BCSFA CGP OC RCA
1913 - 2007
Three Tugboats, Nanaimo Harbour
oil on canvas board
signed and dated 1952 and on verso signed, titled and titled Three Tugboats on the Dominion Gallery label, dated June 1952 / 1946 / 1949, inscribed with the Dominion Gallery inventory #C1396 and stamped Dominion Gallery twice
20 1/8 x 24 3/4 in 51.1 x 62.9 cm
Estimate: $200,000 - $300,000
Sold for: $601,250
Dominion Gallery, Montreal
Acquired from the above by Alistair Fraser Jr., Montreal, 1953
Acquired as a gift to a Private Collection, British Columbia, circa 1953
By descent to the present Private Estate, British Columbia
Ian M. Thom, E.J. Hughes, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2002, page 88, the 1946 canvas Fishboats, Rivers Inlet reproduced page 72
J.G. Cole, E.J. Hughes: The Man and His Art, Nanaimo Art Gallery, 2009, reproduced page 6
Jacques Barbeau, The E.J. Hughes Album: The Paintings, Volume 1, 1932 – 1991, 2011, reproduced page 18
Robert Amos, The E.J. Hughes Book of Boats, 2020, reproduced page 37 and listed page 81, titled as Three Tugboats, Nanaimo
Nanaimo Art Gallery, E.J. Hughes: The Man and His Art, May 15 - June 7, 2009
In 1946, E.J. Hughes was demobilized from the army and returned to British Columbia, settling in Victoria. In 1947 and 1948, he was awarded Emily Carr scholarships, which enabled him to undertake sketching trips on Vancouver Island. In 1951, Hughes moved to Shawnigan Lake, a village on the east side of the Island. Immersed in the stunning West Coast landscapes that surrounded him, he continued to paint outstanding works. This was an important year for Hughes, in which he met Dr. Max Stern of Montreal’s Dominion Gallery, who became his lifelong dealer.
Three dates are recorded on verso of the board – 1946, 1949 and June 1952. During the late 1940s, Hughes had developed a strong, stylized approach in his paintings that emphasized solidity of form and heightened colour with the use of bright spots. By the early 1950s, Hughes’s depiction of form was still stylized, but had become more naturalistic. The meaning of the three dates is unclear – it is possible the work evolved over a period of time and that Hughes retouched it, as in a 1951 letter to Stern he offers to retouch paintings if required. Also, when he sent paintings to Dr. Stern, the dealer asked him to sign and date them, which could account for the final date. Upon receiving works from Hughes, Dr. Stern immediately included his paintings in a 1951 group exhibition at the Dominion Gallery, and art critic Robert Ayre wrote, “He [Hughes] not only looks at the Canadian scene, but feels it, with passion, and puts it down note for note, leaf for leaf and wave for wave, with the love and concentration of a ‘primitive.’…The result of his labor is tremendous intensity.”
“Tremendous intensity” is an apt description of Hughes’s paintings from the 1940s and 1950s, which are rare and sought after. This painting is extraordinary - it showcases his remarkable compositional skills, as he depicts three small tugboats in Nanaimo harbour collecting floating logs that have broken loose from log booms. The design of each tugboat is almost identical, variations on a theme, and Hughes positions them in a triangular formation. Their cadmium yellow, grey and white colouration and aqua and pale green windows stand out against the water, marked with pale blue at the top of the wavelets against darker steely water. Patterns were interesting to Hughes, and the geometry of the square tugboat windows against the vertical cladding of stacked wooden cabins sets up a rhythm through their repetition.
Hughes established layers of composition – with the foreground dominated by the action-filled scene with the man salvaging logs, precariously balanced on their slippery surfaces. Hughes was a keen observer who consciously chose elements of visual interest. His attention to, and placement of, details was highly intentional. For example, he leads our eye out to the upper part of the canvas by placing a floating reddish log on the far left that points us towards the small white boat, then to the houses, docks and small vessels at the government dock on the shore of Protection Island. He adds bright points of colour in the houses, bleached golden grasses and the forked orange trunk of an arbutus tree to increase visual interest in the shoreline. He then closes the top of the painting with dark mountains that repeat in triangular forms, with glimpses of ethereal snow-covered peaks behind them in the distance.
Hughes often portrayed this distinctive design of tugboat in the coastal communities of the east coast of Vancouver Island in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Small and manoeuvrable, these tugs were also used for fishing as well as gathering logs, as shown in the masterpiece 1946 canvas Fishboats, Rivers Inlet, sold by Heffel in November 2018. He also portrayed them in the 1951 canvas Arbutus Trees on Gabriola Island (a close-up) and in the 1952 canvas Taylor Bay, Gabriola Island, to name but a few. Three Tugboats, Nanaimo Harbour is an outstanding example of Hughes’s consummate skills in depicting the life of these coastal communities, where nature provided bountiful marine and forest resources and people worked surrounded by beauty. Finely honed paintings such as this made Hughes one of Canada’s most important landscape painters.
The father of the consignor had a good friend, Alistair Fraser (1923 – 1997), who was in Montreal in the early 1950s and saw this painting in the window display of the Dominion Gallery. Recognizing it as the same view the consignor’s family had from their home in Nanaimo, he bought it on the spot for them for $300. The painting remained with the family in Nanaimo until its consignment to Heffel.
This painting was reproduced in the large poster for the 2009 Nanaimo Art Gallery exhibition of Hughes's work.
Estimate: $200,000 - $300,000
All prices are in Canadian Dollars
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