The painting above was purchased by my good friend, Wes, at a thrift store, recently. He didn’t know who the artist was nor anything of his story. He just liked the painted rendering of the portrait. A bit of digging online revealed that the painting was made by Alfred John Davis (a Vancouver artist) – who was unknown to Wes or me – from a photographic postcard of Chief Two Guns White Calf.
A. J. Davis was born in England in 1868. He later immigrated to Canada and settled for a few years in Winnipeg. He came west to Vancouver in 1891, and he married Ellen Ann McCannell here in 1897. His occupation in Winnipeg and in Vancouver was as a railway coach painter for the Canadian Pacific Railway (later on, in Vancouver, he became foreman of the CPR paint shops here).
In a Vancouver Sun profile that was published just a couple of weeks before Davis’ death in 1933, the author noted that
“Mr. and Mrs. Davis are living in a veritable art gallery, wherein beautiful paintings, both in oil and water color, with huge pencil drawings adorn the walls throughout their well-situated home at 3741 39th Avenue West. Indian heads in oil is the chief subject for his brushes and over which has the most absolute control, so much so that he is recognized in artistic circles as the authority in such work.” (A Home Filled with Treasures. Vancouver Sun, January 7, 1933)
The indian subjects appear to have been paintings he did for his own amusement (and probably as an additional income source), although it is possible that his output for the CPR may also have included native american portraits. According to the Sun author, the Davis home was full of wood carvings in addition to oil and watercolour paintings. One of these sounds from the description as though it would have made a lovely piece for a local museum. Whether or not it was donated to the Maritime Museum or the MOV is unknown to me:
“The year 1863 marked the beginning of a new era in the history of British Columbia with the arrival on the Columbia River on March 19 of the first vessel, the historic Beaver, after a passage of 163 days from Gravesend, entirely under sail. Today, all that is left of the vessel* after sinking in the Narrows at Vancouver just forty years ago, is a beautifully carved scimitar and sheath brought to light from a trunk by A. J. Davis…This was carved from part of an inside cupola of the old vessel obtained at low tide after a lengthy scramble over barnacles and sea refuse in the autumn of 1891 about three weeks before the vessel completely disappeared from sight. The Beaver knife sheath has a perfectly carved scroll-work. The curved blade contains a piece of one of the copper rivets used to fasten the old oak beams of the historic old steamer.”
Although I’m very appreciative of the Sun for assigning a reporter (albeit, an anonymous one) to write the profile of the today-all-but-unknown artist, if I’d had my ‘druthers’, it would have been helpful to have more detail about A. J. Davis’ work for the CPR, including what exactly his job entailed. Was he responsible for any of the famous CPR posters? Was he responsible for painting scenes in railway coaches (in which case, most of his career art work must surely now be gone) or (more likely), was it his job to see that all CPR property was properly maintained with a fresh coat of paint, inside and out?A. J. Davis died while still in harness with his employer of 45 years on January 25, 1933. His widow died in 1953 in Burbank, CA. What happened to the treasures in their former home is unknown to me.
*This claim that the Davis item is the sole extant piece of the Beaver isn’t accurate. See here for an image of an auction mallet composed of wood from the craft and a reference to “a number of other such items” from the Beaver, including its boiler which resides outside of the Maritime Museum.
April 19/16: I have just found a listing of a few others of AJD’s work; they were on display at the Theatre Royal (aka the first Orpheum Theatre), as part of the First Annual Exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Association, September 25-27, 1900.