Built in 1863, the Emily Carr House is a National and Provincial historic site in Victoria, British Columbia. . It was designed by prominent local architect John Wright of Wright & Saunders. Sitting on a 4 acre lot, it was the only house on its street at the time of building. The house is the childhood home of renowned Canadian painter and writer, Emily Carr. As the 8th of 9 children, and the first to be born as a Canadian (born in 1871, the year BC joined Canadian confederation), Emily Carr had a strong Canadian identity.
Photo courtesy of the Emily Carr House
It is not uncommon that our places of childhood imprint on us to strong effect, and work towards shaping our future senses of self. Perhaps this was the case for Carr, where the stark-Englishness of her childhood home played a significant role in prompting her to develop her Canadian identity, both through her travels and her writing and her art, as something so distinct from the landscape of her parents. It is an identity she explored throughout her life as evidenced by her artwork and travels to First Nations villages, far beyond the English-ness of her own home, and even her hometown of Victoria, where the architecture was much the same as her home.
Photo Courtesy of the Emily Carr House
Carr mentions her childhood home in all of her books. An excerpt from The Book of Small relates a description of the street and style of the home as Carr knew it growing up; “In front of our place Father had made a gravel walk but after our trees stopped there were just two planks to walk on. As far back as I can remember Father's place was all made and in order. The house was large and well-built, of Californian redwood, the garden prim and carefully tented. Everything about it was extremely English. It was as though Father had buried a tremendous homesickness in this new soil and it had rooted and sprung up English. There were hawthorn hedges, primrose banks, and cow pastures with shrubberies.” While the house was built with more than just Californian redwood, the rest of the details remain accurate; and they are all in great contrast to the grand cedars and totem poles which Carr would find her affinity for later in life.
This well appointed house was built in the distinct Italianate style popular in the late 19th century. This is appropriate when we take into consideration Carr’s above theories about her father’s feelings for their home. Her father, born in 1818 and who had moved to America from 1837 to 1855, had a high regard for England, and wanted to create a home he would find familiar and comforting for his family. Thus, it makes sense that he would build in the style familiar to him from his family's home; the Italianate style originated in Britain in 1802. Coincidentally, the style became popular in North America in the late 1800s, around the time of the building of the Carr house.
Photo courtesy of Trek Exchange.
The Emily Carr House features two of three general mainstays of Italianate style: a prominent cornice – on this house you can see this above the top floor’s middle windows; and the adjoining arched windows. Arguably, the third typical Italianate feature is implied as well, by the chimney stacks on the house, subtly invoking the iconic Italianate tower. Some other elements of the style featured on the Carr house are tall first floor windows, and a balcony with Renaissance balustrading. Download the Trek Exchange audio walking tour, and hear more about the history of the James Bay area as you walk these historic streets.
The Emily Carr house has gone through some major renovations and modernizations over the years as the property changed ownerships, and through necessity due to a fire. In 1964 the house was slated for demolition, however was only saved by the efforts of MP David Groos. Through an agreement between the national and provincial governments, the house was designated as a National and Provincial historic site and as a public museum. It was turned over to the Emily Carr Society to be run as a public art gallery, art school, and museum. The Provincial government bought it in 1974, which began the restoration of the house to its original state. Extensive detail was put into the restoration, going so far as to even restore wallpapers back to the original styles, patterns, and colours by painstakingly peeling layers off the walls until the original that was decided upon by the Carr family themselves was reached.
Photo courtesy of Emily Carr House.
The fidelity demonstrated in the restoration of this house is significant to telling the story of Emily Carr. Following her return from studying art abroad in France, a pale lavender blue colour begins to be featured prominently in many of her works. It is the same hue as that of the original walls of the house's breakfast room (pictured above). Carr is said to have endured substantial homesickness whenever she was away from her home in BC - could it be that, upon her return, this was her way of re-asserting her sense home and familiarity in the forests she so loved? It seems that for as different as her childhood house was to the forests she preferred, it is a place she could never separate herself from completely.
Emily Carr has played in huge role in shaping Canadian national identity. Today you can visit the Emily Carr House to take in the art, the architecture, and the roots of the artist herself – back to where it all began.
For myself, as a child, Emily Carr acted as a window into my own Canadian identity, introducing me to art, and the beauty of our forests. By sharing this article, I hope to continue her legacy: love for art and nature is still something sorely needed in our world today.
Researched and Written by Emily E.A. Stringer, Undergraduate of Sociology, and Geography: Environment & Sustainability, at the University of British Columbia.
Special thanks to Jan Ross of the Emily Carr House for her enthusiasm and expertise.