Born on June 29, 1950 in Belleville, Ontario, Robert Amos attended York University in Toronto. He moved to Vancouver in 1974 where he served as Assistant to the Director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Amos was made an Honourary Citizen of Victoria in 1985 and he has been the art columnist for the Times-Colonist since 1986. He was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts in 1995. Having interviewed and photographed many Vancouver Island and Gulf Island artists over a 15-year period, Amos provided an insider's view of 33 artists' studios in Where Art is Born: Island Artists in their Studios (Touchwood 2007).

Fully bilingual, with both Chinese and English texts, Inside Chinatown: Ancient Culture in a New World (2009) is a tribute to Canada's oldest Chinatown, located in Victoria, B.C.

Robert Amos next wrote Harold Mortimer-Lamb: The Art Lover (Brindle & Glass 2013), a profusely illustrated tribute to the photographer, writer, painter and promoter who was a patron and friend to artists that included A.Y. Jackson, Emily Carr and Jack Shadbolt. As a friend to both painter Frederick Varley and his young student Vera Weatherbie, Mortimer-Lamb, at the age of seventy, eventually married her when she was thirty. "The purpose of this book," Amos writes, "is to shine a light on the remarkable and tightly integrated art collection donated by Harold and Vera Mortimer-Lamb to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in 1977. Almost every major event in Mortimer-Lamb's life is illustrated by significant works of art created by the participants, often presenting multiple views of the same situation." The gallery passed along Mortimer-Lamb's papers to B.C.Archives in 1992.

Reviews of the author's work by BC Studies:

Harold Mortimer-Lamb: The Art Lover

Inside Chinatown: Ancient Culture in a New World


"Baron + Rago's..." (Coach House Press, 1973)
An Introduction to Japanese Art (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1980)
Victoria By Robert Amos (Orca Books, 1989)
Victoria: Another View (Orca Books, 1993)
No Such Thing as Far Away (Orca Books, 1994) [Illustrator, text by Laura Langston]
Victoria Sketchbook (Orca Books, 2001)
Where Art is Born: Island Artists in their Studios (Touchwood 2007).
Inside Chinatown: Ancient Culture in a New World (Touchwood 2009) with Kileasa Wong.
Harold Mortimer-Lamb: The Art Lover (Brindle & Glass 2013) $24.95 9781771510189
E.J. Hughes Paints Vancouver Island by Robert Amos (Touchwood Editions 2018) $35 9781771512558
E.J. Hughes Paints British Columbia (TouchWood Editions 2019) $35.00 9781771513104
The E. J. Hughes Book of Boats (TouchWood 2020) $22 9781771513364

[BCBW 2020] "Art" "Kidlit"

REVIEW: The two-million dollar man

E.J. Hughes is now second only to Emily Carr in terms of his market value as a Western Canadian artist. In November, Hughes’ painting Fish Boats, Rivers Inlet sold for $2 million at an auction in Toronto. “He never went to an opening of any exhibition of his work,” says biographer Robert Amos, “and he avoided interviews. He just wanted to paint.”

E.J. Hughes Paints Vancouver Island by Robert Amos
(Touchwood Editions $35)

With the exception of Emily Carr, nobody has painted British Columbia so vividly, for so long, and so well, as E.J. Hughes. Now fellow artist Robert Amos’ moderately priced E.J. Hughes Paints Vancouver Island (Touchwood $30) affords a biographical summary of Hughes’ life and exclusively focuses on his depictions of Vancouver Island. As a “travelogue,” we follow Hughes up the island, from the ferry landing at Sidney, past Goldstream and the Malahat to Cowichan Bay, Genoa Bay, Maple Bay and Ladysmith, replicating the route taken by Hughes after he was awarded a Emily Carr Scholarship by Lawren Harris in 1947. Every stop is illustrated with Hughes’ handwritten notes and annotated pencil sketches, continuing to Nanaimo, Comox and Courtenay.

As well, Amos presents Hughes’ working methods. About every four years Hughes took the summer away from his studio to create new sketches based on “observational realism.” Instead of relying on a camera, it was his habit to sit before his subject—usually in the front seat of his car—and draw for two days on a small piece of paper, and on the third day fill in this study with colour and tone notes.

Hughes’ on-the-spot sketches led to fully-realised graphite tonal studies, and eventually to full-scale oils. He once travelled up the coast on an oil tanker in 1953, and occasionally he visited the “vast and beautiful Interior” of B.C., but he never left Vancouver Island after 1967. According to Amos, he painted more pictures of Crofton than anywhere else.
“I was surprised, one day in 1993,” recalls Amos, “to receive a phone call from his assistant, Patricia Salmon. She said Hughes knew about me from my writing in the newspaper (Times Colonist), and wanted to thank me for my encouragement.”

Hughes was coming to Victoria, for his car’s annual service, so he invited Amos and his wife to lunch at the Snug at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel. Far from behaving like a hermit, Hughes was only too happy to answer questions and tell stories about his life. Salmon had brought a paper bag full of snapshots, as well as some drawings by Hughes and a couple of his etchings, so they covered a table with this material and sorted through it over the next two hours.

