‘From the Forest to the Sea’: Emily Carr and Memory

Emily Carr, A Skidegate Pole, 1941-42

Emily Carr, A Skidegate Pole, 1941-42

What is modern Canadian art? That open question is surprisingly personal. In 2000, I began a BA in Art History at the University of Victoria. I took classes on Canadian art and architecture alongside modules on Islamic design, Mesoamerican art, film studies, and critical theory. My first serious job was as an architectural guide and curatorial assistant in Victoria for the Architectural Institute of British Columbia. Victoria’s architecture taught me how to be an architectural historian, and my first major research project focused on a group of nuns, the Sisters of St Ann, and their art education programme on colonial Vancouver Island. Much of my current research still focuses on the Gothic Revival and on nuns and the arts in the nineteenth century.


Back in Canada my first serious academic paper, in the Art History department’s annual symposium, focused on Alexandra Biriukova, the Russian modernist architect who came to Canada in 1929 after studying with Arnoldo Foschini in Rome. In Toronto Biriukova met the Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, and worked on designs for his sleek white-walled flat-roofed modern house. This was completed in 1931. Later that year, Biriukova gave up on architecture – there were no further opportunities or invitations in Toronto. Was Modernism too much for conservative Canadians? Was the Depression too crippling? Was being a Russian woman in Canada too vast a chasm of difference to overcome? I was 19 when I posed these questions, and it was this architectural project that really brought me strongly into contact with the Group of Seven and with Emily Carr. Like all BC kids, I grew up surrounded by Harris, Thomson, Carr, and the rest. I know their paintings like I know Beatles lyrics – easy to envision, easy to voice, embedded at a mysteriously intuitive level. That does not make their work easy art, and there is a wealth of scholarship and indeed even a kind of discomfiting reverence that attends the Group of Seven in galleries and on bookshelves. This is true of Carr, too, particularly on the west coast.


From November 2014 until March 2015, the Dulwich Picture Gallery is home to a major Emily Carr exhibition, From the Forest to the Sea – it’s the first significant show of Carr’s work in British history. The symposium on 31 October at the gallery demonstrated what a wide and sometimes problematic array of viewpoints circulate in relation to her work. I learned that Carr enthusiasts are so vocal and prevalent that they have a nickname: Cardiacs. Over and over again, I heard scholars and curators (not all, but some at least) refer to her as ‘Emily’. Would any art historian – or indeed member of the public in an exhibition – refer to Paul Gauguin as ‘Paul’? Roger Fry as ‘Roger’? Unlikely. There is a strange and perhaps even irresponsible intimacy that Carr’s work and its historical treatment seems to invite, even amongst her most scholarly attendants. This element aside, the papers were generally stellar and full of new research. Ian Thom, Charles Hill, Kathryn Bridge and Gerta Moray all shed light on who this Canadian artist was, what she was doing, and how her training in the US, London, and Paris and her unique approaches to modernity, form, and encounters with groups of people in a time of crisis shaped Canadian art and indeed shaped modern art.


The director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Ian Dejardin, opened the day’s set of talks with an expression of acute worry that despite his confidence in the exhibition and Dulwich’s strong record of excellent shows on early twentieth-century art, British audiences just wouldn’t get Carr. He suggested that we could use a road-map of influences, demonstrating that Carr’s work resonates with Paul Nash, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Mark Tobey, along with Paul Gauguin and even Eric Ravilious. All this is true, and Carr was particularly engaged with O’Keeffe and Tobey’s work at different points in her long career. But that’s not the point. To what extent is it really necessary to insert Carr’s work into a canon when it’s already established, and permanently, proudly displayed in Canadian collections? Carr to the Vancouver Art Gallery is what Turner is to Tate Britain.


Will visitors to the Dulwich Picture Gallery ‘get’ Carr? I think they will. The work’s subjects, palette, techniques, social contexts – they all communicate whether visitors feel the need to compare it to Nash, or add it to a long list of Cubistic works of art, or smile to themselves when they see links with Gauguin and Van Gogh, or not. I noticed that amongst all the strong arguments and elegant art historical interpretations of Carr, there was a tendency to do two things that always give me cause for pause. These things make me pause precisely because of my deep interest in British twentieth-century art. They are: a) Carr’s work is good because she went to France and admired the Fauves and Cubism and Post-Impressionism; and b) Carr’s work is good because we can locate it at the avant-garde boundary-pressing progressively thrusting edge towards triumphant abstraction. So far, so Greenberg. That these factors are the ultimate standard of modern art, like a big sign hanging outside the threshold of an artist’s oeuvre stating ‘You Must Be This Tall to Ride This Ride’, should trouble us. Their double-claim on modern objects, images, and subjects leaves too much rejected and despised within a twentieth-century art world teeming with vitality and alternative creative directions.


