In 1926, Jock Macdonald (1897–1960) left England to take up the position of head of design at the recently established Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts (now the Emily Carr University of Art + Design). He arrived in Vancouver in September of that year—and for the rest of his life he would teach as well as paint.
The late 1920s was an exciting time in Vancouver—a dramatic change from the staid Victorian art scene that had discouraged Emily Carr (1871–1945) in 1913 when she abandoned painting for over a decade. The creation of the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts (VSDAA) was central to the shift, as was the arrival in the city of two men: Fred Varley (1881–1969), the renowned Group of Seven landscape and portrait painter who was the first head of drawing, painting, and composition at the school; and John Vanderpant (1884–1939), an internationally recognized photographer. Both were to have a profound influence on Macdonald.
Varley fell in love with the British Columbia landscape and organized sketching trips for his colleagues and students. Although he had previously directed his artistic attention towards design work, Macdonald began to focus on painting and shared a studio with Varley, who became his mentor. Recognizing that the grandeur of the landscape required a stronger medium than the watercolour and tempera of his earlier work, Macdonald began to paint in oil, creating works including Lytton Church, B.C., 1930. The powerful connection he made with the rugged B.C. scenery, his spiritual identification with nature, and his determination to capture the experience of the landscape in paint set him on the quest that would shape his painting for the rest of his life.
In 1926 Vanderpant and Harold Mortimer-Lamb (1872–1970) opened the Vanderpant Galleries, which exhibited contemporary art and photography and promoted B.C. artists. The gallery soon became a force for modernist art in Vancouver and, between 1928 and 1939, a gathering place for the city’s intellectual and artistic communities.
Although Vancouver remained a conservative city culturally, an increasing number of residents were attracted to new ideas, and particularly to Eastern thought and spiritual concepts. In April 1929 a crowd filled the Vancouver Theatre to capacity, and thousands more stood in line to hear the poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who “carried the audience into the realm of pure aesthetics.” For the artistic community, the Vancouver scene in the late 1920s and early 1930s might be summed up in Fred Varley’s advice to his students to “forget anything not mystical.” In 1932 Macdonald painted In the White Forest—an image that represents a distinct shift in his work and the beginning of his lifelong search for the spiritual aspect of nature in art.
These heady days were not to last. With the onslaught of the Depression, the VSDAA cut faculty salaries drastically. When Macdonald and Varley realized that the burden was not shared fairly, they were outraged and in early 1933 resigned in protest.
This Essay is excerpted from Jock Macdonald: Life & Work by Joyce Zemans.