Emily Carr: brilliant painter, terrible landlord

“Oh dear, oh dear, all the wickedness in me rebels at the beastly, rotting house.”

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Advice on post-project depression

Emily Carr (1871–1945)

The Canadian painter has become something of a national icon in the decades since her death in 1945; in her own lifetime, however, Carr’s paintings received a mixed reception at best, and they never earned enough money for her to live comfortably. Fortunately, Carr did have one major financial asset: In 1912, after their father’s death, she and her sisters inherited a plot of land in Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, where Carr spent most of her life. Carr decided to build a small apartment house on her parcel, reasoning that she could have a light-filled painting studio, a large garden, and living quarters for herself, and fund this pleasant arrangement by renting out two suites on the main floor.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Carr put her plan into motion just as World War I broke out, which severely depressed the economy and caused unemployment to skyrocket. Suddenly, the respectable, reasonably well-to-do tenants that Carr had envisioned were in short supply. To keep Hill House (as it was named) afloat, Carr was forced to divide her own apartment into rentable suites, moving first into the attic and then out of the house entirely, setting up a primitive camp for herself in the backyard, where she slept in a tent and cooked meals in a lean-to.

Even without the economic headwinds, however, one gets the sense that Carr was not really cut out for this line of work. According to the biographer Maria Tippett, “She performed the apartment chores grudgingly, taunted her tenants, and abused anyone who crossed her.” Carr herself wrote, “I loathed being a landlady.” Even decades later, she still blamed “those filthy tenants” for “sapping the joy out of everything.” And the years in which she ran the boardinghouse (until the mid-1920s) were among her least productive as an artist.

The following passage from Carr’s journals provides a good taste of the artist’s attitude toward Hill House—and it may feel familiar to anyone who’s tried to balance ambitious creative work with a time-consuming and soul-deadening day job.

(It’s a long passage, but I recommend reading to the end; the final sentence could serve as a credo for any artists trying to carry out their work in the face of intractable daily obstacles.)

Oh dear, oh dear, all the wickedness in me rebels at the beastly, rotting house. I know it is crumbling up, I know it needs repairs, I know it is not modern, I know I am not a real downright good landlady, willing to grovel before my tenants, to lick their dirt and grab their cheques. It crushes the life out of me, this weight of horrid things waiting to be done because my back hurts so I can’t do them myself and have no money to pay someone to do them. And then maybe I go into the beautiful studio and see some sketches about and feel my skin bursting with things I want to say, with things the place said to me that I want to express and dive into, to live — and there’s that filthy furnace to clean out and wood to chop and sweeping and dusting and scrubbing and gardening, just to keep up a respectable appearance for the damn tenants so as to squeeze out a pittance of rent to exist on. And all the time know you are shrivelling up, growing sordid because time and strength which you need for enrichment to allow you to search and absorb and grow cost money and time and strength — and your bile boils over and you are full of bitterness and hate yourself for being bitter when loads of folks these days have worse. God seems so deaf —your prayers dwindle away half formed or, if by effort you force yourself to form the words, they hit back at you like empty echoes.

. . . Now go out, old girl, and split bark and empty ashes and rake and mend the fence. Yet — should I? Or should I climb higher, shut my eyes to these things and paint? Rise above the material? No — I think you’ve got to climb through these things to the other.


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Last week, I offered advice to a writer who just finished a big project and is feeling bummed instead of elated. I also invited readers to weigh in with your own advice, and I’ve been really impressed by all the clever and wise suggestions that have been rolling in. If you haven’t had a chance to add your suggestions, it’s not too late—leave your thoughts here and I’ll continue reading and replying this week.

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