Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Artist's story a part of Victoria's history

THE LIFE AND ART OF INA D.D. UHTHOFF By Christina Johnson-Dean Mother Tongue Publishing, 114 pp., $32.95 The Life and Art of Ina D.D. Uhthoff is the fifth book in The Unheralded Artists of B.C.


By Christina Johnson-Dean

Mother Tongue Publishing, 114 pp., $32.95

The Life and Art of Ina D.D. Uhthoff is the fifth book in The Unheralded Artists of B.C. series, published by Saltspring Island's Mother Tongue Publishing. Ina D.D. Uhthoff (née Campbell) was born in Scotland in 1889. She studied at the Glasgow School of Art, and by the age of 24 had had her work included in several exhibitions.

In 1913, Ina Campbell travelled to the Creston Valley to visit friends. In Crawford Bay, near Nelson, she met Ted Uhthoff, who would become her husband. Christina Johnson-Dean, a Victoria teacher, gives an overview of Ina Uhthoff's life and argues that Uhthoff's passion for and dedication to art should secure her a place in Victoria history.

Johnson-Dean has a serviceable style, but the life of her subject is often buried under a mass of dates and detail without illuminating the woman. Ina Uhthoff is seen by some as a kind, gentle person, while others describe her as rather cranky and forbidding. Her service to the art world of Victoria, both as artist and teacher, and most importantly as a central figure in the establishment of the Victoria School of Art and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, is undeniable, but the person is somewhat elusive.

Some engaging anecdotes about Uhthoff's life are hidden in the notes at the end of the book, mixed in with purely bibliographic citations. For example, Johnson-Dean mentions in the body of the book that Uhthoff's son John joined the RCAF, but the note tells readers that she was initially angry at his decision to leave UBC and join up. Johnson-Dean seems to shy away from saying anything obviously negative, and that's a tricky position to be in when writing a biography. Once, when Uhthoff organized an exhibition of children's work (the children were her students), she did not include all the children, due to space. Johnson-Dean says, "Yet today, with our wide range of tastes and awareness of children's feelings as they develop, one might hesitate to omit a child's work entirely." The exhibit was in 1954, and Uhthoff herself was well aware of the effect of her choice, having written an article for the Victoria Daily Colonist in which she says: "Many young people may be disappointed not to find any of their paintings on exhibition." While celebrating children's art, Uhthoff still made esthetic choices, and those seldom please everyone.

The book is as beautiful as the others in this series. Mother Tongue has reproduced many of Uhthoff's works in colour, and the images show the artist's development and her interest in changing styles. Uhthoff was not afraid to try new things or to promote other artists. She befriended a young Pat Martin Bates, who wrote a brief introduction to the book. Bates says, "Ina was more help and inspiration to me than I knew," and many other quotations from other artists echo this sentiment.

Uhthoff was a contemporary of Emily Carr, and while the two knew each other, they moved in very different circles. As Johnson-Dean notes: "Carr's irascible and unpredictable [nature] was probably no match for the astute diplomacy, manners and propriety of Ina Uhthoff in dealing with the stalwarts of the Women's Canadian Club. Also, Ina had the urgent need to support herself and her children, so she was in no position to ruffle feathers." Evidently the two women had different temperaments, but Carr did spend about 15 years running a boarding house, struggling to support herself in a rather meagre style and living in relative isolation from the art world, a fact that is not mentioned.

Whatever the shortcomings of this volume, it is still a welcome addition to the bookshelves of anyone interested in Victoria history, specifically that of the art world.

Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College.