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  • How I became E.J. Hughes' biographer


    Robert Amos
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    After ten years delving into the life and work of one of Canada's most unique and distinguished artists, Robert Amos reflects on how he got the job… 

     

    E. J. HUGHES WAS A VERY PRIVATE PERSON. He painted quietly at his home on Vancouver Island from 1946 until his death in 2007. At the same time he became one of Canada’s best-selling painters. His paintings are often on the cover of the Canadian art auction catalogues, and one of his paintings sold for more than $2 million not long ago. He’s in all the major public galleries and many corporate boardrooms across Canada. These are realist paintings, mostly of the Cowichan and Crofton area.

     

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    “An Arbutus Tree at Crofton Beach” (1972). Oil on canvas, 25” x 32” (63.5 x 81 cm)

     

    Lawren Harris presented Hughes with the Emily Carr Scholarship in 1947. It was Harris who suggested Max Stern of Montreal’s Dominion Gallery seek Hughes out in 1951. When Stern eventually found him at Shawnigan Lake, he bought everything Hughes had. He also contracted to buy everything Hughes would create in the future, a contract honoured until the gallery closed in 2000. Though all Hughes’ work was sold in Montreal, until recently not many of his paintings have been seen on this Island.

     

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    The Painter in His Studio (1957). Oil on canvas, 20” x 24” (50.8 x 61 cm). Vancouver Art Gallery

     

    I went to art school in suburban Toronto. Everyone seemed to be aiming for the big time—New York. But I didn’t want the suburbs or New York. I arrived in Victoria in May, 1975 and, on that first day, I knew this was my place. I saw my first Hughes painting in the Special Collections Library at the University of Victoria in 1975, and it became clear how I could use this place as the subject of my art.

    Later, I wrote a review of the Hughes Retrospective from the Surrey Art Gallery, seen in Victoria in April 1984. and was effusive about the artist: “One of the cultural treasures of any region is a fine regional painter. Yet the remarkable E. J. Hughes is virtually unknown on Vancouver Island, his home and exclusive subject. He can show us new ways to perceive his region.” It was my opinion that, with this show, “his work will take its rightful place in the hearts of Canadians.” (Monday Magazine, April 29, 1984) Coming out of the gallery, I remember feeling that the world suddenly looked like a Hughes painting.

    Apparently Hughes noticed my early admiration. Ten years later, in 1993, his assistant, Pat Salmon, telephoned and invited my wife Sarah and me to lunch with the artist at The Snug in the old Oak Bay Beach Hotel. We met a few more times in the years before his death in 2007. 

     

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    Left: Robert Amos, Pat Salmon and E. J. Hughes at Maple Bay, 1996 (photo by Sarah Amos)

     

    Pat Salmon was a neighbour when Hughes and his wife Fern lived at Shawnigan Lake. After Fern’s death in 1974, Hughes moved to Duncan. It was there, in 1977, that Salmon asked if she could write about him. Hughes agreed, and thus she became what he called his “friend, biographer and long-distance chauffeur.” Pat Salmon was all that and more. The  mother of seven children with an active husband, she nevertheless understood the need and rose to the call, serving Hughes and his art.

    Salmon began to take notes. She photographed his paintings. She said that she acted as “crowd control” for this increasingly famous yet reclusive artist. Though she did her best to write the book about Hughes, the subject got bigger and bigger. More paintings, more fame. He was given four honorary doctorates, the Order of BC and the Order of Canada, though he never went to the opening of any of his shows.

     

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    “View from the Old Coal Dump, Ladysmith, BC” (1970). Oil on canvas, 38” x 51” (96.5 x 129.5 cm). Collection of the University of Victoria

     

    After Hughes’ death in 2007, Parkinson’s disease made life difficult for Pat. One day in 2010, Pat Salmon called me and asked if I would take over from her as the official biographer of E. J. Hughes. I immediately said “yes.” She invited me to visit her at Mill Bay, where she was surrounded by the Hughes materials. There were boxes of old photographs of the Hughes family, and her photographs of hundreds of his paintings. There were wartime letters (and envelopes), and every review and art book in which a Hughes painting appeared. I recorded 13 hours of what she had to tell me about the artist E. J. Hughes.

