Emily Carr’s James Bay

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Emily Carr died on March 2, 1945, and since March 8 is International Women’s Day, it seems fitting to write a blog about this famous artist and take you on a tour of her James Bay neighbourhood. The tour is laid out in much more detail and accompanied by then and now photos in Sensational Victoria.

More than 12,000 people visit Emily Carr House every year. Eve Lazarus photo, 2011

Her name adorns a university, a school, a bridge, and a library. She is the subject of several documentaries, museum exhibits, books and plays. In 2009, her painting Wind in the Tree Tops sold for more than $2.1 million, one of the highest-priced Canadian paintings ever sold at auction. Tourists visit her family home, seek out her sketching places along Dallas Road and Beacon Hill Park and walk over the memorial bridge paid for by her sister Alice. Her grave is the most sought-after in the Ross Bay Cemetery.

Emily Carr’s presence in Victoria is pervasive. Yet for most of her life, she was shunned by the Victoria of her day, and for all of her fame, locals still seem a bit stunned by the attention. It wasn’t until the fall of 2010—65 years after her death—that Victoria honoured the artist with a $400,000 statue on the lawn of the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

Emily was born at Carr House in 1871, and died a few blocks away at the James Bay Inn, 74 years later. For most of her life, she lived in James Bay and wrote extensively about the area and her family’s homes.

James Bay is the oldest residential area of Victoria and takes its name from Governor James Douglas. Douglas built his house in the 1850s on the current site of the Royal BC Museum. Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken married Douglas’s daughter and built his house next door. His house is still there and is now a provincial museum.

Emily Carr
Map of James Bay walking tour created for Sensational Victoria by Ross Nelson, 2012

Until a causeway was completed in the early 1900s, Government Street was made up of Carr Street (named after Emily’s father Richard), Birdcage Walk, and the James Bay Bridge—a wooden bridge that crossed the mud flats and continued downtown.

In 1908, the James Bay mud flats were hidden underneath the spanking new $13-million Empress Hotel. By the 1940s, houses had taken over all the land. Postwar development hit in the 1950s, and then in the 1960s and ‘70s—as in Vancouver’s West End—many of Victoria’s superb heritage houses were bulldozed to make room for apartment buildings.

Emily Carr
Emily with her animals in 1918. Courtesy Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

Yet with all these changes, the Victoria Heritage Foundation still lists over 150 buildings on its heritage inventory, some like Helmcken’s, that date back to the 1850s.

Emily started writing in the late 1920s and had seven books published during her lifetime and after her death. She wrote extensively about James Bay and her family house in The Book of Small, and about how much she hated being a landlady in The house of All Sorts.

Emily Carr
Mother Cecilia bought the hotel in 1942 and ran it as St. Mary’s Priory. Emily died here in 1945. Eve Lazarus photo, 2011

What was great, at least in 2012 when I was putting this tour together, was that most of the houses that involve Emily—including the home where she was born on Government Street, the “House of All Sorts,” known for all the different people who boarded there, two of her sister’s houses, and James Bay Hotel (Inn) built in 1911, are all still there.

So, the next time you’re in the area, grab a copy of Sensational Victoria from Munro’s Books, and take a walk around Emily’s James Bay.

Emily Carr
Carr family, 207 Government St, 1869. Courtesy Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

© All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Eve Lazarus.



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  1. We’ll follow your map next fall when we visit Victoria. Jacqueline Pearce has written a couple of great historical fiction novels about Emily.

  2. Family lore: My father grew up in Victoria (chummed around with Pierre Berton and Bill Reid….), son of stuffy British expats. He was a bit of a drawer himself and one day, according to him, he came across Emily Carr in Beacon Hill Park, also sketching….She was apparently taken by my dad, and gave him one of her sketches. He proudly took it home, whereupon his mother angrily threw it out, saying it was by “that crazy woman….”…..Emily Carr was revered by my parents…..a large reproduction of The Indian Church, a wedding present, still presides over the living room fireplace of our house….must do that walking tour

    1. Oh no–you could have had an original hanging in your office! I heard something similar from Fred Varley’s grandchildren. He lived in Lynn Valley for a time and apparently used to patch up the leaks in his house with his paintings
      Eve Lazarus recently posted..Emily Carr’s James BayMy Profile

  3. Life is full of what-might-have-beens. Take my Victoria-born wife’s late father. Born in 1916, Ed Ball had to drop out of school after Grade 7 to support his cash-strapped parents and younger siblings

    Working for a butcher, Ed delivered packages of meat to customers, including Emily Carr. Imperious and prone to answering the door with a monkey or other menacing pet on her shoulder, Miss Emily scared the bejesus out of the delivery lad. “What do you want, boy?” was a frequent welcoming comment from the curmudgeonly doyenne.

    Not surprisingly, young Ed stammered, “Here’s your order” and quickly left. Many years later, he realized the correct response should have, at least once, included: “Ma’am, can I please have one of those paintings you’re throwing out?”

    In his telling of those encounters, my late father-in-law told his children that the Carr lawn and garden was strewn with castoff canvasses that, presumably, had failed to pass internal muster with the exacting artist.

    Who knows what became of those throwaways? God forbid they ended up in the city dump!

    As for the delivery boy…Ed Ball was bright enough to learn what he needed to succeed in life. He eventually joined the Victoria Fire Department, retiring as Deputy Chief.

    Before passing away in 1980 he sometimes reflected on how a Carr original or two would’ve made a fine bequest to either family or a charity.

  4. Your excellent Emily Carr presentation is of the greatest interest.
    It has given us an even greater incentive to explore the life of this truly remarkable woman. Thank you so very much!

  5. Ah…we stayed at the James Bay Inn last spring; just delightful. And I’ve been to Emily’s home in 1990 when it was being restored, but every time I go there to get inside again, it’s closed! I won’t give up though. My husband loves her forest paintings.

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