Book Review: The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb

The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb
by Adrienne Brown
Introduction by Robert R. Reid
Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue Publishing, 2014

Almost a year ago I came across a series of locally published books called “The Unheralded Artists of BC,” celebrating all-but-forgotten BC artists, many of whom were active in the early modern art circles of mid-20th century Vancouver and the Island. I’ve long been interested in that period and in my initial rush of enthusiasm I said I’d review all the books individually as I worked my way through the series. So far that mostly hasn’t happened, apart from a single review I wrote back in July of last year. Not that long ago though I picked up the seventh and most recent volume in the series, “The Life and Art of Harry and Jessie Webb”, and now here’s my second review.

The concept continues to fascinate, although I’m not sure I can fully articulate why. Artist biographies tend to follow a familiar pattern: years of struggle, followed by recognition and the ensuing period of success (and perhaps followed by an optional slide into obscurity, if the artist lives long enough). There are variations of course; sometimes the recognition comes after the artist is already dead (Van Gogh, Modigliani), or too old to really enjoy it (Cezanne). But what if the success doesn’t really come at all? It raises some interesting questions.

If recognition always aligned with artistic achievement the questions might be less interesting. But of course we know from history that it doesn’t work that way, and there have been many fine artists who have created amazing work in obscurity. How artists negotiate the particular challenges that accompany a lack of recognition is a topic of some moment, and sadly all too relevant to a lot of us. The local history aspect of this series is pretty interesting too, touching on a range of cultural personages and landmarks that used to be well known but are now little more than fading memories.

Harry and Jessie Webb met at the Vancouver School of Art in the late 1940s, where they studied with some of the better known regional artists of the period, including Peter Aspell and Lionel Thomas. They emerged newly married into the burgeoning Vancouver modern art scene in 1950 and for the next few years pursued their artistic ambitions in a succession of low-rent flats. Judging from their photos from this period they were a couple of beatnik archetypes incarnate. And they didn’t just look the part: they were founding members the Cellar Jazz club, helped to start a short-lived literary review, hung out with jazz pianist Al Neil, read the San Francisco poets, and once had Kenneth Patchen over for tea.

They painted of course, but they were mainly printmakers. Specifically, their medium of choice was the reduction linocut, taking multiple impressions from the same block of linoleum while progressively cutting away sections of it each time. (Picasso was known to favour the same technique, but he didn’t invent it, and in fact the Webbs got there before he did.) The book contains a number of excellent colour reproductions of the Webb’s linocuts, gouaches and oils. In my opinion the linocuts are their most realized and effective works, stylized in the way things were back in the 50s, but never mannered: lively, well composed, with interesting and sometimes surprising colour harmonies.

The Webbs attained some level of recognition, with shows at the Vancouver Art Gallery and elsewhere, but wealth did not follow. With the arrival of a daughter in the mid-50s and a growing need for stability they began the inexorable drift away from artmaking as their principal focus. Harry Webb turned his creative talents toward landscape architecture, in which field he had considerable success in the following decades. Sadly for Jessie Webb this began a long period of decline into depression and troubles with alcohol. The Webbs were divorced in the early 70s, and the last two chapters of the book chronicle their lives separately, one for each.

In all, a worthwhile portrait of two artists and a unique moment of our cultural history.

The book mentions a related cultural artifact of which I was unaware, the NFB documentary In Search of Innocence. Shot in Vancouver and Victoria in the early 60s, it features a number of local artists including Harry Webb, Al Neil, Don Jarvis, Jack Shadbolt, Margaret Peterson and one of my old teachers, Roy Kiyooka. It’s harder to find than it ought to be, but at least copies can still be ordered from the NFB. I’ll probably write about it one of these days.

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