Fifth Business in the Art World

An unconventional collector, painter and photographer comes in from the cold

The first half of the 20th century was one of vigorous growth and development in Canadian art, without much encouragement from a conservative society. When you read the standard art histories of this period, invariably constructed around the formation and struggle of the Group of Seven, you have to ask: Why were our painters so conventional? Did they feel they had to pretend to be bourgeois to make it? Where were the bohemians?

When members of the Group of Seven went on their boxcar excursions to explore the Canadian landscape, they had a “no alcohol” rule. Lawren Harris famously painted in his three-piece suit and tie and had to leave Toronto when he divorced his wife. They seem to us like squares compared to their European counterparts. Where is our Bateau-Lavoir, our Bloomsbury painters immersed in love triangles, our Pont-Aven group, our madmen suicides like Modigliani or Van Gogh, our artist/stockbroker who runs away to Polynesia to paint bare-breasted women carrying fruit?

There were, in fact, Canadian bohemians, although their stories are not well known. After reading Harold Mortimer-Lamb: The Art Lover, Robert Amos’s biography of the photographer, painter and art collector (1872–1970), I can tell you where they went: Vancouver. On the West Coast they savoured a greater freedom to live and create as they wished.

Before Amos’s book, Mortimer-Lamb put in only brief appearances at the edges of Canadian art history. He is a footnote in the biographies of many celebrated artists including Fred Varley, Arthur Lismer, Lawren Harris, Jack Shadbolt and Emily Carr, whom he discovered and called to the attention of Eric Brown, head of the National Gallery. He photographed them in his gauzy pictorialist style, hosted them at his house, corresponded with them, bought their work, wrote about them in the newspapers, and even paid their rent on occasion.

He is “fifth business” in the story of Canadian art, a minor player who nevertheless holds the key to the whole drama.

Amos, an artist who lives in Victoria and has written seven books about that city, does a worker-like job of telling Mortimer-Lamb’s story from his childhood in Surrey, England; his arrival in British Columbia at 16 to learn farming in the Fraser Valley; his quick exit from the farm and his travels through the mining towns along the U.S. border, where he founded several local newspapers filled with mining news. This led to his lifelong work with the provincial and later the national mining associations as their spokesman, PR person and editor of their publications.

One of the remarkable things about this multi-talented man was his ability to lead two distinct lives, one among geologists and financiers and another among artists. In 1903, in recognition of his managerial and writing skills, he was named secretary of the Montreal-based Canadian Mining Institute and moved his family to Montreal, where he met the most exciting painters of the day including A.Y. Jackson and the wealthiest collectors such as William Van Horne. He formed a particularly close relationship with the painter Laura Muntz Lyall.

But life in Montreal soon became turbulent and unhappy. His beloved young daughter, Dolly, whose ethereal childish beauty Mortimer-Lamb had often captured with his camera, died of measles, and his wife, Kate, unable to adjust to the big city or cope with the demands of the household, became an invalid, possibly an opium addict. She lived a shadowy existence in the back rooms of the house until she died in 1939. The household was in chaos, their four boys not bathed or fed, until a competent young housekeeper named Mary Williams took charge of the family.

Longing for the West Coast, Mortimer-Lamb suffered a nervous collapse and resigned from his job. The family, including Mary who was now expecting his child, returned to Vancouver in 1920, where a daughter, Molly—the future artist Molly Lamb Bobak—was born. His depression cleared up and a new and happy chapter opened in Mortimer-Lamb’s life. He and Mary continued under the same roof but lived very separate lives, disregarding convention.

His steady income (he went back to work for the B.C. mining association) enabled him to support a family of five children, maintain a large home in Kerrisdale with tennis courts and a dark room, a huge garden and a barn for his Jersey cows. He could afford to collect British and Canadian art, Chinese vases, Japanese tea ceremony artifacts and woodblock prints and still help out his painter friends when they were down on their luck. The book abounds with drawings and paintings of -Mortimer-Lamb with his rimless glasses and luxuriant mustache by various grateful artists.

He opened a money-losing art gallery and photo studio with fellow photographer John Vanderpant on Robson Street and devoted his considerable energies to bringing in travelling exhibitions of work from the National Gallery of Canada, founding the British Columbia Art League, founding a professional art school (forerunner of Emily Carr University of Art and Design) and trying to get a civic art gallery off the ground.

He was responsible for bringing Group of Seven member Fred Varley to be a teacher at the new Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts, and this had unforeseen consequences. Varley was a dazzling teacher, but a feckless husband and father. Abandoning his wife, Maud, and their sons, Varley fell deeply in love with his student and frequent model Vera Weatherbie, herself a talented artist. During hiking and sketching trips to the North Shore of Vancouver, they found a shack in Lynn Valley that became their love nest; you can see it in some of Varley’s best paintings such as Dharana, in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Later the rent on this dilapidated cabin was paid by Mortimer-Lamb, as was Vera’s rent on her painting studio.)

The tumultuous love affair with the beautiful Vera eventually burned itself out and Varley, the wild man, went back east licking his wounds. A few years later, Mortimer-Lamb was widowed and thus began the final and perhaps most remarkable chapter in his long life.

At the suggestion of his housekeeper, Mary Williams, who had turned down his proposal, he asked Vera to marry him and to his surprise, she agreed. He was almost 70, she was 40 years younger. The two enjoyed each other’s company for the next 29 years. He became a painter, even taking courses at the art school he helped establish, while she gradually stopped painting to look after him.

In 1967, when she was in her mid fifties, Vera began to show signs of dementia; she insisted that Tommy Douglas was hiding in her refrigerator. She entered the notorious provincial mental hospital known as Essondale, where she received a frontal lobotomy. She emerged calmer but had lost her spark. Harold Mortimer-Lamb died in 1970, age 99, and Vera followed seven years later, after choking on a piece of steak.

Harold Mortimer-Lamb’s extensive collection of paintings, books, photographs and objects eventually passed to and helped build the holdings of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and the -Vancouver Art Gallery. His vision of Vancouver as a centre for art making has largely been realized.