My favourite painting: Patrick Gale

'I love the way her forest here threatens to absorb the church and its graves.'

Indian Church, 1929, by Emily Carr (1871–1945), 43in by 27in, Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada

Patrick Gale says:
I first came across Emily Carr’s startling work while researching my latest novel, which is about homesteading in Edwardian Saskatchewan. There was a lot of wonderful landscape painting in Canada in the early 20th century, but much of it seems to Europeanise the subject, taming or prettifying it. Carr’s work, by contrast, plunges to the discomforting heart of the conflict between settler and First Nation culture and suggests the fragility of any colonial experiment. I love the way her forest here threatens to absorb the church and its graves.

Patrick Gale is a novelist living near Penzance in Cornwall. His most recent book, ‘A Place Called Winter’, was published in March

John McEwen comments:
What do these forests make you feel?’ wrote Emily Carr. ‘they are profoundly solemn yet upliftingly joyous; like the Bible, you can find strength in them that you look for. how absolutely full of truth they are, how full of reality… rejoicing in creation, bracing each other, sheltering the birds and beasts, the myriad insects.’

Carr is considered a cornerstone of Canadian art, her pictures selling for millions, yet until her Dulwich Picture Gallery show last year, she was generally unknown in England. She was born in Victoria, Vancouver Island, the year British Columbia became a province, to ‘well to do’ and strictly Presbyterian English parents. their death before she was 20 allowed her natural rebelliousness free rein.

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Unlike her prim elder sisters, she studied art in California and later under J. D. Fergusson and others in Paris, while also exploring the wilderness—all this despite poor health. She loved animals and cut an eccentric figure stumping through Victoria with her dogs and a pram full of pets, including Woo, a monkey, and Susie, a white rat.

The felling of the forests by the colonial lumber trade was her particular bugbear, its heedless commercialism a savage contrast with the native population’s immemorial and harmonious custodianship. She saw landscape as a revelation of divinity and explored alternative religions for reciprocation, ultimately finding it in Christianity, for all its missionary blight, to ‘serene perhaps but cold’ theosophy, then a fad among artists.

As the youngest of five daughters, she had to make her own, often impoverished, way, only finding fame in old age through the success of some autobiographical books.

This article was originally published in Country Life May 27, 2015.

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