Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative


A Room of Their Own

June 5, 2023

In 1929 Virginia Woolf published her essay, “A Room of One’s Own”, based on lectures she had given the previous year at Cambridge University. In it, Woolf made her famous observation that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

I doubt that the essay was widely known in Vancouver. Even so there was a group of young local women who knew the truth of its central message from personal experience. They were among the first graduates of the art school, founded four years earlier in the offices of the Board of Education at the corner of Dunsmuir and Hamilton streets.

The photo above (Vancouver Archives 363-2) shows the school’s inaugural graduating class in 1929. That’s director Charles Scott in the back row centre. Otherwise you can see that almost all the grads were women. (Interestingly, the woman seated front row centre is Beatrice Lennie, noted sculptor and my wife’s high school art teacher.) Once they had finished at the school several of these women rented studios in a large house in the West End called Parakanthas. (No one seems to know the meaning of the name.) Unhappily the house has been torn down and replaced by

But for a few years 1929-34 Parakanthas provided space for young artists to pursue their work.

Women in the inter-war period struggled to find the time and the recognition to make a career in the arts, whether writing or the visual arts. This was true in Vancouver no less than Virginia Woolf's London, or anywhere else. Jack Shadbolt, who attended the art school in the 1930s, dismissed the female students as dilettantes, “daughters of the better-off merchant families." Contemporary society assumed that young women would marry and devote themselves to raising a family. Jobs outside the home were scarce, as was time to pursue their own ambitions. Even for women from well-to-do backgrounds, their work was not taken seriously. They could not rely on support from patrons or critics. They had to carve out a place for themselves and find their own resources to make their own futures.

And that was the point of Parakanthas. Although men were allowed -- Fred Varley also had a studio there -- it was a remarkable and unprecedented community of female artists finding rooms of their own.

May 10, 2023

Last evening I attended a launch for a new edition of Pauline Johnson’s classic story collection, Legends of Vancouver, first published in 1911. (Except that the new book has a new title, Legends of  the Capilano, for reasons that are explained.) Editor Alix Shield has added several new stories as well as...

April 30, 2023

News broke a couple of weeks ago that plans are being formulated to release the captive orca known as Lolita back into the wild, sort of.

Lolita has been held in a small tank in a Florida marine park ever since she was captured in Puget Sound in 1970. During the 1960s and 1970s dozens of animals were taken from the Northwest Coast for sale to amusement parks and aquariums around the world....

April 18, 2023

The BC Book Prize nominees for 2022 have been announced (here) and there are not many history/biography titles on the list this time around. The only books I would place in that category are The Acid Room (Anvil Press) by Erika Dyck and Jesse Donaldson, about the...

April 5, 2023

Congratulations to artist and art historian Robert Amos whose gorgeous book, E.J. Hughes: Canadian War Artist, has won this year's Basil Stuart-Stubbs Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Book about British Columbia. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the prize jury.)


April 3, 2023

I was out mucking about in the woods last week looking for evidence of the Great North Vancouver Streetcar Trestle. Turns out it wasn't that hard to find.

The BC Electric Railway Company opened its first streetcar line in North Van in 1906. There were eventually three lines: one up Lonsdale, a second heading east out to Lynn Valley, and a third travelling west to Capilano Road. That western...