Helen McNicoll R.C.A.
Fishing Boat, Vancouver Harbour, 1912
McNicoll Estate No. 52, stamp to verso
The Morris Gallery, Toronto;
Peter Ohler Fine Arts Ltd., Vancouver
“In the generation of Canadian artists who emerged from Brymner’s classroom, Helen McNicoll stands apart as a painter concerned exclusively with Impressionism. No other artist expressed with such consistency a sheer delight in the visual world.” 1
The discovery of this remarkable work adds more information to the record on Helen Galloway McNicoll. We have traced her career largely through the titles of her works, and this scene places her on a boat off the coast of Vancouver in 1912. We know she spent much of that year in France, and eastern sojourns across the Atlantic were more easily undertaken at that time than those west to British Columbia. But with the distinctive Lions summits clearly visible, we know we are looking at the North Shore area of Vancouver. In Squamish, Ch’ich’iyúy Elxwíkn translates to the Twin Sisters – the Lions, and it is likely that this work depicts a Salish Coast or Squamish fishing boat, rigged with sails and tents.
McNicoll’s father worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway and was close friends with William Van Horne, which, in a roundabout way, may account for her being in British Columbia in 1912. With the outbreak of World War One, McNicoll was sent back from France – where she was painting with her companion and fellow-artist Dorothea Sharp – as the Railway was concerned for their safety. Making her way to the west coast of Canada might have been a war-time substitute for her European art practice. A remarkable, and remarkably early (for the west coast) work by this Canadian Impressionist painter, it comes late her short career. Challenged from the beginning – she became profoundly deaf as a result of scarlet fever at the age of two – McNicoll overcame her deafness, her desire to remain single, and built a successful career in Europe and Canada. She died of diabetes in 1915, just six years before Banting, Best, and MacLeod would discover insulin in 1921.