Photographs Amos received that day became the beginnings of his archive of things relating to E.J. Hughes. Out of gratitude, Amos wrote a note of thanks to Hughes, and over the next few years, he and his wife received a number of handwritten and carefully composed letters from the artist.

“There was much about this man—his upright posture, his tweed jacket and tie, and his patient and attentive demeanour—that made a visit with him seem like visiting someone for whom time had stopped in the 1930s,” says Amos. “I didn’t want to presume upon the basis of our meeting to take things further, so I was pleased to receive another invitation, in 1996 to have lunch with Hughes. He and Salmon met us in Duncan and took us to his home, to see his studio.”
Born in North Vancouver on February 17, 1913, Edward John Hughes grew up in Nanaimo and North Vancouver. During the Depression, Hughes was the leading student at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts and he co-founded a commercial art company with muralists Paul Goranson and Orville Fisher in 1934.

After graduation in 1935, he found that there was no way to make a living as an artist in Vancouver in the 1930s so he enlisted with the Royal Canadian Artillery in 1939, as a gunner, and was posted to England. He served as one of Canada’s first official war artists (as did Jack Shadbolt) from 1943 to 1946, supplying approximately 1,600 works now in the Canadian War Museum.
“Sometimes I was working so hard,” he wrote, “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 Vancouver Art Gallery former curator Ian M. 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, which also included visits to military installations and camps in Alaska, Hughes returned to the West Coast and settled with his wife, Rosabell ‘Fern’ Irvine Smith Hughes, initially in Victoria, where in 1946 he completed Fish Boats, Rivers Inlet, the record-setting painting that sold for $2 million in 2018. Hughes relocated to Shawnigan Lake in the 1950s; then moved to a permanent residence in Duncan in 1974.

His 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.”

In 1947, the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris recommended Hughes to his agent, Max Stern, Canada’s leading art dealer. Referring to Hughes’ painting Tugboats, Ladysmith Harbour (1950), Harris later 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.”

Max Stern—who had “discovered” Emily Carr in 1943—followed up on Harris’ recommendation and tracked down Hughes in the wilds of Shawnigan Lake, Vancouver Island. From that day onward, Stern would buy outright everything Hughes produced. Stern’s first purchase—of 14 oils, 4 oil sketches, 32 drawings and 4 prints—earned Hughes the pitifully small sum of $500. But the arrangement meant that Hughes didn’t have to sell a painting for almost 50 years.

“The meeting proved to be fascinating,” recalled Stern, 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.”

The relationship between artist and agent became an enduring friendship bolstered by much correspondence. Thom wrote, “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.”

The pressure of generating new work was apparent in Hughes’ replies to Stern, who sometimes offered harsh criticism. “I would like to work and work and rework each one,” Hughes wrote, “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.”
By the early 1950s, Hughes’ paintings were part of every major public collection from Ottawa to Vancouver, but his reputation was not firmly established until he reached old age.
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. E.J. Hughes (D&M, 2002), with text by Thom, featured 100 colour images and extensive correspondence between Stern and Hughes.

Elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1968, Hughes received the Order of Canada in 2001 and the Order of British Columbia in 2005, the same year his painting Rivers Inlet sold for $920,000, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living Canadian artist at the time.

Jack Shadbolt praised Hughes as “the most engaging intuitive painter of the B.C. landscape since Emily Carr” but only the University of Victoria and Emily Carr College of Art conferred honorary doctorates, an indication as to the extent that Hughes has long been undervalued as “only” a B.C. artist.
Hughes’ wife, Fern, died in 1974. He died of a cardiac arrest in Duncan—where he liked to eat lunch at the Dog House restaurant—at age 93 on January 5, 2007.

Prices being paid for Hughes’ works have been climbing since his death. Whereas in 2001, a painting entitled Lake Okanagan was sold at a yard sale in Ontario for $200, its purchaser was able to re-sell it six years later for $402,500.

In 2000, a Vancouver auction house sold a 1970 Hughes painting, Harbour Scene, Nanaimo, for a then-record $105,750. “If that one came for sale today, you could add another zero to that total with no question at all,” says Amos. “He’s an absolute fixture in auction houses. His work is almost always there. And typically, the prices just keep rising and rising and rising.”
According to an article in the Times-Colonist, a mural by Hughes located at Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island Conference Centre is now estimated to be worth more than $3 million.

In 2016, a 1949 Hughes painting, The Post Office at Courtenay, B.C., had set a previously high sales mark for Hughes at $1.6 million.

“As far as Western Canada goes,” says Amos, “Emily Carr is always the top. But he’s the next one—he’s in second place. There is nobody else you could talk about. They don’t come even close. The Audain Art Museum in Whistler features 19 Emily Carr oil paintings in one room, but the next gallery, devoted to Hughes, also has 19 paintings.
“That puts it into context.”


[BCBW Spring, 2019]