Discovered, at 80, to be an artistic talent

AUDREY THOMAS August 1 1975


Discovered, at 80, to be an artistic talent

AUDREY THOMAS August 1 1975


Discovered, at 80, to be an artistic talent


I have come down 19 miles from the north end of Galiano Island to visit my friend Elisabeth Hopkins. It is the summer of 1974, and she has not yet moved across the Trincomali Channel to her new home on Saltspring Island. Even then we might well have been on two separate islands, because between the two small communities we inhabited on Galiano there is nothing but the road and the rocks and trees on every side. My journey is both symbolic and real.

Elisabeth lives in the last cottage before the ferry, an admirable location for keeping in touch with the goings-on here. She has her friends who drop in, and she also has her trees, and while I’m there a tiny sparrow tries to get into the feeding station just outside the kitchen window. “No dear,” she says. “No. Go round to the other side.” But it flies away. “Oh, poor thing. It’s gone.”

Elisabeth Hopkins, at 81 years of age, is an artist in the process of becoming “known,” at least in British Columbia. Her amazing watercolor drawings of birds and beasts and magic moon-glazed landscapes, with their often naïve, sometimes artless quality, have brought her to the attention of the prestigious Bau-XI Gallery in Vancouver. They are gathering enough of her material together for a showing.

Her art, however, will never be as fascinating as the mind behind the drawings. For my friend is a highly complex, highly cultured Englishwoman who, in a sense, just happened to have landed up in this storybook cottage on a small island in the Gulf of Georgia, about 20 miles from Vancouver.

Elisabeth comes from a long line of cultured and talented people, explorers in the fields of geography, science and the arts. Her grandfather, Edward Martin, was secretary to Sir George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company and chief factor of the company after the death of Sir George. His wife’s uncle, Peter Skene Ogden, was one of the great explorers of Canada. Ogden Point in Victoria is named after him, and it was he who opened up the Cariboo and was the first white man to see Mount Shasta. Her father’s second cousin, Frederick Gowland Hopkins, was the discoverer of vitamins and a Nobel Prize winner. Her grandfather’s second wife (his first, Anne Ogden, died of cholera) was the painter Frances Anne Beechey and “had a fine time going on all those trips with him.” On her mother’s side there was a famous mathematician, Colin Campbell of Achnabar, who kept an observatory in his garden in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands and of whom the great Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If Colin Campbell came to London he would make children of us all.”

zi udrey Thomas is a British Columbia free-lance writer and novelist.

Yet perhaps the most famous of all Elisabeth’s many relatives was the offspring of her great uncle Manley, the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. And it is with the poet that she, as a painter, has the greatest similarity. Their response to nature is a common one. Both contain within their work a strange paradox of simplicity and sophistication. Both hold a strong belief in God.

That this sophisticated English lady ended up living alone on a tranquil Canadian island is a tribute to her self-reliance. Yet she delights in visitors, is very quick to get out the sherry and biscuits (adults) or the animal crackers (children) when a caller knocks. “I don’t really understand about loneliness,” she says, “because I don’t think I'm ever lonely. I find my own company extremely nice.”

Elisabeth’s interests go far beyond her cottage door, to the world of art and politics and ideas. At the same time, she can retire for hours on end, retreat within herself to create — in what she laughingly calls her “studio” (a small table, a stool, a window in one corner of the living room) — those watercolor offerings from the world within herself, the world of imagination.

“I was getting bound down by possessions”

“All the lives you live in your imagination,” she says. “I used to think I’d like to have been a doctor. But a friend said to me, ’When you have thoughts like that you always th ink of being at the top of the tree in the doctor line; what would happen if you were in the slums and had no patients — you’re still a doctor, aren’t you?’ It’s true. If you were a poet you might be a rotten poet. If you dream of being a singer, you dream of singing at Covent Garden or the Met, not some moldy little parish hall. Always at the top of the tree, our imaginary selves.”

It is interesting that she is saying this at a time when they talk about her work now, in Vancouver, and I wonder if she ever has any flights of fancy about being “known” as an artist.

“No,” she answers, “because I don’t particularly wish to be. I’m too old to want publicity, though I do appreciate the honor the gallery is doing me in wishing to exhibit my paintings. Now if I were 30 or 40 years younger I should probably be delighted because it would be the beginning of a real career, wouldn't it? And yet, perhaps, I might ■not enjoy it. I admire that world very much but I don’t think I’m really for it. It scares me.”

She did not begin to paint seriously until she retired in her sixties (and she tells me quite sharply, but without elaborating, that she is not to be compared with Grandma Moses), but she remembers liking to draw from a very early age, though she never formally studied art.

“The first school I ever went to was an American school. That was in Bermuda.

I used to go for two or three hours a day.

I was four. The only thing I remember doing at that school was drawing longclothed babies on my slate. And that was very simple, you see, you just drew two lines and tucks going across and then put a head on and arms — you wouldn’t want any feet. And I can remember that as well as anything.”

But it was well over half a century later before she had the leisure and inclination to take up a talent of which she had been aware but had never pursued. She had traveled greatly in a long career as a nurse (she trained in nursing, physiotherapy and midwifery) and as a social worker, but she says, “I don’t like to consider myself a nurse! I don’t like to have any label. I’ve done all sorts of things; I’ve even washed dishes in one of those restaurant places. I haven’t sold newspapers on the street but I’ve done no end of things. A rolling stone. I never settled down to work seriously, and chucked anything I didn't like.”

