Book review: A brilliant look at an essential British Columbia artist

E.J. Hughes Paints Vancouver Island
By Robert Amos
TouchWood, 192 pp., $35.00

E.J. Hughes was not just another artist who captured the beauty of coastal British Columbia; he was a modern-day Emily Carr, and considered by many to be the province’s most important artist in the latter half of the 20th century.

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Hughes was one of the rare artists who could appeal to the masses while satisfying the more particular art critics. His appeal was universal, possibly because his colourful works were highly evocative of real life. We could all identify with his paintings and watercolours.

They revealed the strength, the beauty and the majesty of Nanaimo, Ladysmith, Crofton and elsewhere on Vancouver Island, as well as the everyday views of ferries, fishing fleets and waterways.

More than any other artist, to me, his bold, colourful works recorded the place I call home — a home that shows an ideal Vancouver Island, and reflects a not-too-distant past.

For proof, consider this book, E.J. Hughes Paints Vancouver Island, by Robert Amos. Amos was this newspaper’s art writer for three decades, and came to know Hughes and become familiar with his works and his accomplishments.

Amos was entrusted with papers collected by Pat Salmon, Hughes’s associate and biographer. These papers helped Amos tell the story of Hughes, and explain his influences and his remarkable career, which was made possible when a gallery owner in Montreal agreed to take everything that Hughes could produce.

“This arrangement may be unique in Canadian art,” Amos writes.

Hughes died in 2007. He was born in North Vancouver but spent almost all of his life on southern Vancouver Island, including Victoria, Shawnigan Lake, Duncan, Ladysmith and Duncan.

One of his teachers had been the famed Frederick Varley, who also was known for representing British Columbia. Well before his death, Hughes had become as vital to art in B.C. as Varley’s Group of Seven was to all of Canada.

While Carr’s art could be seen be dark and gloomy, Hughes’s picturesque imagery used colour and authenticity to create excitement, and virtually leap off the canvas.

Hughes worked mainly in oils and acrylics until he was almost 80. Then, like many other aging artists, he switched to watercolours, because he could no longer stand at his easel. He quickly proved that his talent was not limited by a switch in paint.

Fourteen of those watercolours are included in this collection, along with 31 oils and 10 acrylics. The book also includes photos, annotated sketches and handwritten notes, all helping us to better understand the works included.

The works included here are from the 1930s to the 2000s, and show the early years of the distinctive Hughes style, then a gradual evolution — although to be clear, an E.J. Hughes from any date is still an E.J. Hughes.

The paintings are not presented in chronological order. Instead, they cover Hughes’ view of the Island from south to north, from Victoria to the Comox Valley.

The book makes a strong case: Hughes clearly deserved all of the respect that he earned, and it should be no surprise that one of his B.C. icons — Fishboats, Rivers Inlet — recently sold for more than $2 million.

Not everyone can afford to spend that much on a painting, but E.J. Hughes Paints Vancouver Island makes it possible for all of us to get our Hughes fix from time to time.

Hughes produced art for all of us. The reason for his appeal is simple: His paintings are easy to like and easy to digest.

With every turn of the page of this book, another view appears that is familiar, yet is also stronger and more emphatic than we might remember or imagine. We know the views, yes, but through the eyes and hands of E.J. Hughes, the locations transcend the ordinary.

Amos has produced a brilliant book, well-written, fascinating, with gorgeous illustrations. This book, quite sincerely, should be considered a must-have by every person who loves Vancouver Island.

This is more than just a book for art lovers — even though, in itself, E.J. Hughes Paints Vancouver Island is itself a work of art.

The reviewer is the editor and publisher of the Times Colonist.

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