Illustrated Vancouver Vol 35 – The Epic of Western Canada by John Innes


This is the story of an epic art exhibition that followed these 8 paintings from 1925 which I featured in my last post here. John Innes was introduced to his patron Arthur P. Denby by John B. Cowan, and The Epic of Western Canada was the first result of this association. Art patron Arthur P. Denby is somewhat of a mysterious figure. I spotted a man with this name born 07 June 1884 who had a US Social Security number 571-84-5833 (indicating California) and died 15 March 1967. A P Denby is listed in the 1929 phonebook residing at Egeria Rooms, 1153 Melville Street, Vancouver. The Denby brothers William, Stafford, and Melvin ran a shoe / leather supply store at 163 West Pender Street from the early 1920s; perhaps these were his sons? You can see the front of the shoe store as late as 1974 below. A P Denby is no longer listed in the Vancouver phone books by 1939, so we might speculate that’s when he headed south to California? I also spotted one strange article by Arthur P. Denby telling a tale of early Vancouver in the May 1958 issue of Science of Mind Magazine, a religious movement established in 1927.

Denby Bros & Co., circa 1921 [HV977.84.4] Burnaby Village Museum; and at right, from VanArchives [CVA 778-8] still operating as late as 1974

Whomever Arthur P. Denby was, he was able to motivate John Innes to compile his paintings into a dramatic series of the wild west. It was the culmination of Innes’ life’s work to date; some of his paintings were repurchased from collectors to create this series of thirty oil paintings. These paintings were shown on the sixth floor of the Hudson’s Bay in Vancouver on September of 1928, and the brochure above featured a listing of all 30 paintings in the series:

  1. Silence
  2. Lords of the Wild [also titled Lords of the Plains]
  3. Buffalo Scouts
  4. When the Blackfeet Hunt
  5. The Pioneers’ Highway
  6. Treaty
  7. The Trading Post
  8. The Travellers
  9. In the Grip of the Frost
  10. The Red River Cart
  11. Prairie Schooners
  12. The Guardian of the West
  13. League-Long Furrows
  14. The Last Survivor
  15. The Trail of Ashes
  16. The Red-man’s Reverie
  17. Cattle-Land
  18. The Cattle Cruiser
  19. The Prospector
  20. The Eternal Quest
  21. In Rory Bory Land
  22. The Fur Hunters
  23. Pioneer Lumbering
  24. Fishers of the Western Gateway
  25. The Trail Rider
  26. The Pathfinder
  27. The Engineer
  28. The Roaring Devil of the Paleface
  29. Scarlet and Gold
  30. Flood-Tide of Opportunity

At the time, John Innes would have been one of the best known artists in town, capturing events of historical significance on canvas; these included US President Harding in Stanley Park, a series of murals for the Spencer’s Department store which I will discuss another time, and later the first city council meeting commissioned by Major Matthews.

As described by the Vancouver Maritime Museum, the Epic of Western Canada was acquired by the Hudson’s Bay after touring across Canada:

…Innes reached Vancouver in 1905. On the way, he painted the beginning of a series of works in which he intended to capture the early days of western Canada – a time of the first nations, fur traders, trappers and cowboys. The result, which Innes called “The Epic of the West,” ended up being purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company after a Canada-wide exhibition.

Actually, the book John Innes, Painter of the Canadian West mentions these paintings were also shown in London, England and later at the Fur Congress in Leipzig, Germany (possibly the International Fur Trade Exhibition and Congress in 1930). They were also displayed at the Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site for many years. Where are these paintings now? In 1994, the Bay donated the HBC Collection to the Manitoba Museum.

After contacting the curator of the HBC Collection, I was told the museum has a total of 26 oil paintings by John Innes, as well as 4 watercolours showing HBC posts in northern BC. Twenty five of these oil paintings are from the Epic of Western Canada series, but that leaves 5 paintings from the series outstanding. They are:

  1. The Travellers – described by the 1929 copyright catalog as “Two Indians on horseback riding through storm. Horse without rider at their right.” This painting was previously in the Manager’s office of a Zellers warehouse in Pointe Claire, QC. The facility was sold in 1987 and certain artworks were part of that sale. As this occurred before the 1994 donation, the painting has been separated from the series. Update! This painting is confirmed to remain with the North West Company, and it hangs in Gibraltar House in Winnipeg.
  2. In the Grip of the Frost – this painting dated 1917 appeared in the publication The Gold Stripe, Number 2 (1919), and at the time it was owned by J. B. Cowan, Esq. Incidentally, it was John Bruce Cowan who wrote the biography of John Innes published in 1945. The painting also appears in the book John Innes, Painter of the Canadian West, and so we can presume it was one of the paintings repurchased from collectors to create the Epic of Western Canada series. Current whereabouts unknown.
  3. The Cattle Cruiser – also appears in the book John Innes, Painter of the Canadian West, shown above; whereabouts unknown.
  4. The Pathfinder – described by the 1929 copyright catalog as “Man on horseback leading pack-horse, fording a stream. Forest and hills in background”; whereabouts unknown.
  5. Flood-Tide of Opportunity – armed with this description from the 1929 copyright catalog, I made an important discovery! “Skyscrapers in background. Field of wheat in middle distance. Pioneers and Indians in right foreground”

I am quite pleased to announce that I have personally solved the whereabouts of ONE of these five missing paintings! I had received a picture of the painting from HBC in response to my query, and by matching it to the description in the 1929 copyright catalog, I determined this last painting remains with HBC!

As for the other four outstanding paintings, I shall keep searching. Perhaps one day these paintings will turn up and rejoin the rest of the collection in Manitoba. If you spot them, please contact the Manitoba Museum!

Special thanks to HBC, the Manitoba Museum, Jaleen Grove, and everyone on the Internet for their assistance compiling the information in this post. Next week, I will feature John Innes’ followup series of paintings called From Trail to Rail; the Epic of Transportation.