Wherein She Dwelt: Emily Carr's Neighbourhood

 Emily Carr, one of Canada's best known painters and storytellers, was born in Victoria 149 years ago on December 13, 1871.

On the eve of 2021, the sesquicentennial year of her birth, City of Victoria Poet Laureate John Barton reads from his third book of poems, West of Darkness: Emily Carr, A Self-Portrait. Except for periods of study in California, England, and France as well as the years during which she resided in Vancouver prior to the First World War, Carr livedpainted, and died within blocks of her birthplace at 207 Government Street, now known as Carr House: Centre for Creative Community, in Victoria’s James Bay neighourhood. John’s poems, which this video captures him reading in various rooms inside Carr House, bring alive those places in this historic part of the city that helped shape and solace Carr over the course of her life. Carr House, like the houses where we all grow up, was perhaps its hub. 

John began writing West of Darkness while he was a student at the University of Victoria in 1978. He completed it in his father’s dining room in Saanich in 1984. The poems in this book, which collectively are single documentary poem written in Emily Carr’s voice, articulate his attempt to imagine how she felt about her life, her vocation and, for better or worse, the new country—Canada—that she called home. West of Darkness: Emily Carr, A Self-Portrait was published to great acclaim by Penumbra Editions in 1987, winning Ottawa’s Archibald Lampman Award in 1988. Two subsequent editions were published by Beach Holme in 1999 and by BushekBooks (in English and French) in 2006.  

If you wish, while watching this video, you may follow the accompanying texts of the poems, which are accessible through links below. John has provided the following notes on each poem in order to shed light on what inspired him. For Johnthese poems remain as fresh as ever, even though he finished writing them almost forty years ago. His interest in Emily Carr has never abated and only gets stronger. He hopes these poems will inspire the same degree of curiosity in you.  

 Proem

Emily was born on December 13, 1871, in her mother’s bedroom on the second floor at the front of the Carr House, which is where I was filmed reading this poem. Its lines are drawn from a longer poem called “Sophie Frank.” Sophie was an Indigenous woman who befriended Emily while the painter lived in Vancouver in the early 1900sTheirs was a friendship that was lifelong. In the longer poem, I contrast Emily’s birth with the children that Sophie lost in childbirth or during their infancy, losses representative of the high child-mortality rate among First Nations families at that timeWhile the lines I read here focus on the moment of Carr’s birth, the tragically early deaths of Sophie’s children should not be forgottenThe picture that follows my reading of this excerpt is of the bed in which Carr was born.

Carr House, when Richard Carr, Emily’s father, began building it in 1863, sat on four acres, a plot of land much more extensive than the lot the house occupies today. The property once extended east to Beacon Hill Parknorth to Toronto Street, and south to Simcoe Street. Emily, as is widely known, had a particular affection for animals and, in this poem, I imagine her as a small girl singing nonsense verse to the family cow. It is written in the style of similar poems by the mid-twentieth-century American poet, Theodore Roethke, who lived across the Strait of Juan da Fuca in the State of Washington and whose work I read while writing West of Darkness. I also took inspiration from “Cow Yard” in Carr’s memoir, The Book of Small My reading of “Small’s Cow Yard” was filmed under an apple tree in a side yard that is overlooked by Emily’s mother’s bedroom window.  

In “Mother,” from her memoir, Growing Pains, Emily describes her parents’ relationship as she knew it while growing up in Carr House. Her mother was often ill and died in 1886, likely of tuberculosis, when Emily was an adolescent. Two years later, her father also died. Emily describes his affection for a grapevine named Isabella that grew up the south face of the house: “He tacked Isabella up, he pinched her back, petted, trained her, gave her everything a vine could possibly want, endured far more waywardness from her than all of us put together would dare to show.” She goes on to say, “After Father had fussed over Isabella and eaten a good dinner, he went upstairs to see Mother who was far more often in bed ill than up. He was good to Mother in his way, gave her every possible comfort, good help, good doctoring, best food, but I resented that he went to Isabella first and Mother after.” In “Mother Was Gentle,” I imagine Emily as a middle-aged woman, years later recalling her mother and father with greater understanding. I was filmed reading “Mother Was Gentle” in the sunroom over which Isabella once grew.  

Emily met the Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris in 1927 when she went to Ottawa and Toronto for the opening of the National Gallery of Canada’s Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern, in which she showed thirty-eight watercolours and oil paintings. With the Group of Seven and Harris in particular, she found common purpose as an artist. She and Harris embarked on a years-long correspondence; to him she voiced her aspirations while rueing the daily vicissitudes of life. In this imagined letter to Harris, I have her quote Walt Whitman, inarguably one of her favourite poetsMy poem is set in Emily’s studio in the rooming house that she built at 636 Simcoe Street just before the First World War. Better known today as the House of All Sorts, the title of Emily’s memoir about her up-and-mostly-down life as a landlady, it stands on what was once the pasture where, as a child, she had gone to commune with the family cow. I am filmed reading “Saturday Evening (A Letter to Lawren Harris)” in the Carrs’ parlour.  

Though Emily was raised, as I was, in what she would have called the Church of England and, unlike me, remained devout her entire life, she came to articulate her faith in increasingly less denominational terms, attending services at various churches. In this poem, however, in which she recounts a typical Depression-Era Christmas, I imagine her returning to the roots of her faith, at least for duration of the holiday season, by attending the Christmas morning service at Christ Church Cathedral on Quadra Street. I twice weave in lines from “We Three Kings,” my own favourite carol as a child.  My reading of “Boxing Day, 1934” is filmed in the Carrs’ dining room. 

