History makes a case against the murals
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From: Doug Kelly
Sent: Tuesday, May 01, 2007 7:41 AM
Subject: Victoria Times Colonist - "History makes a case against the murals"
History makes a case against the murals
The original record undermines the justifications created over the years
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
With George Henry Southwell's murals in the legislature causing a controversy once again, perhaps it's time to take a look back at how they came to be.
To do that, we need to find out more not only about Southwell, but also about Samuel Lyness Howe, the man who paid him for the work.
Both men are long gone. Howe, a former provincial secretary, died in Vancouver in 1939. Southwell, who remained active into his 90s, died in Pender Harbour in 1961.
Now, seven decades after the two men presented their vision of B.C.'s history to the province, the government has decided that the murals must be removed. They portray aboriginal people in demeaning and stereotypical roles, we're told.
We all look at art with our own set of ideas and values. Some of us might despise work that others love. Some are offended by the murals at the legislatures, while others are offended at the notion that they will be removed.
But the murals are not the same as public art in front of an arena; they hold a place of pride in the most important building in the province. If people are deeply offended by what they portray, that is much more serious than people simply not liking what they are seeing.
Howe was a successful businessman who was a member of premier Simon Tolmie's Conservative cabinet for five years and well-known as a benefactor. He gave his yacht to the federal government for use in the Queen Charlottes (or, the Haida Gwaii) during the Great War. He also provided two horses. One of them, Brocklebank, was ridden by Sir Arthur Currie, the Victoria realtor and part-time soldier who went on to lead the Canadian army.
The original design of the legislature called for murals in the rotunda, but the money ran out, so the space was left blank for more than three decades. In 1932, Howe decided to remedy that. He commissioned Southwell to provide artwork symbolic of the province.
Southwell had arrived in Canada from England about 1910. Born in Spain, he had listed his occupation as "decorator" in the 1901 census of England. He was already famous for a huge mural -- three metres high and 80 metres long -- showing British industry, which he painted for the Brussels exhibition in 1908.
The four murals in the lower rotunda are supposed to show attributes that were deemed necessary for the creation of a successful province: Courage, Labour, Justice and Enterprise. They were painted directly onto the walls.
In the upper rotunda, four more Southwell works are found. Painted on canvas, they show B.C.'s four core industries -- agriculture, mining, lumbering and fishing. Southwell started work on them in 1935, but they were not put up until February 1952.
Those murals aren't causing problems. The main concerns deal with Labour and Justice, two of the murals in the lower rotunda.
Labour shows bare-breasted aboriginal women helping to built a fort. Justice shows Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie dealing with an aboriginal man in a courtroom. Was it a trial? Negotiations of some sort? That is not clear.
But what did Southwell have in mind? To find out, we can trace back through old issues of the Victoria Times, the Daily Colonist, the Vancouver Sun and the Province.
Those murals were considered to be one of Southwell's crowning achievements, mentioned in just about every story written about him after 1932. And he had many other accomplishments, including a logging-camp scene that was made the province's official gift marking the visit of King Prajadihopok of Siam, now Thailand. One wonders if that painting is still hanging in a palace in Bangkok.
It's important to go back to contemporary reports because interpretations and theories can change over time. Since 1952, Labour has been said to show the construction of Fort Victoria. But before that, it was reported to depict Fort Langley.
It was identified as Fort Langley when Howe announced the project in July 1932. If that's the case, we should dismiss any theories that aboriginal women would have worked bare-breasted at Fort Victoria.
As for Justice, here is how it was described when announced: "Administration of justice in which a culprit is depicted appearing before Chief Justice Begbie in a rude court of the gold rush days."
Six years later, a Sun feature story on Southwell said Justice had been based on an incident when Begbie and another official "visited Clinton to pacify troublesome Indians who threatened war on the whites, and by brilliant compromise and fine judgment, their efforts culminated in success."
A trial or negotiations? Hard to tell. Either way, though, it is difficult to argue with the notion that the natives were seen in a subservient position. That makes it easy to understand how the mural could offend.
In 2001, an expert panel recommended that the murals be removed, as long as that removal would not damage the artwork.
When they were painted, Southwell's murals were the only historical ones in any public building in British Columbia. They show, among other things, how our aboriginal population was viewed by the people who held the power. It is important to understand that, because we need to learn from history.
That's enough reason to argue that the murals be preserved. That's not enough, though, to say that they belong in the legislature.
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007
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