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Royal BC Museum acquires rare painting from B.C.’s first professional Black painter

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The Royal BC Museum is marking Black History Month by acquiring a rare 19th century painting of Victoria harbour by a man who's considered to be the first professional black painter in North America. Kylie Stanton has the story – Feb 24, 2022

It’s the newest gem in the Royal BC Museum’s collection of more than 10,500 works of art — a painting of the Victoria Harbour, made in 1883 by Grafton Tyler Brown.

The museum is celebrating its acquisition of Entrance to the Harbour as part of Black History Month. It was one of Brown’s few works while he lived in the city.

Brown is widely considered to be the first professional Black painter in B.C.

“As far as we know, to date, Grafton was the first Black artist to paint an exhibit here in Victoria and in the province of B.C.,” Royal BC Museum art and images curator India Young said.

“What is interesting about Brown is that over the course of his travels, he really shifted his identity.”

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Brown was born in Pennsylvania in 1841 and moved to Sacramento, Calif. at the age of 17.

He worked as a hotel steward there for two years, until one of his paintings caught the attention of a local newspaper in November of 1859, according to University of Victoria history professor John Lutz.

Brown moved to San Francisco in 1861, where he was hired as an artist and sent around the west to draw panorama views of towns that could be lithographed and sold.

When his employer died in in 1864, Lutz writes that Brown took over the print shop, becoming one of only 55 lithographers in the U.S., “but he was no longer entirely Black.”

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Grafton, who had “inherited his father’s lighter colour,” was listed without the “coloured” designation in the San Francisco makers directory for 1861 — a designation applied to all Black people at the time, according to Lutz’s research.

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In the 1880 census, Grafton was listed as “white.”

“The term that we now use for this is ‘passing,'” Young explained. “When he came to Victoria his identity had shifted and … he moved through the rest of his life as a white person.”

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Brown moved to Victoria in 1882 and produced more than 60 landscape paintings and sketches while in B.C. His exhibit in Victoria contained 22 paintings, four of which have now been acquired by the Royal BC Museum, including Entrance to the Harbour. 

“There were other artists who came to Victoria in the 1880s and we have some other wonderful artists in our collection, but there is something magical about really placing yourself exactly where this painting is and thinking about this history,” said Young.

The painting was acquired from the Uno Langmann art gallery in Vancouver with help from the Elizabeth Rithet Legacy Fund. It’s not clear how much was paid for it, but according to Lutz, Brown’s works have previously sold for as much as $75,000.

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After his time in B.C., Brown lived Washington, Oregon, Montana and Minnesota. He married, gave up painting in 1892, retired from work as a draftsman in 1916, and died on March 2, 1918.

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His death certificate, according to Lutz, listed him as “white.”

Young said she would like to expand the museum’s collection of work that paints an inclusive portrait of 19th century B.C.

“I’m keen to do is sort of expand the history of who those people were, including people like Grafton Tyler Brown, who was such an iconic figure,” she said.

— With files from Kylie Stanton

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