And what of Carr’s main subjects? Primarily, she painted the trees, ocean, sculptures, architecture, and people of the northwest coastal villages of British Columbia. As curator Charles Hill explained at the Dulwich symposium, her work is interpreted as ethnographic, feminist, modernist, proto-ecological, and much else. She evidently wanted to document (and this is a delicate issue in relation to the legacies of ‘primitivism’, undoubtedly), and she was striving to develop a visual language through which the power of the monumental first nations’ visual culture could be translated effectively and expressively into paint, onto canvas, into new contexts, for new audiences. Without attempting to pretend I’m an art historian who knows much about Carr (truly, I don’t), the best material to read that investigates her practice in relation to first nations’ communities is by Ian Thom and Gerta Moray. Both spoke at Dulwich; both were eye-opening. Emily Carr’s paintings were, in part, bearing witness to people in crisis. Here’s an illustrative statistic: in 1900, if you were Haida and you’d survived the quick and deadly smallpox epidemic, 80% of the people you’d known were dead. First nations’ cultural practices were banned and outlawed, and the colonial damage done to native populations and the tragic and complex legacies of this are well-known narratives with ambiguous and all but eschatological conclusions.


At the beginning of this text, I noted that the question of modern Canadian art was a personal one. At the end of the Dulwich symposium, a small group of people walked up to the front of the room carrying drums. Jim Hart, chief of the Haida Nation, spoke about Carr and about Haida history alongside his family and artists from Haida Gwaii who are traveling through the UK visiting museums. They are studying traces of their cultural heritage, from totem poles to textiles, collected and displayed at the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, and elsewhere. They performed several songs, and they explained without hesitation that Carr was an interpreter of Haida material that they respected. One of the musicians has an elderly aunt in Haida Gwaii that remembers Carr during her painting trips. To a room full of white middle-class middle-aged academics (it was a symposium at Dulwich, after all), Hart suggested that visiting Haida Gwaii could not help but deepen understanding of Carr’s own curiosity more than a century ago. He’s right, and he’s chief of the Haida Nation so of course he would think so. But this reminded me of something I don’t often think about.


When I was seven years old, my family went on holiday. I had never been on a plane before. I remember this holiday more clearly than most events from my childhood. I remember being irrepressibly excited. I remember feeling a bit grand at the prospect of 30 000 feet and food served at one’s seat in tiny packets. I remember what I wore on the plane (a jazzy little lime green, neon orange, and black ensemble. It was 1990.). I remember the smell and the feel of Tlell, Skidegate, Masset, and long walks along logging tracks and rocky beaches. I constantly worried that my parents were lost. I suspect occasionally they were. There was a wrecked ship, tall grasses, endless trees that were impossibly huge and heavy with rain (it rained. The. Whole. Time.). This was our first big serious family holiday. My parents wanted to see the villages, to study the art, to walk through the forests, to respectfully understand this place a little better, and appreciate it as a rich, thickly layered, deeply scarred heritage. I had no idea what any of this meant. I was seven. Now I’m thirty-one. And today I saw Emily Carr’s paintings on the walls of a British gallery for the first time. I expected it to be a fascinating and stimulating exhibition of modern art that I would view with affection because it reminded me of my point of origin in British Columbia, which I left over a decade ago. I didn’t expect it to provide such a potent collision of early memory and present research questions.


Going to Dulwich to meet Emily Carr will be nourishing for all who make the journey. I’m not just saying that because I’m Canadian.

Giants of the Gothic Revival



On Saturday 25 October at the V&A, leading experts on the Gothic Revival and modern British design will convene for an innovative public study day exploring how Victorian and modern architects contributed to cultural history across 150 years. Everyone is welcome, and tickets are selling quickly!

Giants of the Gothic Revival: Watts & Co. from Pugin to Comper celebrates two anniversaries: the 140th anniversary of Watts & Co., a design firm founded by the architects G. F. Bodley, Thomas Garner and George Gilbert Scott Jr in 1874, and the 150th anniversary of the birth of the architect and designer Ninian Comper.