    I brought the material home and began sorting out everything in chronological order. One page for each of the two thousand pictures; this has resulted in a 12-volume photo album. This is a project which takes years. After the pictures, I read and transcribed much of what had been written. Pat’s diaries are a particularly rich vein of  observations about Hughes. She recorded what Hughes said and did, day by day in perceptive and succinct prose. They drove around to all the scenic spots in Cowichan. They did his shopping and had lunch at The Dog House in Duncan, or another of the 68 restaurants in the Cowichan Valley.

     

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    “Mt. Cheam and the Fraser River” (1959). Oil on canvas, 25” x 32” (63.5 x 81.3 cm)

     

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    “Nanaimo Harbour” (1962). Oil on canvas, 32” x 45” (82 x 114.3)

     

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    “The Coastal Steamship Princess Victoria” (1965). Oil on canvas, 32” x 48” (81 x 122 cm)

     

    I had far too much for a single book. By now I had engaged the enthusiastic encouragement of the Hughes Estate, and I set to work. I decided to present Hughes geographically rather than chronologically. First was a tour of scenic spots from Goldstream to Mill Bay, Cowichan, Crofton, Salt Spring, Ladysmith, Nanaimo, Qualicum and Courtenay. E. J. Hughes Paints Vancouver Island came out in 2018 and was nominated for a BC and Yukon Book Awards

    The next book, E. J. Hughes Paints British Columbia (2019) begins with Hughes’ education in Vancouver, fishing at Rivers Inlet, and visiting outports all the way to Haida Gwaii. In 1958 he was able to afford a second-hand 1952 Pontiac just when BC’s new highways opened up. He and Fern did Chilliwack, Yale, Ashcroft, Kamloops, Chase, Penticton, Kootenay Lake, and lots of the Rockies and Revelstoke. My wife Sarah and I have, in recent years, taken many trips, seeking out the very places where Hughes sat to make his drawings.

    The Hughes Archive, which began as boxes of paper, has been scanned to make a searchable database in which the relevant drawings, paintings, photographs and quotations are at my fingertips. 

    Through his quiet life, Hughes had only one correspondent with whom he discussed art: his dealer, Max Stern of the Dominion Gallery. Exchanges between the cosmopolitan Stern in Montreal and the isolated Hughes provide specific and insightful commentary about a huge range of the work. After the gallery closed, the Dominion Gallery gave their Hughes correspondence to University of Victoria Library. With the letters Hughes saved, we have both sides of this exchange.

    Recently the Estate gave me access to Hughes’ personal photo albums—and all his negatives. (Note to those with an urge to “tidy up”: do not throw out the negatives!)

     

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    Three of Robert Amos’ books on E.J. Hughes

     

    With two large books behind me, I took a deep breath and set to work on the third volume, E. J. Hughes Canadian War Artist. During September 2019 I visited the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa which holds all 541 pieces which Hughes created while a War Artist. (These are publicly available on the Museum’s website, warmuseum.ca). And then, when COVID-19 hit, I was ready to hunker down and slowly bring the book together. I followed Hughes’ service from his enlistment on September 1, 1939 (before war was declared) until demobilization in October 1946 (long after it had ended). I contacted the regiments with whom Hughes had served, and the War Museum’s specialists who have advised me on all sorts of details. The book is now with my publisher, with a release date of Autumn 2022.

     

    1418219990_41SergeantsMesscopy.thumb.jpeg.0c9c35f99ee33b79294d22f0122b2e17.jpegThe Sergeants’ Mess, Camp Petawawa (1941). Oil on canvas 28” x 39 ⅞” (70.8 x 101 cm).  Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum

     
    When I was well into the War Artist book, I began to think that all my commentary and footnotes might be obscuring the essence of Hughes. It’s the pictures! I wanted to bring readers nose-to-nose with his paintings, and to write something you might read aloud. I envisioned a friendly and inexpensive picture book—a children’s book for adults. The TouchWood team received this idea with enthusiasm and the result was The E. J. Hughes Book of Boats (2020). With an inspired design, convenient size and approachable price point, this little Hughes book went on to win the Bill Duthie Award for “popular appeal” at this year’s BC and Yukon Book Prizes.

