A dive into Sophie Pemberton’s life and career
I recently visited the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria to view the exhibition Unexpected: The Life and Art of Sophie Pemberton, Canadian Artist. Pemberton lived from 1869–1959. Her life was full of ups and downs — one might say unexpected occurrences.
Pemberton played an important role in Canadian art history as one of the first Canadian women to seek a professional career as an artist overseas. Her determination in pursuing an art career is impressive because of the many boundaries women faced during the time period. She spent most of her life in England where she trained along with France, and her art style shifted between realism and impressionism.
The exhibition has a variety of different and important elements, including archives from Pemberton’s life such as photo albums, letters, and diaries. Admission to see these artifacts is free for anyone under 25.
The exhibit is split over two main rooms. The first showcases much of her artwork whereas the second puts more focus on her life.
There is a summary in the first room that provides a helpful overview as well as a brief timeline that includes some of the stand-out events in Pemberton’s life and career. Her oil paintings take up most of the space on the walls, and other pieces like sketchbooks are encased in glass in the middle of the rooms. The text surrounding her art adds context to what was happening in her life when she was creating her paintings.
A hidden gem is the third room, down a short hallway from the second room, where you can sit and view photos of her daily life and friends projected on the wall in a slide show. I nearly missed this because it is tucked out of the way. Only one other person came in while I was there, so it seemed to go unnoticed by many as there were lots of people in both of the other rooms.
The exhibition has a beginning and end, as there is an overview and a conclusion text blurb, but other than that, it felt like I could go in any direction, which was confusing. I wasn’t entirely sure how to best move through the space and didn’t know that the second room was part of the exhibition until I went in. Because I was preoccupied with trying to figure out if there was an order, I wasn’t able to give all my energy to engaging with the archives and paintings.
Pemberton’s work showcases that she was trained as a portraitist; her ability to capture faces is incredible. She was also a very talented landscape painter. This exhibition features paintings of different places in Victoria, including Mount Tolmie, traditionally known as Pkaals, and Ten Mile Point, located on the traditional territories of the W̱SÁNEĆ and Songhees Peoples.
There is art displayed that Pemberton created when she was just 21, and it’s clear that she was very talented at a young age. The art chosen for the exhibition gives a nice scope of her career, which helped me get a full picture of who Pemberton really was. I could clearly see the progression of her work throughout the years.
The preliminary charcoal sketches for her oil paintings were fascinating. With Pemberton’s painting of John O’Dreams placed next to an early sketch of the piece, I could see how she developed the background by adding details like a bench, and the landscape of where the trees meet the grass is defined. She could tell what was and wasn’t working, which informed what she kept and left out.
Pemberton’s large oil paintings, which are nearly the same height as me, are very impressive. It almost felt as though I was part of the scene. Even her little doodle-like sketches in notebooks are incredibly detailed, and her painted serving trays are beautiful.
I learned so much about Pemberton’s career and life from this exhibition. It is clear just how influential she was, and it’s a shame that she isn’t more well-known as she had a major role in Canadian art history.
The exhibition runs at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria until Jan. 21.