On Aug. 18, 1907, Emily Carr, then 35, embarked on a journey to Alaska, departing aboard the SS Princess Royal with her older sister Alice. Filled with adventure and artistically formative, the trip would prove to be a seminal moment in the birth of the Emily Carr we know. It was during this trip that she painted what were likely her first totem poles; that a compliment from a U.S. artist who praised her work for having “the true Indian flavour” had a profound effect; that she found her vocation.
“By the time I reached home my mind was made up. I was going to picture totem poles in their own village settings, as complete a collection of them as I could,” she would later write in her autobiography, Growing Pains. While it took a few years – and exposure to modernist painting while studying in France – for Carr to find her artistic voice, the Alaska trip was transformative. David Silcox, former president of Sotheby’s Canada, likens it to “the planting of a seed that germinated, five years later, after the nurturing sunshine and brilliant air of France.”
Carr scholars have always known that the artist created a journal documenting the trip, but for decades it was considered lost. As Carr expert Kathryn Bridge wrote in the foreword to the 2011 publication of Carr’s Sister and I: From Victoria to London, “Unfortunately, all that remains of her ‘Alaska Journal’ are black-and-white photographs of six pages. The original, last seen in the 1950s, has vanished.”
Now, more than a half-century later, the diary – bound in a burgundy cardboard scribbler, its spine reinforced with strips of beige tape – has found its way to the light of day from a storage cupboard in the basement of a house in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood of Montreal.
Comprising text penned in black ink and playful watercolour illustrations, it chronicles the misadventures of a pair of intrepid sisters making their way through such northern outposts as Ketchikan and Skagway.
The story of how it came to see the light of day, meanwhile, constitutes an intriguing postscript to their bygone odyssey. Its owners realized that the storybook in their basement was Carr’s original diary – and a missing link whose loss Carr scholars have long been lamenting – only when they showed it, as an afterthought, to Silcox, who was at their home to view some of their art. “He was looking at the other two paintings, and I just thought of [the diary] and I said to Mum, ‘Should we show him the thing in the basement?’” recalls Tom Daly, a schoolteacher whose family has owned the diary for 60 years.
The next chapter in the journal’s extraordinary history is yet to unfold. But the diary’s authenticity is without question, says Bridge, who was shown the book by Silcox earlier this year, and confirmed that it was a sought-after treasure not seen publicly since the 1950s. A 100-page unlined scribbler with “Mapping Book” embossed on its front cover, and in Carr’s handwriting,“Title – Sister and I in Alaska,” it is the canvas upon which Carr vividly brings the sisters’ Alaskan adventures to life. With whimsy and exceptional economy, Carr recounts characters met and events experienced – a disastrous hike, lost luggage – using text and illustrations to complement each other, often to hilarious effect.
“Tho’ we passed mainly through placid channels, among the islands there were occasions on which vicious strips of open sea had to be crossed: for these sister and I were well equipped; and heroically prepared ourselves,” reads the text on an early page. Next to it is an illustration of the two women lying in their bunks, each holding a jug marked “BRANDY.”
Throughout the book, Carr depicts herself as grumpy – an adventurous but dyspeptic travelling companion to the more stoic Alice. The spelling is often atrocious – Bridge believes this was deliberate – but there is no arguing with the fine quality of the writing. The illustrations – signed “SPUDZ,” a Carr nom de plume – are wonderful. The composition is strong, the colours are bright. “The diary has rarely been opened,” says Silcox, now vice-chair of the advisory board at Sotheby’s Canada, where he retired as president in June. “The watercolours have rarely been exposed to light.”
A pivotal shift to native art
The exposure they’re about to get will be of a different kind. Silcox has teamed up with Rod Green at Masters Gallery in Calgary to reproduce the diary in a limited “facsimile” edition – 149 copies are available at $350 apiece – being published by Figure 1 Publishing, a Vancouver-based company formed by three former Douglas & McIntyre executives late last year. A hardcover trade edition will follow next spring.
The journal is a significant addition to Carr scholarship. For one thing, it is an early example of the funny, vignette-driven format that Carr would repeat in the Victoria to London diary – a format also evident, Silcox says, in her later writing. Most significantly, it offers an invaluable window into a seminal event in Carr’s life and work. While this was hardly her first exposure to First Nations people, the Alaska trip was pivotal, decisively shifting her interest and focus toward their art.