B.C.’s first-ever art exhibition may have been held by Black painter, Grafton Tyler Brown

B.C.'s first-ever art exhibition may have been held by Black painter, Grafton Tyler Brown

This Week in History:

The Royal BC Museum just solidified itself as having the largest collection of Grafton Tyler Brown paintings in a public institution.

The latest acquisition of the African-American artist’s work is Entrance to the Harbor, capturing a drastically less developed Victoria in the late 1800s.

“We’re so enthusiastic to add it to our collection,” says India Young, Curator of Art and Images at the RBCM.  “I went on an investigative journey to figure out exactly where Brown stood to paint this painting. And it’s a view from Esquimalt back to James Bay.”

Entrance to the Harbor was the signature painting in Brown’s 1883 Victoria exhibition.

(Royal BC Museum)

“When he exhibited his paintings here, he bought ads and created a campaign to encourage the public, of then 1883 Victoria, to come look at his paintings,” says Young. “So it is arguable that Grafton Tyler Brown, African-American artist, hosted the first-ever art exhibition in British Columbia.”

Grafton Tyler Brown lived in San Francisco before migrating to British Columbia to live and work for a few years.

“One of the other very interesting things about the move that he made from San Francisco to British Columbia was that he also transformed his public identity for the rest of his life, passed as white person, the status of art and the perception of landscape painting to help transform his ability to be seen as a white person.”

(Royal BC Museum)

A self-taught painter, Brown travelled the province in the late 19th century, painting in the ‘Hudson River School’ style.  His work depicted lush and vast scenery meant to entice settlers from the East to invest out West.

Most of the paintings collected by the Royal BC Museum are gifted by the public, but this purchase was made possible by a legacy gift to the museum by the estate of Elizabeth Munro Rithet.

“This acquisition is also part of a new collecting strategy,” Young says.  “My hopes are to grow the collection to create a more inclusive representation of British Columbia. Grafton Tyler Brown is especially important because he is the first known Black artist in British Columbia.”

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