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The Hudson Bay Centre

Posted: March 14, 2005
} The Hudson Bay Centre By Robert Amos The Hudson’s Bay Company is to be commended. Clearly the head office has recognized the connection between The Company, our culture and what it means to visitors and residents here in Victoria. On the fourth floor of what we have learned to call The Bay Centre, Canada’s oldest commercial venture has installed an art gallery and historical display. On a recent visit Laurie Mackie, the very knowledgeable interpreter on hand, introduced me to the components of the display. At the entry I couldn’t help but admire the quilts depicting historical themes which are made exclusively of pieces of HBC blankets. The quilts were made by local quilters and the scraps are, in fact, “left-overs” from capote-making workshops. But that is another story, already covered by Grania Litwin in this newspaper on February 3. Inside the gallery is a wooden counter and shelves set up like a museum dispaly of a fur-trading post. I am sure many school children have been surprised to discover that this great nation of ours is based on the European taste for felt hats - that’s what the beaver pelts were used for! In another room a less-convincing effort is made to recreate the ambience of a Canadian middle-class dining room of the 1930’s. This is the department store and catalogue sales side of The Bay. It is to be regretted that these displays aim at at “generic” feel and do not address the fascinating particulars of Victoria’s era as an HBC fort. What drew me to the display were the original oil paintings from the extensive collection of the Hudson’s Bay Company. These include nine paintings commissioned between 1920 and 1950 for the annual calendar, a prestigious item published by the Hudson’s Bay Company. In addition one can see two older oils. King Charles These older two are life-sized three-quarter length portraits painted in the 17th century. One, of Prince Rupert, the founder of the HBC, is said to be from the studio of Sir Anthony Van Dyck. The more attractive one, a canvas by Sir Peter Lely, shows King Charles II of England. It is a charming picture. The dark-haired king’s liquid and slightly bulging eyes, his cascading brown curls and pendulous lower lip give an idea of why the spaniel lapdogs so popular at his court were named after him. A great chunk of royal insiginia hangs from his neck and a Latin motto is embroidered on one of the garters holding up his grey silk tights. It is a pity that the lighting, glass and position of this canvas conspire to make it hard to see the painting - a singularly ineffective display. The calendar pictures are by Canadian artists - the sort known only to devotees of Canadian art history: Charles Comfort, Franklin Arbuckle, and Adam Sherriff Scott, to name a few. They depict subjects of Bay history, scrupulously researched and - in the case of Sherriff’s picture of Fort Victoria - obviously painted by a talented artist who had never been here. Regrettably they are stuck in the timeless limbo of historical fiction and docu-drama recreation The exception is a superb watercolour by Walter J. Phillips of Winnipeg. It is entitled Hudson’s Bay Company York Boats at Norway House. Phillips knew his subject and brought to it superb skill in his medium, a painter at the top of his game. It is a generous, square image, painted in strong hues on a piece of golden Manila paper. Phillips’s infallible sense of design and colour have resulted in a delicious image, which also satisfied the historians. This is Heritage Week and special events are planned every day at the HBC gallery. For details, call 385-1311, local 503. ___________________________________________ Copyright © 2004Robert Amos Robert Amos is an artist and art writer who lives in Victoria, B.C.. He can be contacted by e-mail and you can view his paintings at