Beloved BC artist E. J. Hughes was the first official Canadian war artist and the longest serving. He created the largest body of work of any Canadian war artist.
The following are excerpts from E. J. Hughes Paints British Columbia by Robert Amos.
“I was sketching a group of beautiful deciduous trees in Stanley Park when a beautiful girl who was out walking her little dog came up and very considerately asked if I would mind if she looked at my work,” Hughes told Pat Salmon [friend and unofficial Hughes archivist]. . . “I asked her name, which was Fern Smith, and I told her mine was Edward Hughes. We walked to her grandmother’s house at 1217 Robson Street, and that’s how I met my wife.”
We know from their letters that Hughes met Fern at Second Beach on October 15, 1937, and this place became sacred to them in a special way. They were married a year and a half later.
Rosabel Fern Irvin Smith was born on April 17, 1916, in Brandon, Manitoba, and her family soon moved to Regina, Saskatchewan. At the end of her high school years, her parents sent her to Vancouver to be a companion for her grandmother, who was living alone in the West End.
In Hughes’s earliest drawing of Fern, she is sitting on the beach in Stanley Park, just a pleasant walk from her grandmother’s house. In this modest little pencil study, Fern is wearing a light sun hat, blouse, long skirt, and a jacket. She leans against a beach log with her walking shoes tucked beneath her: demure, a bit withdrawn, but very much present. Hughes drew her with the assurance that came from years of training at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts, and from the beginning the two shared a perfect rapport. Fern was the only one for him, and until her death in 1974, they were seldom out of each other’s company. . .
At the time when Hughes first met Fern, he was struggling to make a living through his art. With the Western Brotherhood, he kept himself busy painting murals during two summers at the First United Church in Vancouver, and then for three months at the Malaspina Hotel in Nanaimo. In the last half of 1938, the Western Brotherhood were working in a warehouse in Vancouver to create murals that had been commissioned for the British Columbia Pavilion at the Golden Gate International Exposition, to be held in San Francisco in 1939.
These murals were highly accomplished productions, created for specific and unusual spaces. The young artists first drew fully rendered studies of the murals on a smaller scale. These designs included many characters working at specialized activities. Though the actual murals have not survived, the drawings are, in themselves, works of art. Even so, after all their trouble, the artists didn’t come away with much more than their room and board.
In a memoir describing his military service, Hughes wrote: “In August 1939 I was not quite making a living at art, and was on Relief so had my application in to several small permanent force (full time) military units, all of which had waiting lists.” But about that time, things changed. Perhaps Ed Hughes hadn’t noticed it, but war was imminent. “Immediately I received favourable answers from all three units,” he noted.
He enlisted on September 1, 1939—the very day Germany invaded Poland. It was that invasion that convinced France and Britain that the territorial ambitions of Adolf Hitler could not be appeased. Britain and France declared war on September 3, and a week later, on September 10, Canada also went to war with Germany.
Hughes—now known as P/7518 Gnr. Hughes, E. J.—had three months of basic training in Esquimalt near Victoria. Then, on December 6, 1939, he was posted to the Coastal Battery in Vancouver. Perhaps naively, he thought he could be in the army, and at the same time get married and raise a family. As he explained it, “almost from the beginning, I was pestering my commanding officers for permission to marry Fern.” Permission was received, and they were married on February 10, 1940, at Central Presbyterian Church in Vancouver.
The Canadian War Art program, which Lord Beaverbrook had initiated in the First World War, was something Hughes was aware of, and almost from the beginning, he had written to headquarters to ask for status as a war artist. Hughes was so obviously suited to the task that they named him the first of three “official war artists.”
In the winter of 1940, he reported for duty to the Experimental Farm buildings in Ottawa, where the Canadian Historical Branch had its headquarters. In 1942 the army formalized the Canadian War Art program, and Hughes was promoted to captain.
Hughes was the first official Canadian war artist. He was also the longest serving, as he was the last one demobilized, serving until October 1946. During his years in the military, he worked with extraordinary focus at his self-directed task, and in so doing, created the largest body of work of any Canadian war artist. . .
After he was discharged, Hughes met with Fern, and. . . almost immediately they moved west. They headed for a large old house at 410 Quebec Street in Victoria, which his parents had bought in 1943. It was near the Inner Harbour, and there was a room in the attic for a studio. The artist set right to work. The first canvas he painted in those trying times was a jagged and angular interpretation of Near Third Beach, Stanley Park (1946–59).
In style, this is a very different painting from the naturalistic sketch that inspired it, with its dark and menacing mood and harsh angular drawing. The darkness that pervades it is typical of his immediate postwar paintings, and the stylized nature of the trees may be credited to the influence of the so-called primitive paintings of Henri Rousseau, which Hughes had recently seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
NOTE: Robert will be launching this book at Bolen Books on Wednesday, November 13, at Bolen Books, 7pm. All are welcome.
Reprinted with permission from E. J. Hughes Paints British Columbia by Robert Amos, 2019 TouchWood Editions. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Amos.