1871 - 1945
watercolour on paper, circa 1914
signed Emily Carr and on verso inscribed "$25.00" and on a piece of paper "Susan lived on one side of Sophie's house - Susan produced and buried babies as fast as Sophie herself. The two women laughed for each other and cried for each other. When they came to my studio they rested and drank tea with me." / Klee Wyck
9 3/4 x 7 1/2 in 24.8 x 19.1 cm
Available for post auction sale.
Preview at: Heffel Toronto – 13 Hazelton Ave
Private Estate, British Columbia
Emily Carr, Klee Wyck, (1941), 2003, pages 63, 64 and 65
Emily Carr’s greatest friend, Sophie Frank, to whom Carr dedicated her book Klee Wyck, was a member of the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) and lived on the Mission Indian Reserve No. 1 in North Vancouver. The frontispiece for Klee Wyck (1941 edition) is a remarkable portrait of Frank, which Carr painted in 1914. That work, Sophie Frank, from a private collection, sold at Heffel in spring 2018, is similar in style and handling to the present work. Like the watercolour Old Man (sold at Heffel fall 2020), this work has a note on the back of the frame and a Roberts Gallery framing label. This suggests that it might share a similar provenance to Old Man. In this case, however, the text is from Carr’s story “Sophie,” chapter 5 in Klee Wyck. Of Susan (regrettably her last name is not currently known), Carr wrote that she was a close neighbour of Sophie who
"produced and buried babies almost as fast as Sophie herself. The two women laughed for each other and cried for each other. With babies on their backs and baskets on their arms they crossed over on the ferry to Vancouver and sold their baskets from door to door. When they came to my studio they rested and drank tea with me. My parrot, sheep dog, the white rats and the totem pole pictures all interested them. "An’ you got Injun flower, too," said Susan.
She pointed to ferns and wild things I had brought in from the woods."
Of the camaraderie between the two women Carr further wrote, “Susan and Sophie were in my kitchen, rocking their sorrows back and forth and alternately wagging their heads and giggling with shut eyes at some small joke.” At the end of the story, Carr recounts a poignant tale involving both Sophie and Susan. The two women, each of whom had endured the loss of many children, were invited to see the twin babies of Carr’s friend Mrs. Dingle.
Susan’s hand crept from beneath her shawl to touch a baby’s leg. Sophie’s hand shot out and slapped Susan’s.
The mother of the babies said, "It’s all right, Susan; you may touch my baby."
Sophie’s eyes burned Susan for daring to do what she so longed to do herself. She folded her hands resolutely under her shawl and whispered to me, "Nice ladies don’ touch, Em’ly."
Although Susan is not dated, and we have only the evidence of the note on the back of the frame to identify her, commonalities the watercolour shares with Sophie Frank suggest a similar date of 1914 for this work. Each woman is shown bust length, three-quarter face, from their proper left side. Their hair is parted in the centre, tucked behind the left ear, and each woman has a long braid down her back. In both works there is a strong sense of identity and a greater attention to the details of facial structure than either background or clothing. The careful use of shadow in Susan gives her face a sense of volume, and traces the years of a hard life on the contours of her face. The eyes have a particular gravity and suggest both the sorrows and joys of this woman’s life, but also her resolve and strength. Susan is presented boldly and unreservedly, and the cropping of the image enhances the sense of immediacy and our engagement with the sitter. This is a woman Carr knew and valued as a friend - far from being a “subject,” Susan is depicted as part of Carr’s world.
We thank Ian M. Thom, Senior Curator - Historical at the Vancouver Art Gallery from 1988 to 2018, for contributing the above essay.
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