Emily Carr

Emily Carr, 1948

Emily Carr was born in Victoria, British Columbia in 1871 and was the youngest of five daughters.

Emily Carr at age 5
"I wanted to draw a dog. I sat beside Carlow’s kennel and stared at him for a long time. Then I took a charred stick from the grate, spilt open a large brown-paper sack and drew a dog on the sack. My married sister who had taken drawing lessons looked at my dog and said, "Not bad." Father spread the drawing on top of his newspaper, put on his spectacles, looked, said, "Um!" Mother said, "You are blacked with charred wood, wash!" The paper sack was found years later among Father’s papers. He had written on it, 'By Emily, aged eight.'"

Carr, Emily. Growing Pains

As can be seen in the quote above, Emily exhibited artistic talent from an early age. She began art lessons while still in school, receiving instruction from several of Victoria's resident artists. Some of her friends who also attended these lessons travelled to London, England to further their studies. Emily would like to have followed them, but unfortunately Emily's parents died while she was a teenager and finances were tight. After sending entrance drawings to the California School of Design, and being accepted for registration there, she was able to pursuade her guardian to enroll her in art studies. At the age of nineteen, Emily travelled to San Francisco and remained there as a student until December 1893 when she returned to Victoria.

Over the next few years Emily taught art to children and saved her money to cover the costs of continuing her formal studies. In August 1899 she left Victoria for England and the Westminster School of Art. She soon found that living in London did not agree with her health and so moved on first to Cornwall, and later, to the art colony at Bushey, just outside London. In 1904, after a traumatic final year where she was hospitalized for many months, Emily returned to Victoria.

"I had not learned very much, not half what I had intended to absorb once I got into the old country."

Maria Tippett, Emily Carr, A Biography, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 63-4.

In 1910 Emily left Victoria once more to pursue her art studies. She went to France, and upon finding Paris too stressful Emily decided to tramp through the French countryside, painting and staying in small towns and villages. She studied under Phelan Gibb in the small town of Crecy-en-Brie and later in St. Efflame. It was under Gibb that she broadened her vision, learning to translate the landscape from a realistic impression to a new, abstract realization, influenced by the Fauves and Cubists, then in vogue in Paris. Carr left the following year, having assumed this radical new artistic style that was to be the real beginning of her artistic growth. This style was not readily accepted in the more traditional, strait-laced artistic world of Victoria and Vancouver, where Carr taught children and tried to attain legitimacy as a professional artist.

In 1913, Emily built her "House of All Sorts" in Victoria, a small apartment house she ran which was located around the corner from her family home. Being a landlady soon became a full time job and her art work suffered. She almost ceased to create art during this time. It was not until 1927 when a friend introduced her to Eric Brown, the director of the National Gallery of Canada, that her artistic career began anew.

Carr, Emily
Emily was invited to exhibit at the National Gallery with other artists, many of whom later became known as the Group of Seven. Their art and ideas profoundly influenced her and her friendship with Lawren Harris in particular was pivotal to her artistic and spiritualistic development. The period from 1928 through the late 1930s is the period where Carr created her monumental totems and brooding forest interiors. She learned and adapted new techniques, moving from watercolours, to oil on canvas and finally to her own invention of oil on paper.

By the age of seventy, because of failing health, Emily was told by her doctor to slow down. Her hunger for creativity had to be re-channelled, and this she did by developing her writing skills. Her first book, Klee Wyck (1941), won the Governor General's award for non-fiction and was widely acclaimed. Her new career was launched. She soon published The Book of Small (1942) and then The House of All Sorts (1944). Growing Pains (1946) was published posthumously as were several other volumes.

Emily Carr died on 2 March 1945. She is buried in the Carr family plot in Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria. Carr was a warm, independent, strong, modest, and extremely creative Canadian woman. She brought Canadian art, and in particular, the landscape of the west coast, to new heights. Her sketches and paintings of the First Nations community serve today as vivid documents of a people and lifestyle she admired tremendously.

While Carr's art works are found in many institutions, the BC Archives holds a particularly strong collection which documents the length and breadth of her career. Carr's writings, her manuscripts and letters are also found in the BC Archives, making the institution a research centre for all those who are fascinated with the life and careers of Emily Carr.

View a selection of Emily Carr's art work:

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