Writing other lives
Maria Tippett brings scholarly precision to her research, but writes for a wide readership
Maria Tippett is the premier biographer of Canadian artists. She began with From Desolation
to Splendour (1977), the first history
of the art of western Canada, created with her late husband Douglas Cole. Next came her biography of Emily Carr (1979), the original comprehensive look at that artist, which won for the 33-year old writer the Governor General’s Literary Award.
Among the 13 volumes she has produced are By A Lady (1992) on women artists in Canada, Stormy Weather (1998) about F. H. Varley and her controversial Bill Reid: The Making of An Indian (2003).
Tippett was born in Victoria and attended Margaret Jenkins, Sir James Douglas and Victoria High schools. She and her husband, historian Peter Clarke, keep a suite in Victoria, a home on Pender Island and spend two months every year in Britain.
“I love this city,” she said of Victoria. “It’s very culturally rich.” Tippett mentioned Victoria’s orchestra, opera and the new Ballet B.C. “It just gets better and better.” Her childhood introduction to the arts was conducted in Victoria at Zelda Willie’s dance studio.
After high school Tippett, ever the “Europhile,” travelled until her money ran out, and then in the 1960s set up in Berlin and Munich. She took a degree in Russian cultural history and was able to travel to Russia in the late ’60s to study the thenunknown contemporary art there.
“My Russian was never good enough to get on the inside of what people were thinking,” she admitted. So she turned her attention to Canadian art — “what was right in front of me.”
During the heady days of the 1970s, Tippett taught at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby. This allowed her the opportunity to present vital seminars with Robert Davidson, Jack Shadbolt, Toni Onley and Gordon Smith. SFU was “a very very important staging post” for her.
At this time Tippett produced her biography of Emily Carr. It was a timely book and won the Governor General’s Award. As she said, it was “a wonderful thing to happen.” This was the first biography of Carr and arrived on a tidal wave of feminist interest.
Following her PhD in London, Tippett didn’t really expect to go on as an academic. Though a tutor at Cambridge University for 14 years, she never took on a full load of course work. “I’ve always said I’m a scholar, not an academic. I’m interested in finding out about the world,” Tippett continued, “and I’m grateful that publishers keep supporting me to do it.”
Her books are exhaustively researched but she has been able to avoid the suffocating constraints and rigid discipline of academic writing: “It’s my goal to reach out for a wider audience.”
We spoke about the divided life of a writer. Time must be spend researching, travelling and conducting interviews. “It’s intensely exhausting,” she noted. “I feel I’ve spent years in the National Archives.” Access to the Copyright Library at Cambridge, where everything is on open stacks, has greatly helped her. While, in her early days, she depended more on interviews, now manuscript sources are primary to her research.
Research must be done before the pleasure begins. “I love the writing,” she admitted. “I write almost every day.” She writes best in her wonderful writing studio on Pender Island but no matter where she might be, “the book is always going on in your head.”
Does she have a secretary or a research assistant? “No!”, she laughed. “I wouldn’t trust anybody.” Much depends on getting it right.
Tippett pointed out that she has felt compelled to write some books that will never be best-sellers. Her little-known
(1994) is about how art and music groups developed in Canada before 1944. She told me it is very dense and very thick: “a very boring book, but it had to be written.” Her biography of
(2003) was difficult to write for there were virtually no manuscript sources. She had to work hard to create the historical context for her story, a tale which began in the early 19th century. More than in her other books, she had to “create the history around him.” It’s more reflective than reportorial, and her opinions in this book attracted a lot of flak. (1998) tells the tale of that unruly member of the Group of Seven, and it made for an exemplary study. A wealth of manuscript sources told of the artist’s life, crisscrossed with crisis and conflict. These are the elements which always drive a story forward. Tippett’s just-released biography, the
presented a different sort of life-history. “He worked and he worked and he worked,” the writer commented. Though he left 40 boxes of material to the National Archives Tippett didn’t find any skeletons in his closets. “I concentrated on his work, on his determination,” that drive to succeed of a new immigrant to Canada.
In 2004 Tippett left off the work of tutoring at Cambridge. “Does a writer ever retire?” she asked me. “I’m still doing what I’ve always done. My writing takes up a major part of every day.” To accomplish the writing of detailed and extensive books Tippett admitted it is necessary to be “selfish and ruthless” with her time.
What of the future of biographical research? Despite the flood of information we are all now immersed within, there is little being written with the depth and perspective we hope for. People don’t write letters or keep diaries any more. Phone calls and e-mail don’t result in sources of depth and durability.
And the archives aren’t collecting manuscripts like they used to. This may be due to lack of space, or lack of proper staff. Tippett has depended on archivists, and she remembered fondly the excellent service provided by Frances Gundry at the B.C. Archives in Victoria.
Art gallery exhibition catalogues used to be the cornerstone of writing about artists, but these days we are offered what Tippett called “bitsy, chopped-up essays,” short pieces by a variety of authors driven by an agenda close to political correctness. She longs for the good old days of the grand, if opinionated, histories by authors like J. Russell Harper. “He’d just belt it out,” she recalled.
No one seems to be cultivating Canadian art history at the moment. “They’re building larger galleries, with bookstores and cafés,” she lamented, but who responds to the value and relevance of local art and the art historical collections?
That said, Tippett’s next project is taking her further from the Canadian scene. She was offered an irresistible contract to write the biography of Paul Ho, “the inventor of the Chinese computer,” she informed me. Tippett travelled with Ho to China to retrace the steps of his life before he left China in 1947. The manuscript is not yet complete but already a screenwriter has been engaged and a well-known Chinese producer of feature films is standing by.
“It’s a whole new world, and it’s really exciting,” she concluded.
Who will write her biography?
Where Art is Born: Artists in Their Studios.