With presentations from textiles historian Mary Schoeser, architectural historians Gavin Stamp, Alan Powers and Gerry Adler, and a panel discussion with the directors of Watts & Co alongside the director of the Soane Museum Abraham Thomas, it promises to be a stellar day of research and discovery. Talks are accompanied by sessions with rare and unique items from the RIBA, V&A and Watts & Co. archives. Original drawings by Comper, Scott, Bodley and many other key designers will be on display to enrich the day and highlight new understandings of design history as a process of continuity and innovation. Michael Hall’s new book on George Frederick Bodley and the Gothic Revival, published by Yale University Press, will be available for purchase and Michael will be on hand to sign copies.

From the Houses of Parliament and coronations at Westminster Abbey, and from cathedrals to domestic interiors, this V&A study day highlights the power of the Gothic Revival to shape and challenge cultural identities from the Victorians to the present.

Books that Matter – Two Lists

Like a large number of people over the past few days, I’ve been asked by Facebook friends to write a list of 10 books that are really significant for me. I stuck to fiction and found that the books that I remember best from childhood to the present have a lingering connection with my academic interests around the intersections of religion, sexuality, modern Britain, and architecture.

Within those vast fields and across disciplines, my primary focus is on Gothic Revival architecture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Why were all those arches and crockets and stained glass windows so appealing? With this in mind, I decided to write another list. Below is a group of ten Gothic Revival texts (and a bonus short preface by William Morris because it’s so clear about why and how his politics and art connect so firmly to John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice). I come back to these publications again and again as key works that commented on and contributed to the Gothic Revival in Britain and America. Most are by architects, two are by priests, and one of them is a translation of a medieval text by the leading lights of the Ecclesiological movement.


Ralph Adams Cram, The Gothic Quest (1907)

William Durandus, The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments, J. M. Neale and B. Webb, transl. (1843)

Charles Locke Eastlake, A History of the Gothic Revival (1872)

Ernest Geldart, A Manual of Church Decoration and Symbolism (1899)

Thomas Graham Jackson, Modern Gothic Architecture (1873)

John Mason Neale, A Few Words to Church Builders (1844)

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, Contrasts (1836; 1841)

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841)

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 3 Vols (1851-1853)

George Gilbert Scott, Personal and Professional Recollections (1879)

…and William Morris, ‘Preface’ for John Ruskin, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Kelmscott Press (1892)


Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
E. M. Forster, Maurice
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage
Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red
Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant
Leonid Borodin, The Year of Miracle and Grief
Jeanette Winterson, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit

Modern Monasteries and Convents in Britain

This summer the Twentieth Century Society organised a packed tour of modern convents and monasteries, ranging from John Ninian Comper and Leonard Stokes’ architectural designs for the Anglican All Saints Sisters of the Poor at London Colney to Giles Gilbert Scott’s Carmelite chapel in London, Francis Pollen’s 1960s sweepingly monumental church for the Roman Catholic Benedictine community at Worth Abbey, and Maguire and Murray’s characteristically simple and light-filled space at the Anglican Benedictine convent in West Malling.

Some of these places are thriving, some are dwindling, and some – London Colney in particular – are under significant threat. What happens to these places of major architectural, cultural, and religious significance now and in the future remains uncertain in some cases, and the C20 Society day highlighted advocacy and conservation as much as it showcased an array of approaches to crafting holy spaces in new ways.

Led by Kate Jordan and John East with contributions from Alan Powers on Francis Pollen and me on Ninian Comper, the event’s architectural diversity proved the dynamism, innovation, experimentation, and tradition that guided new building projects for these unique religious communities from c.1920 to the present. As 31 July is the feast day of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, it seems apt to focus on monastic architecture for modern Britain which has been done ‘to the greater glory of God’.