“Portents” is the third and final part of a much longer poem of the same name that recounts three pivotal moments in Emily’s development as an artist. Though the sequence falls midway through the book’s narrative, it is the last poem I wrote for West of Darkness. The first two sections of the poem sketch out key experiences in England in 1904 and France in 1910; this third section describes a class that the Seattle-based artist Mark Tobey gave in her studio in 1928. Though Tobey’s instruction in Cubism and other modernist approaches to image-making had little effect on many of the very “traditional” artists who also attended, Emily herself was immensely moved and his influence can be seen in several of her subsequent paintings. My reading of “Portents” was filmed in the Carrs’ parlour.  

Emily’s parents’ eldest daughters, Edith and Clara, were born in England, as were two brothers, who died in their infancy. Elizabeth, or Lizzie, was born in 1867, four years after the Carrs settled in Victoria; her birth was followed by Alice’s in 1869, and Emily’s in 1871A brother, Richard, came along in 1875. The three younger sisters were known as Big, Middle, and Small, monikers that followed them through life—or at least they did, according to Emily in subsequent memoirs. Given how close they were in age, the sisters, even as adults, enjoyed fractious if affectionate relations and Emily, at least in her own mind, was the least conventional of the three. Despite her oft-espoused ambivalence about Big, the more conservative of the two older womenEmily felt genuine warmth for her. Lizzie died of breast cancer in August 1936. I was filmed reading “Lizzie’s Death” in the upstairs master bedroom, also known as Lizzie’s bedroom. 

After she began to experience persistent ill-health as a result of a heart attack in 1937, Emily redirected some of the creativity formerly lavished on painting to her writing. The several volumes of memoirs that were published in the 1940s before and after her death are composed of short sketches that, when read cumulatively, demonstrate the remarkable range of her life experience. Expressed using sometimes broad, sometimes subtle strokes of lyricism, dry wit and  close observation hone them equally. This poem attempts to capture Emily’s talent for aphorism  by recounting an anecdote of my own invention. I capture Emily still living in the House of All Sorts at a time when her reputation as an artist locally and nationally is still on the ascendantCurious, if not yet reverential strangers on occasion would knock on her door uninvited. The chairs I describe as having been raised to the ceiling in order to save space is not something I could make up myself. My reading of “Story Draft” was filmed in the Carr House study. 

Emily, exhausted from over twenty years of running a boarding house, sold the House of All Sorts in 1936 and moved into a small house now no longer standing on Beckley Street, which is several block to the west of Carr House and the House of All Sorts. It runs one block north of Niagara between Rendell and Oswego. Emily lived there with her four-footed and feathered creatures, painting and writing through bouts of ill health and good, until February 1940, when she moved into one half of her sister Alice’s house on St. Andrews, which still stands on a lot carved from the original Carr acreage. I was filmed reading “316 Beckley Street” in Lizzie’s bedroom, which is perhaps appropriate since Emily moved to Beckley Street the same year that Lizzie died.  

During the Second World War, one of Victoria’s oldest hotels, the James Bay Hotel (known today as the James Bay Inn), which is located at the corner of Government and Toronto, was temporarily converted into a hospital run by the Grey Nuns. Less than a block away from Carr House and scarcely more from Alice’s house, it was a perfect place for a restEmily, who was suffering from ever worsening health that the winter cold further complicated, was admitted in February 1945. It is here that she died several weeks later of a heart attack on March 2, 1945, not quite three months after her seventy-third birthday. In this poem, I imagine the vagaries of her last conscious moments.  I was filmed reading on Carr House’s main staircase. 

John Barton would like to thank Kate Kerr, of Carr House, for her support and enthusiasm for Wherein She Dwelt: Emily Carr’s Neighbourhood, and Tom Kerr, who in mid-November filmed John reading his poems at Carr House 

Wherein She Dwelt: Emily Carr’s Neighbourhood was produced by the City of Victoria, with the assistance of the Arts, Culture & Events Division and the Engagement Department, and by Carr House: Centre of Creative Community 

 

 

 

 

Photo Credits 

  • Photograph of Emily Carr before “Proem”: “Emily Carr in her studio at 646 Simcoe Street” by Harry Upperton Knight, January 9, 1934. Collection of the City of Victoria Archives (Reference Number: PR-0073-M07984). © City of Victoria. 
  • Photographs before and after “Mother Was Gentle”: “Emily Carr (née Saunders),” the artist’s mother, and “Richard Carr,” the artist’s father. Collection of the Royal British Columbia Museum. © Royal British Columbia Museum.
  • Photograph after Saturday Evening (Letter to Lawren Harris)”: “Peter Manning and Jerry Gosley in Emily Carr’s ‘House of All Sorts,’” 1967. Collection of the City of Victoria Archives (Reference Number: AC1-M07145). © City of Victoria. 
  • Photograph after “Portents”: “Emily Carr in her studio at 646 Simcoe Street” by Harry Upperton Knight, January 9, 1934. Collection of the City of Victoria Archives (Reference Number: PR-0073-M00671). © City of Victoria.
  • Photograph after “Story Draft”: “Emily Carr with paintings in her studio at 646 Simcoe Street” by Harry Upperton Knight, January 9, 1934. Collection of the City of Victoria Archives (Reference Number: PR-0073-M00665). © City of Victoria. 
  • Photograph after “316 Beckley Street”: “Emily Carr’s studio, 218 St. Andrews Street” by Kenneth McAllister, ca. 1945. Collection of the City of Victoria Archives (Reference Number: PR-0114-M00698). © City of Victoria. 
  • All contemporary photographs of the exterior and the interior of Emily Carr’s birthplace are courtesy of Carr House: Centre for Creative Community. © Carr House: Centre for Creative Community.   
  • Covers of John Barton’s books used with the permission of John Barton. 

If you want to learn more about John Barton's Emily Carr poems, please email culture@victoria.ca