With a healthy respect for those who purchased his work, Ted Harrison painted daily in his Oak Bay Avenue studio for years. Despite that, he insisted he didn’t like being watched.
“People like to watch artists paint. The artist becomes part of the scene,” he said on the warm summer day in 2012 just prior to closing the gallery he had opened six years earlier. “I don’t particularly like to be watched.”
The famed Canadian artist died in Victoria on Friday at the age of 88.
Born in County Durham, England, Harrison dreamed about the arctic as a child, reading the works of Robert Service and Jack London. In 1968, after years of travelling the world, he realized his dream and settled with his family in the Yukon.
“I got to know him in some detail when he and [his wife] Nicky first came to town,” said Oak Bay artist Robert Amos. “I could tell he was a little bit anxious about leaving his beloved Yukon. He got over that quick, in part because Bob Wright took him salmon fishing up at Langara Lodge.”
Wright of Oak Bay Marine Group, who died in 2013, created the event Painter’s at Painters Lodge in Campbell River.
“Ted was one of the founding members of that, and to tell you the truth he was always the star. He was the senior guy,” said Amos, pointing out the other top-notch names that showed for the annual event. It was there Amos met and learned more about the iconic painter Harrison.
“Ted’s not only a fantastic painter but the finest raconteur I have ever heard,” Amos said. “We’d be sitting in a group of 300 people … Ted always held everyone’s attention. No matter what else was going on.”
Harrison came to Oak Bay in 1993 and opened the studio in 2006 where fans from near and far would come and watch him work. Well known along The Ave, not long before the studio closed in late summer 2012, Harrison moved to a residence just beyond Oak Bay boundaries.
The renowned artist was known for his colourful depictions of the Yukon – where he spent two decades – and the Pacific Northwest where he spent the past two decades.
In 1987 he was awarded The Order of Canada. In 2004, he was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and presented with the Order of British Columbia in 2008. After Nicky died in 2000, Harrison was a champion for Alzheimer’s awareness. Harrison also donated his personal archive to the University of Victoria library in 2011.
Biographer Katherine Gibson has heard tales of Harrison’s work bringing joy to those suffering dementia or illness. She spent four years interviewing him for Ted Harrison: Painting Paradise.
“Just recently I adapted that book into a children’s book, A Brush Full of Colour. I showed it to him and he looked at the painting on the cover… at this point Ted was failing, but I saw this twinkle in his eye and smile on his face,” Gibson said. “The tables had turned. Now he was getting pleasure in a very therapeutic way, that he’d given so many other people. Now his paintings were giving something very special to him.
“That was my last reflection of him.”
Harrison was born in 1926 to a coal miner and his wife in Wingate, northeast England.
“He was a man of solid integrity and had a character that reflected his upbringing,” Gibson said. “These were miners who never knew if they would be coming home … so these men were usually very religious, hard working. They were honourable people and that’s who Ted was. His handshake meant something.
“He just saw himself as a miner’s son. He never understood how important he was to Canada and to the Canadian art conversation… he was just doing what he loved.”
With years spent working as a teacher, youth were always a part of his repertoire.
Amos worked alongside Harrison in the artists in schools program created by now Oak Bay arts laureate Barbara Adams at Monterey middle school.
“Barb had us there every year to work with the kids at the school. Of course Ted was always a great star, but also he didn’t need to do this,” said Amos, noting Harrison was in his late 70s by this time.
“He had a real commitment to kids. He travelled the world and made himself available to all sorts of groups and associations.”
Harrison also authored children’s books including A Northern Alphabet and illustrated Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew.
“He used to say to kids ‘Use your imagination, there’s life in your imagination. Don’t worry about what other people are saying’,” Gibson recalled.
“He was quick with a story, he would stop in the middle of a street and sing a little ditty if he felt like it. Going for a walk with Ted was quite an experience, walking a block could take 20 minutes … He noticed everything.”
Despite his professed dislike for appearing in public, it was common practice. He was a regular at the Moss Street Paint In, where his unique process of working made him an ideal artist to interact with. While onsite he was simply following a plan already conceived, Amos explained.
“He developed his paintings in his mind at night and he completely understood the design, the drawing, the colours. It was completely formed in his mind and when he got up in the morning he was ready.”
Visit tedharrison.com for public details regarding a memorial service.