Neo-Gothic and Neo-Byzantine: Two Montreal Churches

In 1823, reconstruction of Montreal’s Notre-Dame began. This building dominates the oldest precinct of Montreal; it was the first sacred space I visited when I arrived in the city this June. Approaching it on a Bixi bike (which was the perfect way to get around the city, from Buckminster Fuller’s biosphere for Expo 67 to the Five Roses flour mill), the two towers signalled a transformation in the urban landscape from sprawling business and industry into preserved settings firmly associated with the French settlement’s earliest history. The church’s seventeenth-century foundation building proved too small for the city’s growing population in the early nineteenth century, and the new structure was to be a grand statement of Roman Catholic power wrought in fashionable Neo-Gothic forms. The architect was an unusual choice: James O’Donnell, a New York Irish Protestant. He converted to Catholicism during the building process. The church was inaugurated in 1829, months before his death. The towers rose slowly through the 1840s, and the interior is a mixture of blaring high-contrast jewel-toned polychromy, late nineteenth-century flowing tracery toplighting, and a series of sturdy stained glass windows from the 1920s. The interior was inspired by Ste Chapelle in Paris, but the building couldn’t be anything other than nineteenth century in its detail, materials, and deployment of Gothic features. East of the sanctuary, the Chapel of the Sacred Heart was designed by Perreault and Mesnard in the 1880s. A fire in 1979 destroyed this section of Notre Dame and it was rebuilt in an uneasy (and very, very brown) mixture of postmodern elements, combining Gothic Revival arcades and side chapels with a vast bronze altarpiece by Charles Daudelin. Neither fully embracing the modern possibilities of 1970s architecture nor offering a renewed and innovative historicist view on modern Gothic, the chapel’s stylistic awkwardness suggests anxiety regarding past, present, and future in relation to revivalism and Catholic identity towards the close of the twentieth century.

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A week after my visit to Notre Dame, I went to Mile End for three things: brunch at Nouveau Palais, comparative bagel shopping at the city’s two prime locations for their bulk production (they bake them on long wooden boards, and both shops are stripped to essentials: counter, fridge full of cream cheese, infinite bags of flour, massive roaring open oven. C’est tout.), and a church I spotted while walking over the flyover from the nearest Metro station. This was the last sacred space I visited in Montreal, a few hours before I caught a flight back to London. In 1902, the parish of St Michael the Archangel was founded for the region’s Irish Catholic population. The church, completed by 1915, boasted the largest dome in Montreal until St Joseph’s Oratory surpassed its hefty scale. The Byzantine style was suggested by Aristide Beaugrande-Champagne, the building’s local architect. He was a vocal advocate for reinforced concrete, an archaeologist, and a founding member of the Groupe des Dix. The interior of the church combines searing orange and green floral motifs in stained glass panels with a complex scheme of figural and patterned painting alongside rhythmic structural polychromy. The lighting made it nearly impossible to photograph; the dome’s interior features an aggressive Archangel Michael casting rebel angels from heaven. The rogue divine creatures tumble into the pendentives, falling towards the nave in graceful billowing drapery, surrounded by staunchly upright trees representing fruits of a lost paradise. The artist was Guido Nincheri, whose murals and stained glass are a key element of Quebec’s sacred sites, including the Trois-Rivieres cathedral and Set Madeleine d’Outremont. I’ve been researching twentieth-century murals and religion lately, and am delighted to have been introduced to Nincheri’s work before heading home. London’s C20 churches could have been enhanced by a rogue angel or two, perhaps.


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Modern English Painters: John Rothenstein, L. S. Lowry and D. G. Rossetti

IMG_1927This weekend I took my laptop and a large stack of paper off to a garden in Lincolnshire to Get Things Done and to Sit in the Sun and Drink G&Ts. On my way up north from Nottinghamshire I stopped at a second-hand bookshop. This is always a dangerous idea. It was a small shop, but despite this within ten minutes I’d found five books I had to have. Among these were two volumes of John Rothenstein’s three-volume Modern English Painters, the British answer to Giorgio Vasari’s classic biographical collection of Italian greats, Lives of the Artists. Published in 1952 and 1956, Rothenstein’s personal and engaging accounts of artists including Paul Nash, Henry Moore, David Jones and Ben Nicholson have their limitations – particularly when viewed through the reflected light of recent art historical methodologies – but these books affirmed what by the 1950s was clear: that British art had a distinctive modern movement of its own, and that its practitioners needed sustained public, critical, and art historical attention. Rothenstein himself was a giant figure in twentieth-century British culture, and his leadership as Tate’s director from 1938-64 is still the longest in the institution’s history. He also, perhaps understandably, and after a lot of provocation, once punched Douglas Cooper in the face.


In Volume 2 of Modern English Painters, Rothenstein’s chapter on L. S. Lowry includes the artist’s recollection of his favourite painters. Lowry, who was born in Manchester in 1887 and whose reputation has enjoyed a recent surge due to the 2013 exhibition at Tate Britain curated by T. J. Clark and Anne Wagner, was inspired – of course he was – by French late nineteenth-century painting, and the classic exponents of European Modernism. But Rothenstein’s frank account of Lowry’s interests and influences offers something more:

The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra 1857 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

D. G. Rossetti, The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra, 1857 (Tate)


Speaking of the effect upon artists of the pictures they see early in life, [Lowry] said to me: ‘As a student I admired D. G. Rossetti and, after him, Madox Brown. The queer thing is, I’ve never wavered; they’re my two favourite artists still.’


