Pass­ing Through

Grafton Tyler Brown was a painter whose iden­tity changed from Black to white as he moved across the Pa­cific North­west

Canadian Art - - Contents - By Caoimhe Mor­gan-feir

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

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