LOT 111

1871 - 1945

House and Totems
oil on board, circa 1928
signed with the Estate stamp and on verso signed with the Estate stamp, titled on the Dominion Gallery labels, inscribed with the Dominion Gallery inventory #A154 and #B8386 / 72 E (circled) / S / 87 & 88 (circled) and stamped twice with the Dominion Gallery stamp with the original 1448 St. Catherine West address
16 1/4 x 14 in, 41.3 x 35.6 cm

Estimate: $200,000 - $300,000 CAD

Sold for: $349,250

Preview at: Heffel Toronto – 13 Hazelton Ave

Dominion Gallery, Montreal
Acquired from the above by a Private Collection, Ottawa, 1951
Dominion Gallery, Montreal
Acquired from the above by Woltjen/Udell Gallery, Edmonton, 1990
Private Collection, Calgary

In 1912, Emily Carr first visited the Gitxsan village of Gitwangak (Kitwanga) on the Skeena River. Greying weather-worn totem poles and monumental art still stood proudly along the riverbank, with houses and graves nearby. She spent several days sketching and painting, carefully delineating the totem poles; her compositions showing them in their original locations within the village setting remain an important historical resource today.

Revisiting the village in 1928, Carr was shocked at the transformation. Many of the poles she had carefully sketched in 1912 had suffered from weather, flooding and age, prompting the Canadian government to begin in 1926 an ambitious “restoration project” aimed at preserving the poles – which by now were of significant tourist interest. The Canadian National Railway’s Kitwanga station enabled tourists to disembark and view the poles, but how much better might the experience be if the poles were closer to the line and fallen poles were supported? The project involved cutting down totem poles at their bases, repainting and then re-erecting them (conveniently for tourists) in single lines along a road farther back from the river. In the first two seasons a total of 16 poles were so “restored,” and when Carr arrived in 1928, the appearance of the village was greatly altered.[1]

In a letter to Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada, she wrote:

I found the poles greatly deteriorated in the last 15 years. The restored ones have lost much of their interest and subtlety in the process. I appreciate the difficulty of restoring them, and it is certainly better to do it than let them utterly disappear, as they must have in a few years, but that heavy loads of all over paint drowns them. I wish they would put on the preservatives and leave the colour, not soak the whole pole in grey paint.[2]

Anthropologist Marius Barbeau recorded the name of the left-most pole in our painting as “Frogs-Hanging-Down.” With three figures visible, The Person of the Doorway stands above a Beaver gnawing on a stick, supported by a squatting Chief of Frogs figure. The centre pole, “Whereon-Climbs-Frog,” has a large Frog climbing upward, supported by a Half Bear at the base. On the right, “Man-in-the-Copper-Shield” pole depicts a Frog hanging downwards, supported by a Kwohamon or Half-Way-Out figure.[3]

In House and Totems, Carr focused on the lower figures of three totem poles rather than attempting to delineate entire poles as she had in 1912. Knowing that the poles had been moved eliminated her need to document in the manner of her earlier visit. The poles on the left and right had originally been erected near each other, but the central pole was moved now with the restoration to stand alongside them.[4] She was interested in the comparative opportunities presented by three poles in close proximity and compositional framing. In this lively work, the colour contrasts between their now-painted carved features boldly projected a new aesthetic, as Carr moves toward what Doris Shadbolt called her “mature years.”

We thank Kathryn Bridge for contributing the above essay. Bridge is the Curator Emerita, History and Art at the Royal British Columbia Museum and author of the introductory essay to the 2004 edition of Emily Carr’s memoir Klee Wyck. She recently authored a catalogue essay for the exhibition Emily Carr: Fresh Seeing—French Modernism and the West Coast at the Audain Art Museum, which opened in September 2019 and traveled to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in March 2020.

1. See David Darling and Douglas Cole, “Totem Pole Restoration on the Skeena, 1925-30: An Early Exercise in Heritage Conservation,” BC Studies, August 1980, 29-48.

2. Emily Carr to Eric Brown, October 1, 1928 (National Gallery of Canada Archives 7-1), quoted in Gerta Moray, Unsettling Encounters: First Nations Imagery in the Art of Emily Carr (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006), 295.

3. A diagram of the original placement of the poles prior to restoration is in George F. MacDonald, The Totem Poles and Monuments of Gitwangak Village, Studies in Archaeology, Architecture and History (Ottawa: National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, 1984).

4. Marius Barbeau, Totem Poles of the Gitksan, Upper Skeena River, British Columbia, Bulletin (National Museum of Canada) no. 61, Anthropological Series no. 12 (Ottawa: F.A. Acland, 1929).

Included with this lot is Emily Carr’s memoir Klee Wyck, published by Oxford University Press, Toronto / London, 1941. The book won the 1941 Governor General's Award and occupies an important place in Canadian literature.

Estimate: $200,000 - $300,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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