On the long drive across London to meet Liz Charsley-Jory, the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s first Canadian artist-in-residence, I get hopelessly, head-swimmingly lost. After 30 minutes of spinning through roundabouts from Camberwell to Brixton, I pull into an alley beside a chicken shop, where a junkie in a ragged bowler hat taps on my window as I dial the artist’s number and tell her I’m not sure I’m going to make it. She assures me that I’m only 10 minutes away. “Just stay on the phone,” she says, “and I’ll guide you in.”
And so it proves to be. Ten minutes later, I am sitting with a hot cup of tea in the living room of Charsley-Jory’s airy Victorian house in the South London district of Herne Hill. She shares the home with her British husband, a graphic designer; and two teenage sons. All around us – on the walls, the floor, the table, and every available surface – are her drawings: pastel-on-paper landscapes of old-growth forests, deserted shorelines and fields of blazing grass.
They are images that, as a Canadian abroad, flood me with a deep-in-the-bones sensation of home. “You see, there’s a path through the forest, but it’s not clear where it leads,” she says, pointing to the large drawing of the British Columbian woods above her mantel. But looking at the light streaming through the redwoods, I feel the opposite of lost. I am utterly and gratefully found.
Charsley-Jory is preparing to mount her first Dulwich show, Bright Land: West of the Rockies, South of the Thames. Running from March 26 to May 19, the small exhibition is inspired by the 2011-12 Dulwich blockbuster, Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. That earlier exhibit, sponsored by, among others, Canadian art dealer Ash Prakash and this newspaper, proved both a critical and financial success – one that succeeded so thoroughly in its goal of raising the international profile of classic Canadian art that the Dulwich is now taking a more prolonged interest in the artistic legacy of our fair nation. There is another large-scale show of the work of Emily Carr planned for next year, and rumours swirl of a David Milne exhibit in the works after that.
Meanwhile, Charsley-Jory has spent the past several months teaching the art of landscape painting to students at the Dulwich, with an emphasis on the Group of Seven. “Their work is more vigorous than the Impressionists,” she says. “The lack of figures makes the viewer feel swallowed up by the landscape, as if they’re the only person for miles around.” There is nothing folksy or pastoral about these wilderness scenes, which seem “as regular as Kraft Dinner” to Canadians, but are, she points out, still fairly exotic to her British students.
While she says that all of her students have been captivated by the idea of adventure in the rugged, pristine wilderness, some take the notion to laughable extremes. “One woman actually said to me, ‘I didn’t know Canadians had time to paint – I thought they’d be much too busy hiking and canoeing.’”
Looking at Charsley-Jory’s work, I am transported. These dreamy, humid landscapes evoke the Canadian summer at its most magnificent. It is, of course, the thing that Canadian expats in Europe miss most: those long, hot, sprawling days of open skies; a season best spent in, and observing, the natural world.
Charsley-Jory has been doing so for years now from her cabin on British Columbia’s Hornby Island. But before that, she says, she used to “miss it terribly if I didn’t get back, at least for a couple of weeks a year.” She has lived in London for roughly half her life, since age 24, and still loves the city for its verdant charms and sprawling, storybook appeal. Much of her teaching, she says, has been concerned with comparing the Canadian and English landscapes, and many of her drawings are of the nearby Dulwich woods and the currents of the River Thames, on which she regularly kayaks.
Immersed as she is in England, she still finds herself returning to the landscapes of her childhood homes (first in Ontario and later B.C., where she attended the University of Victoria). “Through all these long grey winters, I’m imagining hot yellow fields,” she says, staring wistfully out at the London sky, which is clamped down on the city like the lid of a cast-iron pot.
We sit in her living room and talk some more about Canadian artists, old and new. In addition to the Group of Seven, she’s a fan of such contemporary artists as Canadian-reared painter Peter Doig, photographer Jeff Wall and sculptor Brian Jungen, all of whom, she points out, “have more international careers and don’t particularly want to be slotted as Canadian.”
Yet Charsley-Jory, whose work is more in a traditional landscape vein, is happy to identify as Canadian. Like an out-of-time voyageur, it has almost become her job to spread the word, and the images, of Canadian landscape art.
Before I head out into the gloomy cityscape, she prints me out a Google map. “Try not to get lost this time,” she jokes, holding open the front door.
I wave goodbye and Charsley-Jory waves back, the far-off Canadian wilderness blazing bright behind her.