Emily Carr: Between the Forest and the Sea

Skidegate in the Haida Gwaii islands painted by Emily Carr
One of the highlights, for me, this winter, has been an exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Dulwich Gallery in London.  They were the work of Canadian artist Emily Carr, who was born in the 19th century into a conventional Victorian colonial family and grew up to defy female expectations and become a painter.  She was fascinated by the decaying civilisation of the First Nation people of the Haida Gwaii islands and is famous for her depictions of their villages and artefacts.

Emily in the white lace collar
Emily was one of 5 sisters, orphaned while still quite young and brought up by her older siblings. Although Emily's father had encouraged her to paint, sending her to drawing classes as an adolescent, her sisters weren't too sure about her unconventional inclinations and felt that they couldn't spare the money for further training after he died. But Emily did manage to get to San Francisco where she studied for a while and then to England where she contracted TB and spent time in a sanatorium.  She declined marriage and returned to Canada to pursue a career in art.
War Canoes: Alert Bay
Emily paid Haida people to take her to their islands, by canoe, where she camped out in ruined villages, drawing and painting, even in the rain.  It was touching to see the rain drops on her water-colours. It was an unusual life for a young woman.  She often suffered from depression - feeling very alone.  'I don't fit anywhere, so I'm out of everything and I ache and ache.'

She was fascinated by the carved poles still standing outside the houses, tilting in rows along the shoreline. Sometimes she despaired of capturing them as she wanted.  'Every creative individual despairs . . . No matter how fine the things are, there are always finer things to be done.'

She loved the forests of giant redwood which were gradually being plundered for timber by colonial corporations. '[the forest's] bigness and stark reality baffled my white man's understanding. I had been trained to see outsides only, not struggle to pierce.'
The mysterious redwood forests of the Haida Gwaii
One of Emily's most famous paintings is 'Scorned for timber; beloved of the sky' - a single slender sapling stretching upwards in a clearing.  It could have been a metaphor for her own life. 'Trees don't make a mess of things as we do,' she wrote.  'They are themselves, growing for one purpose.'   The rape of the forests by logging companies was a subject Emily often painted.

Susan Vreeland wrote a novel around Emily's life called 'The Forest Lover' based partly on Emily's journals - the fragments of autobiography she wrote in old age and published.  I managed to find these online as part of the Gutenberg Project. The texts are beautifully written and quite poetic. They show that Emily was not only a painter, but also a gifted writer. There's one description of a wooden landing stage 'its crooked legs stockinged in barnacles' that has stayed with me, and the account of her meeting with the carving of D'Sonoqua - the totemic wild woman of the forest, 'Horror tumbled from the shadows of her eyes'. There are wonderful descriptions of the rotting carvings of the Raven perched outside the villages.

The exhibition also had some of Emily's notebooks - tiny detailed sketches - as well as illustrated books she made of excursions with one of her sisters.  The cartoons of some of the funnier things that happened to them were fantastic.  Emily obviously had a very well developed sense of humour.  This is her account of a Sunday sermon:

Beneath Parson Leakey's so sorrowful eyes
     We sit in a row while the soft daylight dies,
And list to a sermon so woeful and sad
     We feel that we never again can be glad.
With tear drops besprinkling our sunfreckled cheeks
     We feel we daren't smile for many long weeks.
Oh Leakey, the morbid, why are you so sad?
     Do you mourn for the good times you ought to have had?

One of Emily's hand-made journals
Emily had to struggle with money, because her paintings weren't initially very saleable.  She ran a B&B and gave up painting for about 15 years before being encouraged to begin again. In later life she was exhibiting and selling quite well, but her health was poor.  She loved dogs and also had a pet monkey.  In order to paint outdoors, she often camped  in the forest during the summer in a wooden caravan she called The Elephant.
Emily with her dogs at The Elephant
One of the most poignant passages in her autobiography is an account of the life of Susie, her Haida friend, who was extremely poor, but very proud.  Susie had given birth to, and buried, more than twenty children.  Few of them lived more than a few months.  But Susie had managed to give each one a proper Christian funeral, marking the graves with a little white cross. She was very distressed that the priests wouldn't bury the stillborn babies in the graveyard.

Susie's life was an example of how European diseases, such as smallpox and TB, ravaged the Haida community, reducing the population by more than 80% in a couple of decades. Emily's remarkable work, both written and painted, records a very important period in Canadian history and provides a written and visual record of the vanishing culture of the Haida people.  Emily felt a spiritual link with the islands and their people that was almost unique.  She was a very special person and this comes over both in her paintings and her journals.

Emily with one of her dogs in old age.


  1. As always Kathie you make me think, speculate and appreciate. WX

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