Honouring Emily

By Danda Humphreys, October 2010

“Our Emily” will again stand tall and proud in the city she knew so well.

This month, at a special ceremony on the northeast corner of Belleville and Government streets, the latest addition to Victoria’s Inner Harbour will be unveiled. Larger than life-size, with a sketchpad on her knee, beloved pet monkey Woo on her shoulder, dog Billie by her side, Emily Carr will sit in splendour on a bronze boulder before the stone pillars flanking the original horse-and-carriage entrance to the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

Except when she was studying in the US, England and France, or travelling the length and breadth of the West Coast to visit First Nations communities, Emily lived her whole life in Victoria. We tend to think of her only in James Bay, but during the course of her daily life she touched many parts of our city. 

The family home was just a few blocks from the Inner Harbour. Richard Carr had his house built on the western side of his four-acre property. Set back a little from the rough, unpaved road, it maintained a decidedly English air with its tidy front garden and picket fence that seemed to separate the “civilized” from the “uncivilized.”

When she was young, Emily sometimes walked with her father in the mornings as far as the south end of the wooden bridge that spanned James Bay (where the causeway is today). Here, they would part, Richard crossing the bridge to go about his provisioning business on Wharf Street, Emily making her way to school. We can imagine her pulling a wry face when her father bent down to kiss her good-bye.

Beacon Hill Park, which stretched along the eastern edge of the Carr property, always held a special place in Emily’s heart. It was the setting for some special times with her mother, whom Emily adored. Mother and daughter would sit on the grass, making daisy chains in the peaceful silence of the park. Emily treasured these times. Long after her mother died, she returned again and again to the park, to sketch, let her dogs run free, and revel in the wild beauty bordering the Dallas Road cliffs.  

On her 65th birthday, Emily feared that she was getting feeble and passé in her work. “I don’t want to trickle out,” she wrote. “I want to pour till the pail is empty, the last bit going out in a gush, not drops.” Indeed, she went on to produce fresh work, featured in several solo exhibitions, and took a writing course that resulted in several books about her life and times. 

Worn down by a series of heart attacks and strokes that would have felled a weaker woman, Emily ended her days at the James Bay Inn on Government Street, which during the last years of World War Two served as a nursing home. She died there in March 1945, just one short block away from where her life had begun more than seven decades earlier.

Now, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria has mounted a splendid permanent exhibit, which takes its title from Emily’s tongue-in-cheek perception of her place on the artistic and geographic periphery as “an isolated little old woman on the edge of nowhere.” The exhibit, which includes an historical survey of Emily’s career, featuring works in all the styles, subjects and media that she explored, is well worth a visit. 

The long-gone cow-yard and wild lily field of her childhood…the pebble-strewn beach below Dallas Road…Government Street, where Mr Hibben’s stationery store (now the Bedford Regency Hotel) displayed children’s books open so the little ones could see…the old Customs House on Wharf Street, where Emily visited the Gregorys in their caretakers quarters on the lower level…her “House of All Sorts” on Simcoe Street…Emily truly is everywhere you look.

But nowhere is her presence felt more fully than the place where she was born. Lovingly preserved and cared for since 1995 by resident curator Jan Ross, Carr House at 207 Government Street is the jewel in James Bay’s crown. Jan and Michael’s daughters were only four and seven years old when the Rosses moved in. Now 20 and 23, the girls are, like Emily, following non-traditional, unconventional careers. Could some of Emily’s feisty independence and determination have rubbed off on this younger generation of Carr House residents? An intriguing thought!

It’s a long way from “The Edge of Nowhere” to the corner of Belleville and Government, but due to the amazing efforts of Ann Geddes and the Victoria Parks and Recreation Foundation, which created the Emily Carr Statue Fund six years ago, the journey is over. Thanks to government funding, the generosity of corporate and individual donors, and the artistic brilliance of sculptor Barbara Paterson, Emily will always be “on the edge of somewhere” right in her own home town.

“Our Emily” will be unveiled at Belleville and Government October 13 at 1:30 p.m.

The Carr family’s story is featured in the first of Danda’s four books about Victoria’s history. She regularly conducts tours of Emily’s James Bay neighbourhood (which happens also to be her own). www.dandahumphreys.com.