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Ina D.D. Uhthoff, Untitled (no date), watercolour, Michael Uhthoff Collection

Ina D.D. Uhthoff, Untitled (no date), watercolour, Michael Uhthoff Collection

The Life and Art of Ina D.D. Uhthoff

by Christina Johnson-Dean

Ina D.D. Uhthoff was an expert fly fisher as well as an accomplished artist, teacher, administrator and writer. During the mid-1900s, she negotiated the traditional waters of British Columbia’s artistically staid capital city, Victoria, while experimenting and encouraging new waves in a provincial art world. Moreover, she was a driving force in establishing the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

Trained in painting and drawing at the Glasgow School of Art, as well in teaching, Uhthoff came to Canada in 1913 to visit friends in the Kootenays, where she lived with her husband before coming to Victoria as a single working parent in the mid-1920s. She soon established the Victoria School of Art and juggled paying jobs while creating her own art, mainly in drawing and painting. Of all the artists who showed their work in the controversial Modern Room at the 1932 Island Arts and Crafts Annual Exhibition, Uhthoff was the only one who also exhibited in the traditional section. She staged exhibits at her studio and also sent her work to the BC Artists exhibitions in Vancouver.

Artists Emily Carr and Katherine Maltwood had proposed the idea of a public gallery, but until 1944, none had materialized. At the end of World War II, an impetus for establishing a civic gallery in Victoria was Mark Kearley, a war artist with HMCS Naden at Esquimalt. Uhthoff and other artists joined him in forming a local branch of the Federation of Canadian Artists. By the summer of 1946, the Little Centre, with 300 members, opened in an empty automobile showroom. In 1948, with post-war car sales rising, the group had to leave the showroom, but carried on exhibiting in Uhthoff’s studio on Wharf Street. The next year, they opened a gallery on Broughton Street, naming it the Art Centre of Greater Victoria. Uhthoff headed the Exhibition Committee. In 1950, the permanent collection purchased its first piece, Uhthoff’s Sunflowers.

In 1951, Sara Spencer, daughter of department store owner David Spencer, donated the family’s Moss Street residence, Lan Dderwen, as a permanent home. Uhthoff’s efforts were unflagging, with her joining other board members to ensure that the new gallery educated Victoria residents about Modernism and exhibited art from around the world.

A professional curator or director was essential, and one of Uhthoff’s singularly most important contributions was convincing Colin Graham to take the job. Graham was an exceptional leader throughout his AGGV tenure and a much-respected mentor in his retirement. Uhthoff served on the board for years, continuing to paint and write art reviews for the Victoria Daily Colonist. She was remembered as “a Scot who burned the candle at both ends … always on the cusp of what was happening in the arts" and "the doyen of Victoria painters.”

This article is based on the book of the same name, fifth in the Unheralded Artists of British Columbia series (Mother Tongue Publishing), which explores the lives and work of important but previously undocumented BC artists from the 1900s through the 1960s. The books are available at the Vancouver Art Gallery Shop, the Royal BC Museum and other venues, as well as from mothertonguepublishing.com.

Christina Johnson-Dean is working on UABC #9, The Life and Art of Mary Filer, due out in fall 2016.

 Sat, Nov 19, 2016