped from Victoria in the fall of 1932. The painting was, therefore, rendered between 1927, when her style changed radically, and late 1932, when it was submitted for exhibition.

Blunden Harbour was X-rayed (fig. 3) by the Restoration and Conservation Laboratory of The National Gallery of Canada. The result, here reproduced, shows an entirely different painting beneath. What appears to be giant cedar rendered in the style of Forest, B. C. (fig. 4) (Vancouver Art Gallery), c. 1930, has been overpainted by the Indian motif disqualifying the possibility that Blunden Harbour could have been painted prior to 1930. (7) This new evidence coupled with Newcombe's testimony that the photograph was loaned to "Miss Carr about 1930" means that she painted it between the fall of 1930 and the winter of 1931. Any later date would be unlikely, as the spring of 1931 saw Carr shift completely to forest subjects. She did not return to the Indian theme until the early 1940s.

Carr was often hard-pressed for material from which to paint. Though she travelled north during the summer of 1928 and gathered "quite a bunch of work" (8) it was not sufficient. Paintings from the 1927 Indian and West Coast exhibition, still held by the National Gallery were requested from the gallery's director: "Please Mr Brown...may my watelcolours be sent home to me as soon as possible - I want some of them to work from...." (9) Carr was again strapped in the autumn of 1930. She had been asked by the Seattle Art Institute to stage a solo exhibition in late November. (10) By mid-November she was still working very hard in order to prepare thirty-two canvases for the Seattle show. (11) Even after her preparation of the Seattle show, she continued to find material where she could. Big Raven (Vancouver Art Gallery) was painted from the 1912 watercolour of Cumshewa (National Gallery of Canada) and Zunoqua of the Cat Village (Vancouver Art Gallery) from the sketch Koskimo (Vancouver Art Gallery) made in Fort Rupert in 1929. (12)

Carr, who was turning more to the forest this winter of 1930-1931, had her last fling at the Indian motif for a decade. It was then that she borrowed Willie Newcombe's photograph and, painting over a tree, created her powerful canvas.

The painting is almost identical in composition to the photograph here reproduced. Characteristic of her post-1927 work is the elimination of native figures. The logs in the water and the deciduous trees behind the buildings have also been omitted. The absence of these details, as well as the addition of the clouds and the light coming from behind the work, gives the painting a highly dramatic aura. By her simplification, stylization, and omission, she has surpassed the undifferentiated details of the camera's lens. Shown at the Canadian Annual, National Gallery of Canada, in January 1933; the Croup Exhibition, Library of the University of British Columbia, in February 1935; and the Folk Show, Hotel Vancouver, in November 1936, Blunden Harbour came to rest in 1937 when the National Gallery of Canada purchased the work, which has been called by R. H. Hubbard the most monumental of her post-1927 period and H. Mortimer-Lamb considered the best example of "her greatest period of high achievement." (13)

Next PageNotes

  |  2

Top of this page

Home | Français | Introduction | History
Annual Index | Author & Subject | Credits | Contact

This digital collection was produced under contract to Canada's Digital Collections program, Industry Canada.

"Digital Collections Program, Copyright © National Gallery of Canada 2001"