Bring­ing a no­table artist’s work to life

Times Colonist - - Islander - ROBERT AMOS On Art rober­ta­mos@telus.net

John Lutz, head of the his­tory de­part­ment at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria, has a pas­sion for our past. His re­search into the life and work of Grafton T. Brown, who lived and worked here in 1882 and 1883, is the sub­ject of a new ex­hibit at the Legacy, the univer­sity’s down­town ex­hi­bi­tion space.

Brown was con­sid­ered in his day as “the first pro­fes­sional artist to work in this prov­ince,” though that opin­ion ne­glected Paul Kane, who was here in 1843, and W.G.R. Hind, liv­ing in Vic­to­ria from 1863 to 1870. Brown ar­rived here in 1882 from San Fran­cisco.

His pro­fes­sional work in Cal­i­for­nia in­cluded elab­o­rate bill heads and share cer­tifi­cates for the boom­ing sil­ver mines, and also “bird’s eye” views of the min­ing towns. These artis­tic prod­ucts are avidly col­lected south of the bor­der, where he has a con­sid­er­able rep­u­ta­tion.

Af­ter ar­riv­ing in B.C., he ven­tured up the Fraser and Thompson rivers with a sur­vey party work­ing for the Cana­dian Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey and, re­turn­ing to Vic­to­ria, spent the next year paint­ing up his sketches, and draw­ing com­mis­sioned views of lo­cal homes and gar­dens.

Af­ter years of suc­cess as a printer, Brown had switched to “fine art,” and took his place in Vic­to­ria society at a new, higher level. Dur­ing Novem­ber of 1882, Brown opened his stu­dio in the Oc­ci­den­tal Ho­tel on Wharf Street, where he dis­played his sur­vey sketches “with the ex­quis­ite tints of au­tumn on the fo­liage, which give the land­scapes a rich warm colour­ing,” as the Daily Bri­tish Colonist ex­plained at the time. “He is propos­ing to do those pictures in wa­ter­colours and will fur­nish any of them to or­der.”

As well as views from his sur­vey­ing trip, his sub­jects in­cluded Mount Baker, Vic­to­ria and Esquimalt har­bours and Portage In­let when, in June 1883, 22 paint­ings were fea­tured in a one-week ex­hi­bi­tion, at the “new Colonist build­ing” on Gov­ern­ment Street. The lieu­tenant­gov­er­nor pur­chased Twi­light on the South Thompson River.

For­tu­nately, the paint­ings were pho­tographed at the time, and our provin­cial archives has a copy of the al­bum. For the cur­rent show, Lutz has as­sem­bed nine orig­i­nals, in­clud­ing four from the Royal B.C. Mu­seum and Archives, one from Craig­dar­roch Cas­tle, one from the Art Gallery of Greater Vic­to­ria, two from pri­vate col­lec­tions, and an un­usual painted plate that might — or might not — be Brown’s work. In ad­di­tion, re­pro­duc­tions of some of Brown’s graphic work are in­cluded.

Brown was a tal­ented, but es­sen­tially un­trained, oil painter. His field work might have re­sulted in sketches or plein-air paint­ings, but none have sur­faced. The re­sult­ing oils are Brown’s ver­sion of the awein­spir­ing views of the Amer­i­can West, as painted by lu­min­ists of the Hud­son River School, such as Fred­er­ick Church and Al­bert Bier­stadt. The “ex­quis­ite tints of au­tumn” in Brown’s paint­ings bring to mind the brown tones of var­nish so com­mon of 19th-cen­tury oils.

In this show, a marine view of the en­trance to Vic­to­ria’s har­bour (which ap­pears on page D1) is clear and vividly painted. The paint han­dling of the ma­jor el­e­ments, such as clouds, waves and branches, is rather for­mu­laic. A writer in the Wash­ing­ton Post in 2004 noted Brown’s “cer­tain awk­ward­ness” and that his per­spec­tive is “fre­quently off.” At its worst, Brown’s paint­ing has a touch of the tame ro­man­ti­cism of television painter Bob Ross.

The ef­forts of Brown in Vic­to­ria were soon su­per­seded by more tal­ented painters. In 1886, C.A. de L’Au­biniere and his wife Georgina stopped in Vic­to­ria long enough to cre­ate a suite of beau­ti­ful oils and wa­ter­colours, which were com­mis­sioned as the prov­ince’s gift to Queen Vic­to­ria for her ju­bilee.

When the Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­way was com­pleted in 1887, it was car­ry­ing the first pres­i­dent of the Royal Cana­dian Academy, Lu­cius O’Brien, who brought his aca­demic train­ing and pre­cise topo­graph­i­cal re­al­ism to bear on Mount Baker.

While he was here, Grafton Brown ac­cepted com­mis­sions to make de­tailed stud­ies of pi­o­neer home­steads and their ex­pan­sive set­tings. The cur­rent show fea­tures a wash-draw­ing of the Dean farm, its crisply drawn farm­house and var­i­ous out­build­ings sit­u­ated on Shel­bourne Street near Bay. They are fas­tid­i­ously fenced about, with a view look­ing south all the way to the Olympic Moun­tains.

The flavour of the times is ev­i­dent in the or­nate gilded fram­ing on these pe­riod pieces. The sim­ple wooden struc­ture was, at the time, cov­ered with elab­o­rate plas­ter mould­ings and gran­u­lar ma­te­rial sprin­kled about, with the whole given a cov­er­ing of brassy gold leaf.

One can eas­ily imag­ine a paint­ing signed G.T. Brown qui­etly pass­ing a cen­tury in the up­stairs back hall of some big Rock­land man­sion. With prices reach­ing con­sid­er­able lev­els in the U.S., more of Brown’s Cana­dian paint­ings might turn up.

Af­ter a sea­son in Vic­to­ria, Brown moved on. In 1884 he was res­i­dent in Ta­coma, Wash­ing­ton, and then fol­lowed his busi­ness prospects to Port­land and Yel­low­stone. His ex­ten­sive com­mer­cial ca­reer be­fore and af­ter Vic­to­ria is recorded in Robert J. Chan­dler’s book ti­tled San Fran­cisco Lithog­ra­pher — Amer­i­can Artist Grafton Tyler Brown (Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa Press, Nor­man, Ok­la­homa, 2014).

Lutz’s ef­forts in bring­ing Brown’s Vic­to­ria chap­ter to light are ap­pre­ci­ated by stu­dents of lo­cal art his­tory.

Deans Farm.

Gi­ant’s Cas­tle Moun­tain and the farm of Alexan­der Les­lie For­tune, one of the Over­lan­ders of 1862, at what is now En­derby, 1883.

Spil­li­macheen River, 1882.

Long Lake, look­ing down the lake from the wagon road between Spal­lum­cheen and Okana­gan val­leys. Sketched Oct. 9, 1882.

First salmon-can la­bels in B.C., printed by Grafton Tyler Brown for John Sul­li­van Deas.

Grafton Tyler Brown’s en­try in the Vic­to­ria direc­tory for 1882-83.

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