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AGGV exhibit explores life and career of Sophie Pemberton

A contemporary of Emily Carr, Sophie Pemberton was one of the first Canadian women to find success as a professional artist abroad.


Where: The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1040 Moss St.

When: Sept. 23-Jan. 21


The parallels between Victoria painters Sophie Pemberton and Emily Carr — who were born in 1869 and 1871, respectively — are impossible to ignore.

Not only were they born within two years of each other, Pemberton and Carr grew up in Victoria, went to the same church, and had the same childhood artistic aspirations. But their professional paths did not often cross — and it will surprise many to learn who took the lead out of the gate.

“Pemberton was one step ahead of Carr, in terms of going outside of Canada for training and international exposure,” said archivist Kathryn Bridge, guest curator of a new Art Gallery of Victoria exhibit, Unexpected: The Life and Art of Sophie Pemberton, Canadian Artist.

“I wouldn’t say she is in Carr’s shadow. I would simply say her story has been overshadowed.”

Bridge — who has curated several Carr exhibitions and wrote the introductory essay for the 2003 reissue of Carr’s beloved 1941 book, Klee Wyck — believes the reason for such a pronounced gap between the two has to do with Pemberton living in the United Kingdom for more than 40 years.

Though lesser-known to some, Pemberton was one of the first Canadian women to find success as a professional artist abroad. In 1897, her work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, and in 1899, she was the first woman to receive a top prize from the Académie Julian in Paris for her portraiture.

Carr, however, lived primarily in Canada and connected with Canadian artists. “Pemberton, being absent, didn’t have that,” Bridge said, adding that the artist’s career came to an abrupt end shortly after her first marriage, in 1917, forcing her into relative obscurity. “Hers were European circles, so it was different.”

Unexpected: The Life and Art of Sophie Pemberton, Canadian Artist, features more than 70 pieces culled from private collections and those of the AGGV, Vancouver Art Gallery, Royal B.C. Museum/B.C. Archives, and the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

The exhibition also includes a variety of archival materials (photo albums, letters and diaries) provided by descendants of Pemberton’s family. She returned to Victoria permanently in 1947, where she remained until her death in 1959.

Her work offers a travelogue of the region, from a creek in the Cowichan Valley to the treed driveway of Groos Mansion on Newport Avenue. She worked with both watercolours and oils, and excelled in a multitude of forms. “There is some fabulous portraiture,” Bridge said. “But she was also very talented as a landscape painter.”

Bridge oversaw the historical art collection at the B.C. Archives when she worked there, which included several Pemberton originals. “That was when I first encountered her. She has always been somebody I wanted to know more about, so when I retired from the Royal B.C. Museum in 2017, Sophie Pemberton was on top of the list of things I wanted to do.”

Bridge, an adjunct faculty member in the History Department at the University of Victoria, spent five years researching the artist before she made her proposal to the AGGV for its first Pemberton exhibit since 1978. Information was difficult to come by as only four institutions in Canada hold her art, she said. The rest remains either undiscovered or in private and family collections.

As a result, Unexpected: The Life and Art of Sophie Pemberton, Canadian Artist is the first career-spanning exhibit of its size to fête the painter.

“Whenever anyone has been interested in [showcasing her work], they have always used the same paintings over and over again,” Bridge said.

“I knew there was much more to her biography that hadn’t been researched, and many more paintings out there. The advent of the Internet has made it possible to do so much more research and know so much more about her.”

The exhibit opens Saturday (Sept. 23) with a free public open house from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. For the remainder of its run, until Jan. 21, 2024, regular gallery admission is in effect.

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