“The Poetry In What We Do ...”
A Portrait of North Shore Painter Unity Bainbridge
by Trevor Carolan
There’s a phrase that appears here and there in the work of longtime North Shore painter Unity Bainbridge. “History must be left intact,” she records in her books and in the marginalia accompanying certain of her pieces—an understandable sentiment given her lifelong dedication to documenting the people, places and organic luxuriance of this ribbon-edge of the world we know as Canada’s Pacific coast.
Hailed as an apostle of Emily Carr and still defiantly active as an artist in spite of decades of institutional neglect, at 90 Bainbridge continues to work; currently from her apartment above Ambleside Beach, though is best known for the decades she spent in her celebrated, impossibly eclectic cottage half a mile up the hill. Impishly surfing a wave of revived collector interest in her work, she now finds herself ‘discovered’ by West Vancouver’s resident colony of affluent pop stars and derivatives traders who discretely add her influential portraits and landscapes from the Thirties to their collections of Carr, Shadbolt and Matisse. All in all, the new millenium is shaping up as a cracking good time for the painter Max Maynard proclaimed seventy years ago as, “a talented girl with a real future ahead.”
The arch-poet of the Thirties, W.H. Auden himself, cautioned though, that for history to remain meaningful it must be shared as truth; that for an artist, there must be relevance in his or her work—some illumination into the larger mystery of our human experience. Only then is it worth keeping intact, surviving history’s hallmark forces of fragmentation and disintegration.
Like Emily Carr, in whose tradition she has often worked, Unity Bainbridge has always sought relevance in the ordinary magic of the world. “I’ve benefited by being a nobody all my life,” she relates. “I’ve been quietly known, I guess, because I chose to keep a lot of my own work. You see, I was taught that you don’t paint to sell: you paint because you’re crazy about something and want to keep the experience of it near you. That’s what Picasso understood when he spent his later years trying to reacquire his own work. It’s hype that destroys you, even though some artists thrive on it. That’s the thing with us: we artists rub up against each other like sandpaper.”
Born in Victoria in 1916 and schooled in Vancouver and the Okanagan, Bainbridge decided upon an emancipated life for herself. “I just found myself wanting to paint,” she explains. “I was sixteen, seventeen, and heard about the Vancouver School of Art. I had to go there. My father said, ‘You’ll never earn a living from art,’ but I got a scholarship my first year and managed to graduate during the Depression.”
“At school we weren’t really brought up on landscape because we worked indoors,” Bainbridge adds. “We trained mostly in portrait and figure—the classical disciplines—although we had pottery, sculpture, architecture, textile design and blockprinting: a bit of everything, and the competition was fierce. I remember sitting beside Ed (E.J.) Hughes while he worked on his portraits—we all sat for each other—and we’d swap works.”
Bainbridge drew attention for her bravura portraiture. Under the teaching influence of Charles Scott and Group of Seven member Fred Varley, the mood, tone and treatment feel of London’s Courtauld School-style took root in her work, and the results were an exquisite portfolio of portrait images—chiefly models and local community personalities from Vancouver’s then-West End boarding house district. Shown at the important Canadian National Exhibitions of the l930s, they are now among the most sought-after of her works. Composed in thin oil and pencil on manila paper—a thrifty, depression-era medium encouraged by Emily Carr—they resonate with a haunting freshness and lean economy that is equal parts Bloomsbury-bohemian and the indigenous, ‘new world’ Vancouver mélange that Varley, Canada’s master poet-in-paint himself was struggling to articulate.
Inspired by her work’s success in Toronto, Bainbridge struck out on her own early, visiting the holiday watering holes of the Eastern elite where she was retained to paint the Van Horne railway family. During the war she also travelled to Ottawa, linking up with former Lynn Valley, North Vancouver artist Molly Lamb Bobak and E.J. Hughes who were resident there, as well as Group of Seven master A.Y. Jackson who received her cordially. Returning to Vancouver, she was able to retain a winter studio in the West End, while painting in the Okanagan and up the B.C. coast in summer. She also frequented and had shows at the original Vancouver Art Gallery where she met Max Maynard and Jack Shadbolt, and in 1940 attended a little show by a Victoria painter, Emily Carr.
“Emily was just beginning to be important at that time,” asserts Bainbridge. “I saw something in her work that also consumed me—you just couldn’t miss it. You’d see it yourself, the same thing, as you came toward the North Shore mountains, the green forests—the glory of Nature. Oh, she had it all right.
“I never did actually meet Emily though,” says Bainbridge. “I set off one day to see her, but I met a fellow aboard the ferry. It was a slow boat, and that was that!”
Bainbridge attributes much of the power in her own work to the Impressionism that also found fertile ground in Carr. “I adore the French Impressionists,” she declares; “I want to eat the work of Degas and Mary Cassatt. There’s a yumminess about them, the way they handle the human body; the lovely lines and forms. They were trying out new techniques, a new attack on the world. What was it Ruskin said of Turner? He said he couldn’t eat unless he saw Turner. The spirit needs its own food; that’s why I feel Emily is the most dedicated, deeply spiritual artist. When you just think of the narrow-minded Protestant ambiance she had to live in!”
Like Carr, Bainbridge and other women artists of her generation such as Mildred Valley Thornton were keen to document the original vitality of B.C.’s coastal life before it vanished. Locally, Bainbridge took to recording the old West Bay Cannery and its Japanese workers on West Vancouver’s waterfront, as well as Ambleside’s fertile dairy meadows before they fell to the rush of high-rise construction. And there are her period Capilano Squamish Reserve scenes and fishboats of fifty years back, as well as an ongoing series of images of Lillooet-area churches and aboriginal portraits that, from the start, decreed her a lineage-bearer of the great Carr. The abiding love Bainbridge has long felt for the isolated Lillooet-Seton Lake country in particular, is documented in a pair of books and a series of popular print editions that continue to enjoy their own market niche.
Somewhere in all of this there is a story too of a lengthy, patient marriage and family, travel and sojourns in Europe and San Francisco, and important associations with the likes of Lawren Harris. And there are the pop stars who call her up, hoping for a Bainbridge sketch they’ve heard of, detailing a stretch of West Van shoreline she once painted and that is now their reclusive estate.
These days, Unity Bainbridge chums with some fascinating company, still painting what moves her—one day a riot of flowers, another the wife of a chart-topping rocker. Yet there’s fluidity in it all, and a funky spontaneity you’d expect from this offbeat nonagenarian whom you’re likely to meet at the Ambleside Fish and Chip shop as at an arty mill and swill. And for any critics who may have yet outlived her—well, they can suck lemons.
“If there’s one thing we learn from Emily Carr, it’s to never be self-conscious about our feelings or technique,” she concludes. “At twenty-one I thought I was on my way, but the new mood then said you had to become abstract or you weren’t going anywhere. Anyway, I stuck to my rep, and I’m still at it. It’s the poetry in what we do...So I’m with Prince Charles against a modernity or techniques that are cold and unfeeling. It’s technique that goes beneath everything, and there’s a spiritual underpinning of course, but that’s all unconscious. It’s the human spirit that’s important!”
© 2007 Trevor Carolan- writes from North Vancouver; his current work is
The Pillowbook of Dr Jazz (Ekstasis).