House Beautiful: A portrait of the artist Emily Carr


What: “Words Enough,” A fundraiser for Emily Carr House. The afternoon features a performance by Karen Lenz, classical violin music by Linda Donn and readings from Emily Carr's works by Jan Ross.

When: Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016, 1:30 p.m.

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Where: Merlin’s Sun Theatre, 1983 Fairfield Rd.

Seating is limited. Reservations are recommended.

To reserve seats, call (250) 383-5843 or email


Walking up the verandah steps and through the front door of Emily Carr House, it’s easy to imagine the Victorian home filled with sounds of the everyday life of the busy Carr family.

In the dining room, Emily Carr would be teaching art to one of her many young students, including Myfanwy Pavelic. One of her sisters would be in the light-filled parlour across the hall, playing piano or doing needlepoint. Outside, the garden was filled with lawn and flowers, a tidy bit of order in the midst of what Carr’s mother viewed as the “wilderness” of James Bay when the family had the house built for them in 1862-63.

Then, it was one of the few houses in the area, a stately and prim home with a cow path out front and the wildness of the forest and ocean beyond its picket fence.

Now, Emily Carr House, at 207 Government St., is surrounded by homes in what has become one of the most densely populated residential areas of Victoria, just a few blocks behind the B.C. legislature. The house is a designated national and provincial historic site.

But step inside and you’re transported back to a well-kept family home, with careful attention paid to recreating the rooms as they would have been between the 1860s and the turn of the century, when Carr lived there.

It’s a treasure trove for those who love art, writing, history or simply looking at a beautiful period home filled with artifacts and pieces that evoke a time and place that was part of a great artist’s formation. It draws in everyone from tourists walking by after visiting the legislature to academics who study Emily Carr’s art and writing, and locals who want to soak up a bit of peace and quiet on a busy day.

“We’re not creating a shrine to Emily Carr,” says curator Jan Ross. “We are an interpretative centre for the people of B.C. that furthers the many wonderful things Emily Carr stood for. She still has a lot to say on a contemporary basis. She was an environmentalist, a champion of First Nations — a visionary who was a Canadian icon.”

She was also messy in her makeshift studio in the dining room, with its abundance of light from a bay window, so the family often kept the two doors to the high-ceilinged room shut. They also let her move her studio to the loft above the cow barn in back of the house.

Now, the dining room is the heart of the house, usually filled with a contemporary art exhibit. That’s in keeping with Carr’s desire to have a free art gallery for the people. It recently displayed an exhibition of drawings done by First Nations students at the Port Alberni Indian Residential School in the 1950s. The drawings formed a key part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, and the exhibition reflects Carr’s deep interest in First Nations culture.

The exhibitions have included work by Toni Onley, Joe Fafard, Susan Point, Floyd Joseph and Emily Carr herself, from both public and private collections. The Garth Homer Society’s Art Studio Group often displays there, as well.

“We like to see that the things that Emily believed in — access to art and culture and nature — are available to all in the community,” Ross says.

The artwork is displayed on gold wallpaper that looks multi-dimensional. It was silk-screened by a Cedar Hill junior high school art class in the 1970s, when the house was in the midst of restoration, based on a scrap of wallpaper found by restorers. That scrap went to art teacher Lily Wallace, and the students’ creation is there today.

“It’s kind of like archeology, but instead of digging through dirt, you’re digging through layers and layers of paint and wallpaper,” says Ross, who worked on the restoration in 1976.

Paint colours throughout are brighter than one might expect for the time — sherbet orange in the parlour, green and maroon with ceiling rosettes in the dining room.

There were no photos of the interior, so it’s been restored and decorated in a manner typical of that era.

“The other wonderful thing about Emily is that she has written a lot about her home and her childhood, so we have factual information to base it on,” says Ross, who knows Carr’s work inside and out.

For example, one Carr book talks of a horse-hair settee in the bay window and a mantle clock ticking above the fireplace. Both are there, not originals but true to the time period.

The first floor is open to the public, with the dining room opening to a breakfast room, which would have been cozy from the fire in the winter, but bright and breezy in the summer with its double French doors leading to a covered sitting area. The original kitchen is now a small gift shop.

The pantry was chosen specifically as the home for actual Carr family memorabilia. It is the darkest room and is temperature-controlled to keep the artifacts in their best condition. Some visitors come specifically to look for items Carr has mentioned in her books — a dinner gong, a cow bell. It’s a chance to see the very item that sparked the author’s imagination.

The room is chockablock with family history, including the bed Carr was born in (she was born in the house in 1871). The family Bible, Carr’s handwritten notes and letters in her hard-to-decipher hand — which led her to take a typing course at Sprott Shaw — first editions of her books, books she loved (she kept three annotated copies of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, one of her favourites) and “Klee Wyck” pottery Carr created out of clay she dug from Dallas Road are all on display.

The front parlour is bright and inviting, a place to sit and enjoy the light. You might find visiting scholars and students with books spread out on the dining-room table. They are able to study Carr’s letters and works here. Visitors can also watch an Emmy-nominated documentary on Carr, Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe. Musicians and actors give performances here.

Increasing numbers of people from all over the world are coming to the house to study or find their own sparks of creativity, Ross says.

A group of Jungian psychologists from Switzerland has come twice to analyze Carr’s work from their perspective. Children from elementary schools throughout the region come on field trips — some wanting to learn more about the pet monkey Carr used to have. Others want to see where the person who painted the thrilling landscapes lived as a child, just like them.

Fundraisers like that scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 16 at 1983 Fairfield Rd. help defray the costs of having such events at the Carr House.

The fundraiser, with its live theatre, musical performances and reading, is at a small private theatre, taking Carr “to the community,” says Ross.

The Carr House has gotten even busier after a 19-week exhibit of her work at London’s Dulwich Gallery. Some 35,000 people saw the exhibit, and it garnered international rave reviews.

“We only have one Emily Carr, and we treasure her here,” Ross says.

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