Emily Carr portrait of Squamish friend on sale for the first time

The famed B.C. artist Emily Carr was an animal-loving recluse who only had a few friends. But the friendships she did make were profound and often lasted for life.

That was the case with Sophie Frank, a Squamish woman whom Carr met when the artist was in her 30s.

It’s believed that between 1907 and 1908, Carr painted a watercolour portrait of Frank, which Carr kept in her home her entire life. It’s never gone on sale — until now.

The painting goes to auction this spring and could fetch up to $70,000, said Lauren Kratzer, a consignment specialist at Vancouver’s Heffel Fine Art Auction House.

“I find it’s a very tender portrait,” she told Gregor Craigie, host of CBC’s On the Island.

“It’s quite soft in colours. Without even knowing the history of the friendship, just seeing it on the wall, you can really feel a connection to Sophie.”

Listen to the full interview below. 

Close bond between the women

Carr moved to Vancouver in 1906 and met Frank shortly after at Carr’s Granville Street studio. Frank was a basket weaver and sold Carr one of her creations.

Their friendship grew. Carr made frequent visits to Frank’s home on Mission Reserve No. 1, now known as North Vancouver.

Frank had 21 children, most of whom died in infancy from tuberculosis. Carr was moved by those losses and, in her writing, praised the wisdom of Indigenous parenting.

Carr’s seminal book Klee Wyck, which details her encounters with Indigenous peoples on B.C.’s West Coast, is dedicated to Frank, whose portrait precedes the title page.

Sophie Frank Klee Wyck

Klee Wyck was awarded the Governor General’s Award in 1941. It features Frank in the frontispiece. (Supplied/Heffel Fine Art)

After visiting Frank in 1927, Carr wrote in a journal entry: “Out in the spaces there is a bond between us where colour, creed, environment don’t count.”

Upon her death, Carr gifted the portrait to Ira Dilworth, her close friend and literary editor. He passed it down within his family.

‘Fluid handling’ of watercolour

The portrait is small and features a pensive and somewhat melancholic Frank.

“Emily painted with tremendous confidence in all the works that she did,” Kratzer said.

“Especially in this piece, there’s a fluid handling of watercolour, which is such a difficult medium.”

The auction estimate — $50,000 and $70,000 — is conservative, Kratzer said, and a far cry from the $3.4 million that one of Carr’s paintings sold for in 2013.

The portrait of Frank will be displayed at the Heffel Gallery in Vancouver from May 5 to 8. It will then travel to Montreal and Toronto, before going to auction on May 30.

With files from CBC’s On the Island

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