The Royal BC Museum acquires a rare painting by the continent’s first professional black painter

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

The museum celebrates the acquisition of harbor entrance as part of Black History Month. It was one of Brown’s few works while he lived in the city.

Brown is widely considered the first professional black painter in North America.

“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 British Columbia,” said Royal BC’s art and image curator. Museum, India Young.

“The interesting thing about Brown is that in his travels he really changed his identity.”

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Brown was born in Pennsylvania in 1841 and moved to Sacramento, California when he was 17.

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

Brown moved to San Francisco in 1861, where he was hired as an artist and sent west to sketch panoramic views of cities that could be lithographed and sold.

When his employer died in 1864, Lutz writes that Brown took over the printing business, becoming one of only 55 lithographers in the United States, “but he was no longer entirely black”.


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Grafton, who had “inherited his father’s lighter color,” was listed without the “colored” designation in the San Francisco Makers Directory for 1861 – a designation applied to all blacks at the time, according to research by Lutz.

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

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

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Brown moved to Victoria in 1882 and produced over 60 landscape paintings and sketches while in British Columbia. His exhibition in Victoria contained 22 paintings, four of which have now been acquired by the Royal BC Museum, including Harbor entrance.

“Other artists came to Victoria in the 1880s and we have other wonderful artists in our collection, but there’s something magical about standing right where that painting is and thinking about that story” , Young said.

The painting was acquired from the Uno Langmann Art Gallery in Vancouver with assistance from the Elizabeth Rithet Legacy Fund. It’s unclear how much was paid for it, but according to Lutz, Brown’s works have already sold for up to $75,000.


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After his stay in British Columbia, Brown lived in 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 works that paint an inclusive portrait of the 19th century BC.

“I want to kind of expand the story of these people, including people like Grafton Tyler Brown, who was such an iconic figure,” she said.

With files from Kylie Stanton

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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