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Unsung Victoria artist brought to light

Oak Bay author Christina Johnson-Dean shows a self-portrait of Edythe Hembroff-Schleicher in her new book that explores of the life of the adventurous and unsung Victoria artist who befriended and influenced Emily Carr.  - Edward Hill/News staff
Oak Bay author Christina Johnson-Dean shows a self-portrait of Edythe Hembroff-Schleicher in her new book that explores of the life of the adventurous and unsung Victoria artist who befriended and influenced Emily Carr.
— image credit: Edward Hill/News staff

Her name headlines a prominent Vancouver art school, and gallery space across Canada is devoted to her work. Emily Carr by most measures is B.C.’s most famous and enduring artist.

But she didn’t receive much recognition until later in life, and a healthy part of that can be attributed to her friendship with a young, deeply talented Victoria artist named Edythe Hembroff-Schleicher, who, like many Canadian artists, has faded into obscurity.

Oak Bay author and art historian Christina Johnson-Dean has shed new light on Hembroff-Schleicher’s fascinating life as an artist and author in The Life and Art of Edythe Hembroff-Schleicher, which is part of the Unheralded Artists of B.C. series by Mother Tongue Publishing.

Hembroff-Schleicher (1906-1994) grew up in a well-to-do family in view of Craigdarroch Castle on Craigdarroch Road in a house that still stands today. Her father owned a Goodyear tire store.

“She had a silver-spoon childhood. She had modern clothes, cars and cameras,” Johnson-Dean said. “The wonderful thing about Edythe is she was totally a 20th century person, and went through the changes and opportunities of the 20th century. She also went through two wars.”

She attended art school in Victoria and San Francisco, and then in France. Independent and adventurous, the young artist painted across Europe and tasted success in Paris – she exhibited in a salon in 1930 open to professional artists. She returned to Victoria in the wake of the Great Depression.

Victoria-based Emily Carr read about Hembroff-Schleicher in the society pages and called her up. Despite a 35 year age difference, they developed a close friendship.

“They had a wonderful time sketching together in Cordova Bay at what became McMorran’s (Beach House). They went together to Goldstream to sketch,” Johnson-Dean said. “Emily Carr wanted to mother young Edythe. But Edythe held her own. She was professionally trained artist.

“Edythe got (Carr) to try something different. Emily Carr liked trees. Edythe wanted to paint pulsating flesh. Emily Carr loved the landscapes. Edythe loved people and things.”

She even painted a striking portrait of Carr, which the young woman threw in the garbage. Someone retrieved it, recognized Emily Carr and it now hangs in the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Hembroff-Schleicher met her second husband Fred Brand, a University of B.C. math professor, through Carr's circle of friends. The husband and wife team organized a number of exhibitions at UBC for Carr. Hembroff-Schleicher also convinced the provincial government to buy Carr’s Kispiox Village painting. “Carr used that money to get a caravan called the Elephant,” said Johnson-Dean, a special education teacher currently at Colquitz school.

Hembroff-Schleicher would go on to write two definitive books on her friend and became the provincial authority on Emily Carr.

Hembroff-Schleicher had left her volumes of personal papers and four or five photo albums with the B.C. Archives, but Johnson-Dean couldn’t find her paintings.

“She left wonderful photos of Cordova Bay and of daily life in Victoria," she said. “But it was strange. I had no art of hers.”

After Johnson-Dean sent out calls for help, a sharp eyed employee at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria found two boxes of Hembroff-Schleicher's work in storage.

“Bingo bonanza. It was all her award winning paintings and all her personal papers,” Johnson-Dean said. “It was loads of personal papers that explained her life.”

Johnson-Dean launches The Life and Art of Edythe Hembroff-Schleicher on June 29, 8 p.m. at the Victoria College of Art, 1625 Bank St. The event is free.

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