Monday, February 14, 2011

Emily Carr, Talmage and Tregenna

‘…an isolated little old woman on the edge of nowhere…’  – Emily Carr

St Ives can weave its magic in unexpected ways. To Emily Carr, a 30-year old Canadian artist from British Columbia, the special quality of the sunlight proved to be a mixed blessing. On her arrival in the town in 1901, she enrolled at the art school run by the renowned seascape painter, Julius Olsson, exponent of ‘plein air’ painting. Prior to this, she had studied art in San Francisco.

Under Olsson’s rigorous regime, students were expected to stand at their canvases on Porthmeor Beach regardless of the weather, in order to capture the sea in all its moods. At times, the harshness of sun on sand was too much for Emily, who suffered badly from headaches. Attempts to escape from the glare into the back streets were invariably thwarted by her exasperated tutor. Emily’s evenings were spent relaxing in the company of her friend Hilda Fearon. At times they would work together by lamplight, sketching the children of local fishermen whom they hired as models. Emily would also write humorous accounts of her living accommodation, and compose verses recounting the exploits of her companions.

While Olsson was away on leave, Emily took refuge in Tregenna Woods, high above St Ives town. Sheltered from wind and sun, she found peace and inspiration in the ivy-clad tree trunks and the gentle, diffuse light filtering through the overhead canopy. She discovered a kindred spirit in Algernon Talmage, Olsson’s partner who was left in charge of the school. A landscape painter with a profound love of nature, he was sympathetic to Emily’s need to immerse herself in the atmosphere of the woods, which she found romantic, mysterious and haunting. He even took the time to follow his student up the steep hill to Tregenna to comment constructively on her work in progress. On Olsson’s return, however, her woodland canvases were dismissed as ‘low-toned daubs’, and Emily left Cornwall soon afterwards. Apart from a handful of affectionate sketches of her fellow students, little evidence exists of her artistic output in St Ives.

On Talmage’s recommendation, Emily decided to pursue her studies at Herkomer’s Art School in Bushey, Hertfordshire. However this experience was overshadowed by worsening headaches, loneliness and depression. Returning to Canada, she took up a teaching post in Vancouver.

The coastal rainforests of British Columbia are epic in scale, with cedars over 1000 years old and Sitka spruces stretching 90 metres into the sky. Despite years of intensive logging, they are still home to wolves, black bears and grizzlies. The affinity for the woods which Emily Carr had felt in Cornwall endowed her with a heightened sensitivity to the importance of trees in this unique environment. She also realised that, despite being intimidated by the threat of forest predators and overwhelmed by the immensity of the trees, she had by now acquired the skill to represent the forest in painterly form.

Trees first appeared in Emily’s Canadian work in 1905, in the form of an animated political cartoon for a periodical. This was at a time when logging was widespread and indiscriminate. The image was accompanied by the following poem, in the artist’s own words, showing an ecological awareness way ahead of her time:

‘Ye ghosts of all the dear old trees
The oak, the elm, the ash
Nightly those gentlemen go tease
Who hew you down like trash.’

Emily failed to rally support for a cause which would not capture the attention of the public until many years after her death. Hers was a lone voice, which at the time was regarded as eccentric. Alongside her concern for environmental issues she developed a strong interest in the indigenous First Nations inhabitants of the region, and their culture. Fearing that this way of life was under threat, she began to spend time in their villages and communities, documenting a society in which trees were integral to myth and ritual. Her paintings, incorporating the totem pole and other tribal emblems, not only embodied First Nations cultural values, but also became an expression of her increasing identification with the spirit of nature in arboreal form.

Totem Walk at Sitka

In 1910 Emily spent eighteen months in Paris where, influenced by the works of the Post-impressionists and Fauves, she developed a strong sense of colour and form. Coincidentally in France she came across Frances Hodgkins, a New Zealander who had first visited Cornwall in 1902, shortly after Emily’s visit. Frances was later to become an important figure in the development of art in St Ives during the early part of the twentieth century. In Paris Emily achieved some success when two of her Expressionist paintings were accepted for exhibition.

Autumn in France

She returned to British Columbia permanently in 1911, to her home town of Victoria, where resistance to artistic developments in Europe left her feeling professionally isolated. This was compounded by the fact that her relationship with the indigenous population was considered to be inappropriate for a woman. For the next fifteen years she painted very little, though she continued to write. During this time she ran a boarding-house and became a dog breeder.

In 1927 Emily was invited by the National Gallery of Canada to contribute to an exhibition entitled ‘Canadian West Coast Art – Native and Modern’. Her participation in this show represented a pivotal moment, attracting the attention of the Canadian art world. As a result she encountered the ‘Group of Seven’, who drew upon French Impressionism to pioneer a style of painting which represented the unique character of the Canadian landscape. Overcoming her lack of confidence, Emily was greatly encouraged by their support and resumed painting with renewed enthusiasm. Her work came to be held in such high esteem by the Group of Seven that they referred to her as ‘the Mother of Modern Arts’.

Travelling to New York in 1930, Emily met the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. They had much in common, including an affinity with trees, though O’Keeffe’s abstract works evolved out of an experience which was felt rather than observed. During the 1930s Emily started using thinned oil paint on very large manila sheets of paper. Working on this scale encouraged a fluidity which freed her from the constraints of representation.

This decade saw Emily at the height of her creative powers. ‘Forest British Columbia’ of 1931/2 is a daring composition proclaiming Emily’s sense of emotional communion with the forest. Here the sculptural tree trunks entice the viewer through an undulating tunnel towards an essence which seems to disappear into infinity. This image became very familiar to Canadians when it appeared on a stamp in 1991, as part of a series entitled ‘Masterpieces of Canadian Art’.


In later works such as ‘Shoreline’ of 1936, the artist’s spiritual connection with trees now manifested itself in a pictorial embrace encompassing all of nature, including the sea and the sky.


In 1937 a heart attack curtailed her career as a painter, though she continued writing up until her death, aged 74, in 1945. While her artistic reputation fluctuated during her lifetime, it was through her autobiographical writings that Emily Carr gained posthumous recognition as one of Canada’s foremost painters of the twentieth century. Today she is seen as an iconic figure in Canada and beyond. Currently the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria is holding a retrospective show entitled Emily Carr – on the Edge of NowhereThe Other Emily, an exhibition with a biographical slant, opens at the Royal British Columbia Museum in March.

© 2011 Helen Hoyle


  1. Very interesting to see how her work developed over her lifetime. What a pity the "low-toned daubs" have disappeared.

  2. Sarah -
    Yes - the only images from Emily's time in St Ives that I've come across have been in 'St Ives 1860-1930 ~ the Artists & the Community ~ a Social History' by David Tovey.

  3. Hello Helen,
    I stumbled across your blogs while searching for info about Emily Carrr and her time in St Ives. I have arrived at this point in a rather roundabout way during my current sudden interest in Joni Mitchell. Joni has a deep interest in the work of Emily Carr, both written and painted it seems; both coming from British Colombia with a draw to native indians. Joni's painting seems to be influenced by Carr's
    Best wishes
    Simon Blackburn

    1. Thank you for getting in touch, Simon - that's really interesting.