    What is it about the paintings of E. J. Hughes that attracts not just important curators and wealthy collectors, but also the man, woman and child on the street? From the first time I saw his work I was enchanted. He painted each and every brush mark with a pure intention. Hughes never shifts into an expressive mood or lets his brushwork get casual toward the edge of the canvas. 

    In his private life Hughes was unfailingly polite and thoughtful. He drew what was right in front of him and later made paintings of the experience. He was very productive, probably because he mostly stayed at home. After ten years spent examining his words and pictures, I can report that Hughes was a powerful example for the good. It has been my great good fortune to be given the role of biographer of E. J. Hughes.

     

    Christmas at Shawnigan with E. J. Hughes

    E. J. HUGHES AND HIS WIFE FERN faced the winter of 1956 at Shawnigan Lake. “Our finances are strained,” he admitted in a letter to his dealer, Max Stern. But then the Winnipeg Art Gallery purchased his painting Nanaimo Boat and the Royal Bank of Canada bought the rights to use Howe Sound as a print. “Around Christmas this unexpected amount is more welcome than ever,” Hughes wrote, signing off with some relief.

    Hughes and his wife, Fern, were careful with their money, and their needs were few. In the beginning, Fern cooked Christmas dinner, but later she was disabled by muscular dystrophy. Yet the two of them enjoyed the season nevertheless. “For Christmas,” Pat Salmon recalled, “they got a new jigsaw puzzle, some Roger’s Chocolates and a box of Japanese oranges. They’d sit there all afternoon, one on each side of the jigsaw puzzle, and that was a wonderful Christmas for them.” Since then, Cobble Hill Puzzles has produced two Hughes paintings as jigsaw puzzles. 

     

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    Hughes home in snow, Shawnigan Lake (1967). Photo by E. J. Hughes.

     

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    Tip of Small Pine (1942). Pencil, size undetermined. Private Collection.

     

    In 1962 Max Stern asked if Hughes could do a winter scene for a Hallmark Christmas card. The artist replied: “I have searched through all my old wartime Petawawa photos of my sketches and through any of my old work that depicts snow, but have found nothing suitable. Snow scenes are not typical of the Coast here, as the snow is usually turned to wet slush in a day or two.” Hughes went on: “Usually I avoid winter scenes. I am doubtful if I could do one and still be me.”

    After his wife’s death in 1974, Hughes lived alone, but at Christmas he enjoyed socializing with the Salmon family at Shawnigan. Pat Salmon told me that “Hughes would bring a bottle of rum for my husband Martin, books for me, chocolates for the kids. He’d usually have a new car. One time he wondered if he could make his car door open from inside the house. So the kids went outside to watch and he’d get it clicking every time. So he was just as happy as a lark.”

    Later in the day “we’d be left playing one of the games the kids got for Christmas,” Salmon continued. “I remember Battleship, where you sink the other guy’s battleship. Of course I was right in there, trying to sink his battleship. But Hughes was too polite to try to sink mine, and he’d look so sad every time he sunk one of my ships.”

    With a moment’s reflection she thought of another thing. “After about ten years of Christmas visits, it snowed one time and on his way to our house Hughes spun around in his Jaguar. It was on the Shawnigan–Mill Bay Road, right in the village of Shawnigan. Hughes was so upset that after that he never came for Christmas again.”

    Robert Amos is an artist and writer. After years as Assistant to the Director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, he became the art writer for the Victoria Times Colonist for 32 years. In addition to more than a dozen books about the art history of this place, Amos has made his name with his memorable paintings of our city. He is an Honorary Citizen of Victoria, a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, and in addition to his work as biographer of E. J. Hughes, he continues to create commissioned paintings, specializing in homes and gardens. For more information, visit robertamos.com

    Hughes paintings are on permanent display at the Audain Museum in Whistler, and are a regular feature of Madrona Gallery in Victoria.

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