During the war she was supervisor of the welfare department of the Crusader Insurance Company, ending up as an underwriter for life insurance, yet it was through nursing that she came to live in British Columbia. Five years or so after World War II she went to work as a receptionist for a surgeon in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. And one day a girl came in who had been a physiotherapist in Jersey and had known the doctor Elisabeth worked for during the occupation of the island. The girl told Elisabeth all about the “rheumatism vans” (vehicles which traveled about treating rheumatic patients) in British Columbia.

“So with that,” says Elisabeth, “I packed up, I should think almost the next day, and I went over to London and went to the Immigration people and they passed me. Then I went to the Royal Mail Lines and said ‘Do you sail to British Columbia?’ and they said ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Which is your last port of call?’ It was Victoria, so I said, ‘Will you book me to Victoria?’

“And out I came, not knowing a soul, no prospects, nothing. I was just on 60 — 59 — but I didn’t care,” she smiles with delight, then pauses. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing that made me move away and that was I was getting bound down by possessions and it’s a great mistake. I had lovely old furniture and all sorts of nice china and everything you could think of and I just found out that I . . .” she hesitates, searching for the right word “. . . that they were tying me, you know, they possessed me, I didn’t possess them. So I got rid of the lot. I sent all the heirloomish things to various relations and I even sold all my books — if you can call it selling — got rid of all my books, anyhow, except just the ones I couldn’t live without and out I came. Just like that. And I was only two weeks in Canada when I got a job, in a nursing home, and then in the veterans’ hospital. Money has never been a real consideration to me, as long as I had enough.” When constant exposure to the drug penicillin gave her dermatitis, Elisabeth was advised to give up nursing. She acted as companion to a woman with muscular dystrophy, and when the woman died Elisabeth chanced upon what she called a “most amusing advertisement”‘in the Victoria paper. Wanted: A mature woman to help mother with first baby and iron shirts.

“I helped her with her first baby,” recalls Elisabeth, “and we brought him up on purely English lines." (Her voice supplies the italics.) “He lay out in the garden all summer with no clothes on and got as brown as anything. One of her friends had a rival baby a month or two older and he always had woolen bonnets on, even on hot days! And the baby I helped with was so bonny. I did the housework and all the blooming shirts. I stayed with her for quite some time.”

In the few weeks prior to my visit, Elisabeth had become inspired by the drawings of a young friend, and she had been doing highly decorated animals such as a lion who sits staring straight

out at the viewers; he is covered in lovely tattoos and wears a wristwatch. There is a tattooed snake with a tiny red heart for a tongue. (“You can get your inspiration from all sorts of places.”) Her animals are often in a forest where the details of trees and leaves and bushes are almost too sharp, as though the artist had been within a few inches of what she drew. Much of her inspiration for pictures comes from the works of Henri Rousseau, that same feeling of being right in the forest. She says the highest compliment she has ever been paid is that people say her work reminds them of Arthur Rackham, the English illustrator of such children’s books as Alice In Wonderland.

I remind her that many of her paintings, the animals for instance, are entirely imaginary. “I think that’s partly why I do them,” she answers. “I can’t understand how some of the wellknown painters can go on year in year out doing the same old thing.”

Elisabeth is a strong woman, she has made herself that way and there are wounds and griefs which she never talks about. (“I don’t think anyone in this world escapes unhappiness, but we needn’t go into that part.”) Perhaps that is her secret. I, who am so new to living alone, so prone to dwell on might-havebeens, come to Elisabeth not just as a friend but as a1 novice. She has strengths she has built. As soon as it is daylight she rises to feed her beloved towhees and sparrows and juncos; she can hear them waiting for her, stirring, in the bushes. There’s lunch and drawing and the Painters’ Guild every Wednesday afternoon. She confesses, laughing, to an addiction to The Edge Of Night. There are trips to Victoria and Vancouver and occasional trips to Europe. Two years ago she went to Spoleto, Italy, to see her nephew, Gene (Eugene) Rizzo. Later he sent her a postcard: “Cara Elisabeta, My friends and I agree that you are the best possible Aunt that one could have.” The postcard, I think, is one of her great treasures. It is important for her strength. Last year on her birthday, he sent her a telegram offering “Transatlantic champagne toasts.”

I have come to visit with two little friends (five years old and three). They are there to meet Elisabeth. We all stand around looking at her paintings.

“Tell me what you see,” she says (admonishing them not to touch). “A tiger. An elephant. A ladybird. What else?” The two little friends munch on animal crackers and stare big-eyed at the lion with the wristwatch. A young woman with beautiful long red hair is doing hard-edge paintings in Elisabeth’s small cabin behind the cottage. I hold out two fresh eggs as a present. She is delighted. I remember what another friend of mine once said about visiting being the essence of Galiano.

It is time for me to go. Elisabeth allows me only two sherries because I have to negotiate the curving North End Road. As I go out she pulls back the thick, faded, paisley shawl that serves as a storm curtain. There is a notice on the door. “Please knock before you enter.” I think of Owl and Pooh-Bear and Eeyore. There is also a hand-lettered sign on the gate: PLEASE DO NOT SHUT THIS GATE. (It freezes up in winter.)

I think of that strange poem of Yeats’ and substitute the feminine for the masculine: “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/Her mind moves upon silence.” She stands in the light of the doorway, waving. Elisabeth Hopkins, born April 22, 1894, Fort Gilkicker, Hampshire. So alive. So alive.