Author Tags: Art

"B.C. is the best place in the world for landscape subject matter." -- E.J. Hughes

With the exception of Emily Carr, nobody has painted British Columbia so vividly, for so long, and so well, as E.J. Hughes. A major Vancouver Art Gallery retrospective of E.J. Hughes' career opened in January of 2003 and ran for six months, in conjunction with the release of a coffee table book, solidifying Hughes' slowly-won reputation as the most popular interpreter of British Columbia landscapes. One of his paintings entitled Rivers Inlet sold for $920,000 in 2005, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living Canadian artist. By the early 1950s, his paintings were part of every major public collection from Ottawa to Vancouver, but his reputation was never firmly established until he reached old age.

Born in North Vancouver on February 17, 1913, Edward John Hughes grew up in Nanaimo and North Vancouver. During the Depression, Hughes studied at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. In 1934 he co-founded a commercial art company with muralists Paul Goranson and Orville Fisher. In 1951, art dealer Max Stern tracked down E.J. Hughes in the wilderness of Shawnigan Lake, Vancouver Island. “The meeting proved to be fascinating,” recalled the owner of the Dominion Gallery in Montreal. “There was a shy painter who was not at all aware of the unusual quality of his work, an artist who was not really convinced of his own talent. So—as I had done seven years earlier in the case of Emily Carr, whose representative and agent I had become—I decided on the spot to take Hughes under my wings.” Soon Hughes was a hit. Referring to Hughes' painting Tugboats, Ladysmith Harbour (1950), the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris said, “Nothing quite like it has been done here or anywhere in the country. Everybody likes it; painters, laymen and just folks. It’s that kind of painting—factual, detailed, accurate, full of interest but its art quality transcends all of these.”

E.J. Hughes (D&M, 2002 $75), with text by Vancouver Art Gallery senior curator Ian M. Thom, features 100 colour images and extensive correspondence between Max Stern and the B.C. landscape artist. After their first meeting, Stern bought all of Hughes’ work then available in the studio—for $500. “An enduring friendship was to develop over the course of those years,” writes Thom in the chapter A Tremendous Intensity, “through a long series of letters between artist and dealer, one that is probably unique in Canadian art…. For Hughes, who was never good at meeting the public or promoting himself, a dealer provided not only the assurance of a steady income and a degree of protection from the world at large but also, for most artistic purposes, his public face.”
By the late 1950s, Stern wasn’t afraid to offer tough criticism. “I feel I should draw your attention to one or two things which I find disturbing in your latest painting,” he writes. “The highly coloured columns, which look a bit like lollipops, in the bridge may be in existence, but artistically they are not beautiful and I would have preferred you not to paint such subject matter.” The pressure of generating new work is apparent in Hughes’ replies. He could be his own harshest critic. “I would like to work and work and rework each one... until it gave me a good feeling, but you can realize that this would permit me to produce only three or four paintings a year, and I could not make a living at it that way. The way it is now, the occasional painting is good (about one in five or six, I think) but that is due a lot to happy accident when they are turned out as fast, and that I don’t like...Leonardo’s Mona Lisa sure would have lost out if he had spent only two of the four or five years he took to complete it. It is thinking about him… that partly makes me feel so awful to send away a ‘half baked’ painting.”

Despite struggling with production, E.J. Hughes was no slouch. During his stint as a war artist in WW II, he produced 1,000 drawings and almost 30 complete paintings. “Sometimes I was working so hard I was wishing that I was a combat soldier…they at least had a lot of time off to rest, you know… As soon as I woke up in the morning, I had to be looking for subject matter continuously… until dark.”As a war artist, Hughes was given a letter stating how his military scenes were to be depicted: “You are expected to record and interpret vividly and veraciously (1) the spirit, character, appearance and attitude of the men… (2) the instruments and machines which they employ and (3) the environment in which they do their work.” The exactness demanded by the letter would have fit with Hughes’ clear, detailed style. “There can be little doubt,” says Thom, “that the careful study of machinery and details of uniforms sharpened his skills as a draftsman and observer, just as doing detailed sketches rather than broad treatments was to have a profound effect on his working methods.”

After his service in WWII, Hughes’ decision to focus on landscapes rather than people was largely practical. “I wasn’t sure whether to have figures predominating or landscape, but by the time the ‘50s arrived I had decided to emphasize landscape, not only because it gave the feeling more strongly of the B.C. and Canadian environment… but because I felt landscapes would sell more readily, and not being equipped psychologically to be a teacher or a commercial artist, that was important.”

As of 2003, E.J. Hughes still lives semi-reclusively near Duncan, where he has resided for decades. His wife of many years, Rosabell ‘Fern’ Irvine Smith Hughes, died in 1974. Unabashedly commercial in his motives, Hughes is generally considered the most collectible, contemporary interpreter of West Coast landscape, rivalled only by Toni Onley whose work is much less varied. "I feel that when I'm painting," he once said, "it is a form of worship." Hughes received the Order of British Columbia in 2005.

[By Jeremy Twigg.]

[Winter, 2002 issue of BC BookWorld shown at right].


A Journey with E.J. Hughes (Barbeau Foundation, 2000; Barbeau Foundation with D&M, 2005; $50) 85 paintings, text by Jacques Barbeau (1-55365-153-7)

E.J. Hughes (D&M, 2002 $75), with text by Vancouver Art Gallery senior curator Ian M. Thom (1-55054-899-9).