Letters of Emily Carr, Nan Cheney, and Humphrey Toms
This collection includes 150 letters Emily Carr wrote to her friends Nan Cheney and Humphrey Toms, and 100 other letters relating mainly to Emily Carr. The letters date from 1930 to 1945, the most prolific period in Carr’s career as both painter and writer. In them she writes in colourful detail about her everyday activities, and discusses her painting – “the biggest thing in my life.” There are outbursts of exasperation and anger as well as many indications of her caring, her warmth, her wisdom and her wit, and of her impatience with critics and poseurs, and they give insights into her various relationships with, among others, Lawren Harris, Ira Dilworth, Jack Shadbolt, Garnett Sedgewick, Dorothy Livesay, A.Y. Jackson, and Arthur Lismer.
Nan Cheney and Humphrey Toms shared Emily Carr’s interest in art. Carr’s relationship with Cheney dated back to 1930 but did not flourish until 1937 when Cheney moved from Ottawa to Vancouver to become the first full-time medical artist at UBC. Humphrey Toms was only twenty years old when he first met Emily Carr, having asked to visit her after seeing some of her paintings, following which a warm friendship developed.
The correspondence between Cheney and Toms reveals how Carr was regarded at the time and attests to their mutual interest in the Vancouver art scene. As an active member Cheney relates gossip about the local art community, providing a very personal and often exceedingly critical view of the Vancouver art milieu of the time.
Doreen Walker has chosen not to change the original text of the letters and includes Carr’s misspellings and grammatical irregularities, which give a feeling of immediacy to the writing. There are numerous examples of her talent for graphic description, how she felt “rag rug level” when depressed and how she “was sat down with a spank” when ill. Perhaps most significant are the many revelations of her deep commitment to her work and of her industry and perseverance despite her failing health. “Queer how we go on,” she wrote to Cheney, “luck there is so much rubber in human composition.”
The collection is an important one; it gives us a taste of earthy, domestic Emily Carr, a sense of her everyday speech and her wonderful bad attitude to grammar and spelling which Walker had the good sense to leave.
This group of letters has a sweep to it, a sense of change through time, that is quite exciting, especially in the degree to which it deals with everyday details of a highly creative life, advancing against increasingly difficult odds ... an important, revealing record of a significant cultural life and of cultural life in general in Victoria and Vancouver.
Here we get the inimitable revelation of the practical everyday and earthy Emily, the naturally domestic woman who loves ‘houses and gardens and home things,’ the irrepressible comic who sees things naturally in terms of amusing homey metaphor ... Doreen Walker has done a scholarly and patient job of assembling and editing the material. Her comprehensive and thorough notes as well as the introduction comprise a document of considerable value in itself.
Note on the Text
Transcriptions of the Carr Letters
Emily Carr's “Variations”
Receive the latest UBC Press news, including events, catalogues, and announcements.Subscribe to our newsletter now
Read past newsletters