‘Yet your admiration for neither of them is even faintly reflected in your work,’ I said.


‘No. I don’t believe it shows; nor, if you were to ask me, could I tell you why these two artists are constantly in my mind.’

As an art and architectural historian for whom the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle are never far from the surface of her own thinking, this declaration of Lowry’s leapt out amidst the modern art dialogues in Rothenstein’s biographical essays. I wondered how many other artists in the book’s fourteen chapters had something to say about the Pre-Raphaelites. With the recent exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art and design at Tate Britain in mind (its London success was followed by an epic tour to Washington DC, Moscow and Tokyo – the Prioress’ Tale wardrobe painted by Edward Burne-Jones as a wedding present for William Morris is much missed at the Ashmolean, apparently) and the surrounding determination by its curators Jason Rosenfeld and Tim Barringer and associated scholars including Elizabeth Prettejohn and Diane Waggoner to re-examine the movement’s modernity afresh, I turned to Rothenstein’s index. Impressionists and Impressionism are mentioned six times. The PRBs get seven page references; Rossetti gets seven too just on his own. Whether loved or reviled, these Victorians were prominent figures in the memories and imaginations of Rothenstein’s modern English painters.

L. S. Lowry, St Augustine's Church, Pendlebury, 1924 (Tate). The church was designed by G. F. Bodley, a leading Victorian Gothic Revival architect with close ties to the Pre-Raphaelites.

L. S. Lowry, St Augustine’s Church, Pendlebury, 1924 (Tate). The church was designed by G. F. Bodley, a leading Victorian Gothic Revival architect with close ties to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Cambridge Aesthetes

blog headerThe 1870s was an important time of major transition for Cambridge. As the colleges transformed their structures, expanded, and (at least in some cases) enjoyed a bit of extra cash flow, there were also numerous instances of Fellows wishing to take on building and decorating projects as patrons. This ushered in a new phase of the Gothic Revival that was richly inflected with the visual qualities of the Aesthetic Movement. The 1860s and 70s were the high point of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’ involvement in Cambridge interiors, especially stained glass and wall painting. In a number of cases that interest me most, Morris and Burne-Jones worked with or added their designs to architectural schemes conceived by George Frederick Bodley, Thomas Garner, and George Gilbert Scott Jr. These three architects were also the founders of Watts & Co., an ecclesiastical and domestic furnishing and decorating firm that opened its doors to a range of elite and clerical clients in 1874. Watts & Co., whose architectural associates, designers and directors included Giles Gilbert Scott, John Ninian Comper (albeit briefly), Keith Murray and Stephen Dykes Bower, is still producing designs and maintaining its Victorian traditions today. A study day at the V&A on Saturday 25 October will highlight Watts and Comper to mark their 140th and 150th anniversaries respectively. Everyone is welcome, speakers include Gavin Stamp, Mary Schoeser and Abraham Thomas, and it promises to be a stimulating day of new research on Victorian design and its legacies.


Last Thursday I spent the day in Cambridge following up on a few research questions that I first began to explore in my PhD thesis at the Courtauld. I always find that revisiting places and investigating them closely is a great way to formulate fresh thinking about old subjects. The first time I visited G. F. Bodley’s All Saints, Jesus Lane, which includes stained glass by Morris and his circle as well as painting and designs by C. E. Kempe and Frederick Leach, it was 2006 and I was right at the beginning of a long stretch of research. Every time I’ve seen it since I’ve learned something new. On this visit, I was curious about colour and pattern in relation to revivalism and temporality, as two ways of thinking about connections between architecture and sound. The same day I also spent a long time looking at Victorian spaces at Peterhouse and at Queens’. Together, these places form a microcosmic visual lexicon of a tight social network’s art and architectural priorities as they worked together and independently to revive a medieval past and reinvent a modern Victorian visual culture.


Peterhouse – William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, George Gilbert Scott Jr – 1870s

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Queens’ – G. F. Bodley Thomas Garner, Frederick Leach, C. E. Kempe, Philip Webb, William Morris, Ford Madox-Brown, Edward Burne-Jones – 1860s-1890s

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All Saints, Jesus Lane – G. F. Bodley, Frederick Leach, C. E. Kempe, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown – 1860s-1870s


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