British Columbia·Photos

How racism kept B.C.'s 'first professional painter' from fame

Grafton Tyler Brown was an African American artist who painted some of B.C. breathtaking landscapes. A talk at the Legacy Art Gallery by John Lutz will commemorate his work and life.

Grafton Tyler Brown was an African American artist who painted breathtaking B.C. landscapes

From the farm of A. L. Fortune, at what is now Enderby, B.C., with Enderby Cliffs in the background. (Uno Langmann Limited)

If you have a painting on your wall with a signature G.T. Brown in the bottom right corner, it's worth a lot of money — and a lot of interest to B.C. art historians.

The largely unknown African-American artist Grafton Tyler Brown held an art gallery in Victoria in the late 1800s, where he sold dozens of paintings

And now, more than a century later, a handful are on display in Victoria's Legacy Art Gallery.

But the rest are scattered throughout the province, according to University of Victoria historian John Lutz. And they're valued at more than $70,000 apiece.

"They've never been gathered together," Lutz told host Jason D'Souza on CBC's North by Northwest. "He had the one exhibit in 1883, and now we're having a second showing in Victoria 134 years later."

But who was Grafton Tyler Brown, and why are his images so significant?

B.C.'s first professional artist

Grafton Tyler Brown was born on Feb. 22, 1841 in Pennsylvania. He was listed as 'black' in the U.S. census for the first 20 years of his life.

Grafton Tyler Brown is seen painting in his studio in this archival image. ( Royal B.C. Museum and Archives)

He moved to California at 17, where he took up painting as a hobby. He eventually got a job as a lithographer, drawing up panoramic views of towns and landscapes, honing his craft.

Lutz says Brown eventually inherited the lithography business, and shortly thereafter, was listed as "mulatto," "quadroon," and eventually "white" in the national censuses.

Brown was light skinned, and identifying as white provided him better opportunities, said Lutz.

"He was Caucasian for the rest of his life in his professional dealings," said Lutz.

Brown eventually decided to make his living as a painter. He travelled to B.C. after joining a geological survey party. They ventured throughout the province, while Brown painted astonishing landscapes of the Fraser Valley, the Okanagan, and the Pacific Coast.

North and South Similkameen Rivers, looking southwest. Painting described in the Colonist newspaper. July 5, 1883. (Royal B.C. Museum and Archives)

"At the time, it was exotic territory," said Lutz. "After a year here, he had Victoria's first professional art exhibit."

Lost treasures

Brown only stayed in B.C. for a couple of years before moving on to reinvent himself as a drafter back in the U.S. Lutz suggests that the artist may have feared that people would learn of his African-American heritage.

But Lutz said as many as 70 of his paintings could have been sold at his only art exhibition. And they are some of the earliest paintings of the province's landscapes.

From Regent's Park, Victoria, B.C. "a fine view of Mount Baker taken from opposite Trial Island," from the Colonist, Nov. 28, 1882. (Private collection)

He's located several in private residences, while four are in the provincial archives.

"Most of them are probably still out there on the walls," he said, adding that they sell in the U.S. for $75,000 USD. "They're worth checking your wall for."

Aside from the dollar value, the paintings have worth to art historians who are trying to piece together the past of Brown — and the province.

If you come across a Grafton Tyler Brown, Lutz urges you to contact him. He is also holding a talk about Brown's life at the Legacy Art Gallery on Feb. 4 for Black History Month.

Looking down the lake from the wagon road between Spallumcheen and Okanagan Valleys. Sketched Oct. 9, 1882. (Royal B.C. Museum and Archives)

With files from CBC's North by Northwest

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: How racism kept B.C.'s 'first professional painter' from fame