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Painter Unity Langford Bainbridge Brewster was a ‘piece of living history’

Painter Unity Langford Bainbridge Brewster works on a sketch in Prince Rupert, B.C., in 1945. Her work was shown alongside the Group of Seven, and some of her pieces remain in permanent collections at Buckingham Palace and the Diefenbaker Museum.

Courtesy of the Family/The Globe and Mail

When artist Unity Langford Bainbridge Brewster died, on Nov. 30 at age 101 in her West Vancouver care home, Canada lost one of its last living connections to a generation of painters from the early 20th century. Her work remains in permanent collections at Buckingham Palace, the Imperial War Museum, the Diefenbaker Museum and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Although the official cause of death was heart failure, her daughter Deborah Ryan says "she had no real health problems, she simply just wore out."

Her very long and unconventional life was filled with painting, drawing and documenting British Columbia's peoples and landscapes, as well as forging lasting connections with many of her subjects, and a deep love for this land.

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Ms. Bainbridge had a special affinity with the Squamish Nation, and she had a close relationship with the family of Chief Joe Capilano. Many of her portraits still hang in the Squamish Nation office in North Vancouver. At an exhibition of her work in October at the Ferry Building Gallery in West Vancouver, which was named for her poem Beauty Is All There Is, 30 members of the Squamish Nation honoured her with special songs and drumming.

After Ms. Bainbridge's husband William (Bob) Brewster died in 1972, she never remarried, and she continued painting into her 90s.

"Her real passion was her art," says her daughter, who recalls growing up in mid-century West Vancouver slightly embarrassed by her bohemian mother's somewhat unconventional ways.

"Later, of course," she shares, "I discovered my friends all thought she was really cool." So, too, did rock stars Bryan Adams and Loverboy's Mike Reno, who discovered her work as collectors in the 1980s and 90s, and would send limos to collect her for their shows and invite her to their studios to attend recording sessions.

Ms. Bainbridge would spend hours every day poring over art books, even in the weeks before her death, Ms. Ryan says. She especially loved the impressionists and the work of Emily Carr.

Art historian and friend Trevor Carolan recalls that Ms. Bainbridge was "a wonderful piece of living history. You really had the sense that Unity worked in the same living tradition as Emily Carr. She was very much a living link with our unique Canadian painting vision that's based in the land."

Her work was heavily influenced by Ms. Carr and the Group of Seven, Mr. Carolan says, as well as "the powerful modernist school from London that came via Fred Varley's influence in portrait painting."

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Born in Victoria in 1916 to Deborah (née Beverley) and George Phillip Bainbridge, Unity Langford Bainbridge had a talent for painting that was evident from a young age. (A surprisingly vivid portrait of her sister, painted at age 14, was part of the Ferry Building exhibition).

When Unity was 16, she announced to her father, a well known but somewhat conservative stamp collector, that she was going to attend the Vancouver School of Art. He warned that she would never be able to earn a living from art.

"He wanted me to be an ordinary woman," she told Mr. Carolan, "and I wanted to be a painter."

Determined to attend the Vancouver School of Art (VSA), Unity would rise at dawn every day in her family home near Whytecliff in West Vancouver, take the bus to the ferry in Ambleside, and then another bus to what is now Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, arriving at the school before anyone else.

She carried her paints, brushes and easel in her backpack, a habit that would continue and inform her artistic sensibility, as she insisted on only painting her subjects on site. Once, on her way home from school trekking back to Whytecliff, she got a lift from Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, who stopped and said, "You look like an artist. Need a ride?"

She spent her summers at the family cottage on Ambleside beach, where she began to paint local members of the Squamish Nation. With a charm and ease that would enable her to connect with subjects throughout her life, Ms. Bainbridge painted many First Nations women and children, and taught them how to paint. She also sketched Japanese workers' settlements near the old cannery in Fisherman's Cove.

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Her love of nature and particular affinity for trees shone through in her work, and infused this early environmentalist with a passion for preservation that saw her participate in protests later in life.

At the VSA, most of the portrait and figure course work was indoors and the teenage Unity worked side by side with artist Ed Hughes, often sitting for him.

