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British Columbia's first professional artist was a social chameleon who had shed his past in California as a black porter to live briefly in 1880s Victoria as a white painter.

Now, more than 130 years after Grafton Tyler Brown set up shop and was feted by locals at his first art exhibition, a University of Victoria historian is asking the public to help find what may be hundreds of lost B.C. landscapes painted by an artist who went through a racial reinvention that helped him practise his craft.

In 1883, when Mr. Brown held an exhibition in Victoria of 22 near-photographic paintings depicting the Okanagan, Fraser Valley and parts of southern Vancouver Island, one reviewer described him as "the pioneer of this intellectual and refined art," according to history professor John Lutz.

"He was considered white in Victoria and the reason why I think so is, because with the racial politics of the time, if you were Chinese, native or black the papers would usually say so," Prof. Lutz said.

Mr. Brown was born in 1841 to freed slaves in Pennsylvania and, at 17, moved west to Sacramento, Calif., where he spent two years doing menial labour before moving to San Francisco to paint landscapes for a lithographer, Prof. Lutz said. By 1861, the light-skinned Mr. Brown had managed to get his name listed in the city directory without the "coloured" designation applied to blacks, maybe through bribing a local official, the professor said.

"If you were black in California in 1861, when he made the switch, you were going to be a porter in a hotel or a menial labourer and he saw an opportunity, I think, to slip out of those handcuffs," Prof. Lutz said. "But the personal cost I'm sure was huge – he would have had to cut himself off from his friends, his community."

Then, posing as white, he operated a lithography business printing labels, logos and letterheads that he had inherited from his previous boss, according to Prof. Lutz. He also went through the "courageous" step of joining the pro-slavery Democratic party, the professor said.

"Partly because he was a printer there and he was getting business from them, but also I think to say, 'Hey, I'm not black, no black would join the Democrats,'" he said.

During his time in San Francisco, Mr. Brown designed a label for fellow black entrepreneur John Sullivan Deas, who later opened an early salmon cannery on the banks of the Fraser River in B.C.

By 1882 Mr. Brown, commonly accepted as white, decided to move to Victoria and embark upon a new career as a painter.

Wayde Compton, a writer and historian of black culture in B.C., said if Mr. Brown was passing as white in Victoria, black Americans who had also settled there would have been very unlikely to blow his cover.

"The practice among black American folks at that time was if you sussed someone who was 'passing' you didn't give them away and you also didn't associate with them," Mr. Compton said. "The practice was to look the other way and just carry on, because it was a life-or-death situation because if you gave somebody up you could be causing their lynching."

After two years in Victoria, Mr. Brown spent a decade traversing the Pacific Northwest, possibly being forced to move after racists pegged him as black, according to Prof. Lutz. His landscapes of American territory have sold for as much as $75,000, but the size of his B.C. oeuvre is unknown and only three works have been archived, Prof. Lutz said.

Prof. Lutz, looking to document more of the artist's B.C. pieces, is asking anyone who thinks they may own one – signed G.T. Brown or initialled G.T.B. – to e-mail him at jlutz@uvic.ca.