Grafton Tyler Brown was a painter whose identity changed from Black to white as he moved across the Pacific Northwest
As Grafton Tyler Brown moved across the Pacific Northwest, his identity changed from Black to white by Caoimhe Morgan-feir
When American-born painter Grafton Tyler Brown opened his exhibition in Victoria in the summer of 1883, the local paper, the Daily British Colonist, recognized the magnitude of the event. Òthis being the Þrst true art exhibit ever opened here representing the province, the artist should not be allowed to leave disappointed,ó declared the publication in early July. There were 22 landscape paintings on view in the exhibition, held in the Colonistõs new building on Government Street, and most were based on a geological expedition that Brown had taken the year prior that toured the interiors of southern British Columbia. Òviewed in light of artistic productions they are excellent, but when inspected by those with whom the scenes represented were familiar, their Þdelity elicited an extra meed of praise,ó wrote a reviewer. The Colonist allotted Brown the kind of coverage that would turn contemporary publicists green with envy. Nowhere in these inches of publicity, though, does the paper mention Brownõs race.
The omission matters. The artist himself left no personal papers, so an understanding of Brown and his life has been gleaned through elision and second-hand sources. If the Colonist glossed over his race, the publication most likely considered him white. At the time, there was a small but established Black community living in Victoria, but an underlying sense of British (read: white) superiority remained prevalent.
The assumption made about Brownõs whiteness was not exclusive to the paper. Over the course of Brownõs life, his race gradually changed in ofþcial documentation. He was listed as Black in early census reports, but on his 1918 death certiþcate he was identiþed as white. Brown, the Þrst artist to hold a professional exhibition in British Columbia, was likely only able to do so by passing.
Brown arrived in Victoria in 1882 from San Francisco, where he had gathered uncommon success during the two decades prior, building a reputation for himself as the cityõs Òcoloured printer.ó But Brown was always ambitious. Born to free parents in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1841, Brown began his career not as an understudy or an apprentice, but as an employee at the St. George Hotel, in Sacramento, California. Even before Brown launched a professional art career, he was a successful promoter. ÒWE noticed last evening some very excellent painting done by Grafton T. Brown,ó noted the local paper in 1859, and the artist was able to parlay this well-received amateur hobby into work as an artist for a printer in San Francisco, eventually working his way up to owning the studio itself. While Brown, one of the better-known painters of the
American West, accrued impressive press during his lifetime, his two-year sojourn in Canada was virtually unknown until about seven years ago, when John Lutz, a professor at the University of Victoria whose research focuses mostly on First Nationsðsettler relations and race relations in BC, stumbled across a reproduction of Brownõs sketch of a farm in Saanich, the region where the University of Victoria is now located. ÒI was astonished,ó Lutz said. ÒI had no idea there were artists here at that time doing that kind of photorealistic work.ó Lutz has since been piecing together details of Brownõs time in the province, tracking down his missing paintings and Þlling in the biographical blanks. Perhaps it was the brevity of his stay that wiped Brown from the historical record. But, with the exception of San Francisco, Brown didnõt stay anywhere for long. Port Townsend, Tacoma, Portland and Helena, where he was joined by Albertine Espey, a white woman originally from France, whom he later marriedña union that would be controversial, even dangerous, in many states at the time. All of Brownõs stops after San Francisco were short until he and Espey reached Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Brown retired from painting. He left no descendants, and took on no apprentices. But it would be unfair to say that he had no inßuence beyond his own personal success. After all, when Brown was introducing the professional exhibition to Victoria, Emily Carr was 11 years old and living mere minutes away on the same street.
Brown was professionally radical. His paintings of BC, by contrast, are largely conventional. There are landscapes with carefully rendered inlets and bodies of water framed by pine trees, or mountain ranges unfolding across horizons. Brown has created useful historical documentation, but he worked to please a small market, and made commissions for farmers and landownersñhis focus during his time in Victoria was to make a living. Most of the scenes Brown selects are unpopulated, but occasionally, a settlement will appearñgiven the time in which he worked, these were often the Þrst few buildings in their respective area. In each picturesque work, there is a taste of Manifest Destiny; a sense that the landscapes Brown captures are ripe for settlement and extraction. When the Colonist refers to him as Òthe pioneer artist of this intellectual and reþned art,ó it registers not only in the sense of Brownõs professional accomplishments, but also his sensibility. Brown, who spent his life defying imperial categorization, made a career out of creating imagery that justiþed a colonial ethos. The history of passing, like the history of slavery, is often mistakenly considered an exclusively American phenomenon. But any close look at Canada reveals the ßaw in this thinking. Brownõs two-year stopover in British Columbia not only provides a vital record of the province during that moment, and of artistic success during that era. It underscores that histories do not stop at borders. ■
Grafton Tyler Brown in his Victoria studio in 1883 COURTESY ROYAL BC MUSEUM AND ARCHIVES (IMAGE A-08775)
Grafton Tyler Brown Giants Castle Mountain 1883 Oil on canvas 40.6 x 66 cm COURTESY UNO LANGMANN GALLERY