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Emily Carr at age 21

Emily Carr at age 21, 1893
British Columbia Archives

"Prince Pumkin, Lady Loo, Young Jimmy, Adolphus the cat, Kitten, Chipmonk, and parrot & self in garden at 646 Simcoe St., 1918", (Emily Carr and pets)

"Prince Pumkin, Lady Loo, Young Jimmy, Adolphus the cat, Kitten, Chipmonk, and parrot & self in garden at 646 Simcoe St., 1918", (Emily Carr and pets), 1918
British Columbia Archives

Emily Carr's studio, Simcoe Street

Emily Carr's studio, Simcoe Street, 1930s
City of Victoria Archives

Emily Carr with friends and caravan “Elephant” on sketching trip

Emily Carr with friends and caravan “Elephant” on sketching trip, 1934
Photograph by Mrs. S.F. Morley
British Columbia Archives

Emily Carr seated on the verandah of her St. Andrew’s Street studio and holding one of her dogs

Emily Carr seated on the verandah of her St. Andrew’s Street studio and holding one of her dogs, 1944
Photograph by Edythe Hembroff-Schleicher
British Columbia Archives

Emily Carr: A Biographical Sketch

Emily Carr's life story has all the qualities of an excellent biography — tragedy, inspiration, triumph, resolve, eccentricity — yet the details of her life have been clouded by her own autobiographical sketches and journals, which describe events as Carr herself liked to remember them. Since the publication of Maria Tippett's Emily Carr: A Biography in 1979, numerous scholars, biographers, novelists and playwrights have attempted to make sense of her recollections and capture her life in print. As a result, the image of Carr the artist, with her magical forests and magnificent totems; Carr the author, with her stories of nineteenth-century Victoria and her beloved pets; and Carr the eccentric, animal-loving recluse figure prominently in the Canadian imagination. The celebrity status she enjoys today would come as a great shock to Carr, who for most of her life felt like an outcast, known more for her eccentricities than her artistic achievements.

Emily Carr was born on December 13, 1871, in Victoria, British Columbia, to Richard and Emily Saunders Carr, the fifth child in a family of five girls. A brother, Dick, was born in 1875. Her father was a British immigrant who, after years of aimless travel, had found success in Alviso, California, selling supplies to miners during the Gold Rush. He met Emily Saunders, married her in England and in 1863 moved his young family to Victoria, where he established a wholesale grocery and liquor store. Emily Carr was a rambunctious child who enjoyed running through the fields and playing with the animals on her family's land. In her early life she enjoyed little companionship with her mother, who had tuberculosis and was frequently bedridden. Carr was extremely close to her father before an incident in her adolescence — which remains unclear but which Carr later referred to as the "brutal telling" — irrevocably destroyed their relationship. Her sensitivity and her devotion to art isolated her from her sisters, who failed to understand either her work or her desire to pursue it in spite of financial strain. Throughout her life, Carr remained steadfast in her commitment to art despite her family's lack of support.

Although her greatest artistic production occurred during the years she spent in British Columbia, Carr sought education elsewhere. In her late teens, after the death of both parents, rather than be subjected to the demands of her overbearing sister Edith, Carr approached her legal guardian to secure funds to attend the California School of Design. She spent more than three years in San Francisco, where she received a traditional education in the depiction of still life and landscapes. After returning to Victoria for a brief time, Carr travelled to England and studied at the Westminster School of Art and in the private studios of a number of British watercolourists. Here too her instruction was in the nineteenth-century British watercolour tradition. Her year of study in France between 1910 and 1911 proved to be more inspiring: Carr learned from a number of instructors how to paint in a Post-Impressionist style with a Fauvist palette.

She returned to Vancouver in 1911, committed to documenting the First Nations cultures of British Columbia, an exercise that she had initiated in 1907. During an ambitious six-week sketching trip in the summer of 1912, she produced a great number of watercolours and corresponding studio canvases in her new French style. These works met a mixed reception and had limited sales, so Carr returned to Victoria to build and manage an apartment house with her share of the family estate. She was consigned to a life of domestic drudgery for nearly fifteen years until 1927, when her work was included in a National Gallery of Canada exhibition and she first met the Group of Seven. She found the work of Lawren Harris to be particularly inspiring, as were his words of encouragement and his pronouncement that she was "one of them." She returned from this eastern trip to begin the most productive period of her career, creating the inspired, powerful canvases for which she is best known. She also began a lifelong friendship and correspondence with Harris, who acted as her mentor and spiritual guide, especially in the few years after their initial meeting.

Carr's health began to deteriorate in 1937, when she suffered the first of many heart attacks. As her sketching trips and studio painting became physically harder, she started to focus on literary pursuits. Ira Dilworth, teacher and CBC executive, became her confidant and literary advisor, replacing Harris as the pre-eminent male figure in her life. Dilworth's support of her autobiographical sketches gave her both the confidence and the means to secure publication for her work. Her writing, initially broadcast on CBC Radio, garnered popular appeal and endeared her to a public that for years had been hostile to her art. Emily Carr died in Victoria on May 2, 1945, after checking herself into St. Mary's Priory to rest, with no idea that she would ultimately become a Canadian icon.

Carr experimented with many styles throughout her lengthy career, and her art approximates trends in the development of modernism in the first half of the twentieth century. She may have been influenced by Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and Abstraction, but she never took any movement to its extreme conclusion, though she was always seen as a radical in conservative British Columbia. Despite changes in her style, approach and intent, she remained absorbed by two principal and often overlapping themes: the "disappearing" First Nations cultures and the western landscape. She is perhaps best known for the work she produced in the last decade of her life — dark and rhythmic forests, vast spiritual skies and monumental totemic structures — when she developed a style that was entirely her own.

Carr slowly began to achieve commercial and critical success in the concluding years of her career, yet the renown she enjoyed barely compares to the esteem in which she is held so widely today. Her life is irrevocably connected with the Canadian West, the place where she was born and where she chose to spend her life, with only a few brief interruptions. Her independence as a woman when domesticity was expected, her resolve to travel frequently and unaccompanied to isolated First Nations villages, and her devotion to art despite the obstacles, distractions and criticism, remain inspirational.