With the influence of her teachers Charles Scott and Group of Seven member Fred Varley, her portraiture developed what Mr. Carolan notes as the "London Courtauld School style," embodying a "freshness and economy of expression" and was honed in a series of West End rooming houses where she kept winter studios, often painting passers-by.

While Unity admired the work of Emily Carr and occasionally caught glimpses of her bringing First Nation baskets back from the North Shore via rowboat, she never went to meet her.

As she related to Mr. Carolan, "I set off one day to see [Ms. Carr] in Victoria, but I met a fellow aboard the ferry. It was a slow boat, and that was that!" Ms. Bainbridge's daughter still has the sketch of the handsome young man who so distracted her mother.

Ms. Bainbridge's wanderlust got the better of her and she soon made her way to Toronto, where she won three prizes at the 1938 Royal Canadian Academy Exhibition and had her work shown along the Group of Seven. Setting out with very little money and her backpack full of art supplies, she would stay in rooming houses, often in the red light district, before earning commissions from the likes of the Van Horne family (of railway fame).

Between 1938 and 1945, Ms. Bainbridge had a one-woman show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, as well as an exhibition at the University of British Columbia gallery. She won wartime commissions to paint portraits of servicemen and servicewomen – two of which still hang in the West Vancouver Library, and she travelled extensively by boat, canoe, road, train and foot throughout southern B.C., painting what she saw.

After her 1946 marriage to American Bob Brewster, the couple lived in San Francisco until 1953, when they returned to West Vancouver. They raised their young daughter there in a minimalist post-and-beam house. From 1961 until 1974, Ms. Bainbridge specialized in portraits of First Nations people from near Lillooet, in the B.C. interior. (Shy Child of Nekiat, her 1962 portrait of a beautiful young girl, remains a striking example.)

She documented her work and travels in two self-published books: Songs of Seton (1974), and Lullaby of Lillooet (1977), which also included poems, travelogues and amateur ethnography.

In the following years, Ms. Bainbridge went on extensive walking tours of England, had exhibitions in Hamilton, Ont., and at the University Women's Club in Vancouver, and was awarded the Order of British Columbia in 1993.

Ron Burnett, the current president of Emily Carr University of Art and Design (of which the VSA was a progenitor), recalls that when he arrived at the school in 1996, Ms. Bainbridge was somewhat of a legend.

"Everyone said, 'You have to meet Unity,'" although he didn't manage that until the school's 75th anniversary celebration in 2000, when she appeared in a long, golden gown, and spoke to him of her student days.

"It was very much a kind of master-student Bauhaus-style model then," Mr. Burnett explains, "with most of the teachers being male and most of the pupils female." Charles Scott would hold court in a white lab coat, he recalls Ms. Bainbridge telling him, like some godlike art doctor.

Not only did Ms. Bainbridge and Ms. Carr share an aesthetic kinship, they also both had the misfortune of being underappreciated during their lifetimes, Mr. Burnett says. "[Ms. Bainbridge] really should have been much more celebrated than she was," he notes.

Her daughter, Deborah, suggests that her mother's success might have been hampered by her "free spirit" and lack of interest in "playing the art game," as well as her refusal to sell work to people she deemed unworthy of appreciating it.

But there is no doubt that Ms. Bainbridge put her whole heart and soul into her work. Rose Seipp, the 62-year-old granddaughter of Chief Joe Capilano, who remembers her first meeting with the artist as a young girl of 5, says that Ms. Bainbridge "was very loving and gracious with us and taught us how to paint on velvet." Ms. Seipp's mother and sister were immortalized in the 1965 charcoal and pastel drawing Squamish Mother and Child, which was featured in the Ferry Building retrospective. When Ms. Bainbridge was too unwell to attend the Squamish band's honouring ceremony at the Ferry Building Gallery, they visited her nursing home, only two weeks before her death.

"When she met my sister Delcey and realized she was the baby she had painted in 1965, she kept smiling and wouldn't let go of her hand."

When Ms. Seipp honoured her with a special Thunderbird blanket, Ms. Bainbridge began to weep.

"She loved our people – and we loved her," Ms. Seipp says. "She was a great artist and a great spirit."

Ms. Bainbridge was predeceased by her husband, Bob, and her sister Ursula Ridgeway. She leaves her daughter, Deb Ryan; sister Monica Reznick; grandchildren; great-grandchildren; nieces and nephews.

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