Sophie Pemberton (1869-1959), the third-born of Theresa and Joseph Pemberton’s six children, was a ground-breaking painter in her youth. She studied art in San Francisco, London and Paris. In 1899, while attending the Académie Julian in Paris, she won the Prix Julian for her portraiture — the first woman to receive (in the words of an Art Gallery of Greater Victoria website entry) “the gold medal awarded annually for the best work done in all 27 student ateliers.” This from an institution that trained the likes of Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Marcel Duchamp and Fernand Leger. She showed her work in Montreal, London and Paris beginning in 1895, drawing favorable reviews from critics and public. Her chef d’oeuvre was an oil painting of generous size and fine brushwork, often from archaic or Arcadian themes — milk maids, farmboys, young ladies in repose — conservative in nature, reminiscent of the English Preraphaelites or French Symbolists; she also painted portraits, landscapes, delicate watercolour botanicals and the occasional study of family life, such as the exquisitely casual painting of her sister Susan reading in the library at the English home of their maternal grandparents the Grautoffs. In Victoria, Sophie’s work was usually greeted with indifference. A notable exception was her hanging of thirty paintings at the 1904 agricultural exhibition at the Willows, when the Colonist enthused, “Wonderful Advance Made by Miss Pemberton in Her Art Studies. The Brilliant Record of a Gifted Daughter of British Columbia.” (The substantial article pointed out the inadequacy of the lighting in the exhibition hall for showing art.)
In 1905 Sophie Pemberton’s life took a decisive turn. She married Canon Arthur John Beanlands, the rector of Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria. Beanlands was a widower with four children, the youngest eight years old. His wife Laura had died in 1903 at the age of 43 in the Strathcona Hotel, at Shawnigan Lake.
Family life and her own ill-health combined to draw Sophie away from her art.
In 1908, after a bout of grave illness in Victoria, Sophie departed for England. She spent the winter in the old country. Meanwhile, her eldest step-daughter Dorothy completed her training as a kindergarten teacher in Toronto and took a position in North Bay, where she became engaged to a young banker. Weeks before the wedding, in March 1909, Dorothy was boiling water for tea in her rooming-house; she had overfilled the spirit lamp; the flame jumped to the table; the dress she used to smother the flame caught fire; by the time a neighbour had picked her up, carried her outside and doused the flames in the snow, her lower body was severely burned. Canon Beanlands hastened to her side, performed the marriage ceremony in North Bay on March 18, and departed for England with his son Paul on April 12. Dorothy died in Toronto on June 17. Writing from London on June 29, Beanlands resigned the position he had held in Victoria since 1884.
While this horror was unfolding, Sophie was busy preparing to mount a one-woman exhibition at the Doré Gallery in London, to display her new-found talent for plein air landscape painting, including “A Prosperous Settler.” A search turns up this excerpt from The Year’s Art 1909, advising “Artists who wish to exhibit in the Largest Private Galleries in London, situated in the Centre of Bond Street, Should write to the Director of The Doré Galleries, 35, New Bond Street, London, W. Where there are six important galleries of varying sizes available for exhibitions. All have an excellent top light, and the Large Gallery is the most important of its kind in London.” Under Recent Exhibitions, the article lists “Sketches of Victoria British Columbia by Mrs. Beanlands (May 1909).” By this time Sophie Beanlands’ art was attracting widespread notice. “How ironic, in retrospect, was this exhibition at the Doré Gallery,” Nicholas Tuele wrote in his 1980 study of the artist. “Sadly, this exhibition was a kind of swan song for Sophie, because it was to be the last major professional effort she would undertake, although she lived for another fifty years.”
The Beanlands settled at a country estate in Sevenoaks Weald, Kent. It’s difficult to get a sense of their family life. In the 1911 census, Sophie is nowhere to be found; Arthur was visiting a colleague in holy orders in London; his daughters Alyson Henlock, 19, and Angela Maud Eleanor, 16, were staying with their aunt at her brother-in-law’s hotel in Orpington, near London; and his son, Bernard Paul Gascoigne, 13, was in residence at Oundle School, some 68 kilometres north of London in Northamptonshire.
Heartache aplenty followed for Sophie. Her mother Theresa died in 1916 and her husband in 1917. Following Arthur’s death Sophie suffered a debilitating head injury from a horse-and-carriage accident and was confined to quarters for two years. Paul, a favorite step-child, a decorated pilot in World War I, died in an airborne accident in May 1919.
Soon her life took another turn. Sophie married Horace Deane-Drummond, a rubber tycoon with three grown children, in 1920. Tuele’s study picks up the narrative. In 1921 the couple embarked on a round-the-world journey to Ceylon and India, thence to San Francisco and on to Victoria, where they moved into her brother Fred’s home Mountjoy and stayed for some months. Tuele quotes an acquaintance’s memoir relating how eager Sophie was to paint out-of-doors — first having him drive her to The Bend on Oak Bay Avenue on a frosty cold day so that she could paint Mount Baker; returning to find her “serenely happy” and quite oblivious to the cold; whence they repaired to sister Susan’s nearby home Moulton Combe for tea by the fire. During their stay Sophie visited the studio of Emily Carr and tipped Harold Mortimer-Lamb on the presence of a major talent living unrecognized in the city; he in turn alerted Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery in Ottawa, setting in motion a chain of events that eventually brought Carr’s work to light.
After her second husband died in 1930, Sophie settled in London, where she stayed for nearly 20 years. She endured the Blitz of 1940. Eventually she decided to return to her home town. She took up residence on the Oak Bay waterfront, in view of the scenery she loved to paint, first in an apartment at 1558 Beach Drive, and latterly in the Dorchester Apartments, 1370 Beach. Vincent Holmes recalls visiting his great-aunt Sophie and her long-time companion Miss Catherine Reardon.
The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria holds several of Sophie Pemberton’s major works, as well as a number of her portraits, botanicals and drawings, and a small archive of diaries, sketch books, photo albums, an autograph book. Much of her work is in private collections.
An unusual but readily-accessible place to view an example of her painting is the Pemberton Memorial Chapel at the Royal Jubilee Hospital, 1952 Bay Street, Victoria. Built in 1909 with funding from Theresa Jane (Mrs. Joseph Despard) Pemberton, recently restored and open at all hours, the chapel is adjacent to a charming garden. Over the entrance is a window, painted by Sophie Pemberton, of childlike angels with an inscription underneath. Inside is a wooden bench with decorations intricately carved by her sister Susan.
1901 Census of Canada. Census of Canada Indexing Project. At automatedgenealogy.com.
1911 England Census. At Ancestry.com.
“An Appreciation of Great Work. Wonderful Advance Made by Miss Pemberton in Her Art Studies. The Brilliant Record of a Gifted Daughter of British Columbia.” The Daily Colonist, September 25, 1904, p. 3. From The British Colonist Online Edition 1858-1910 (http://www.britishcolonist.ca/).
“An Art School that Also Taught Life,” by John Russell, in Art View, The New York Times, March 19, 1989.
Armorial families: a directory of gentlemen of coat-armour. Compiled and edited by Arthur Charles Fox-Davies. Seventh Ed. London: Hurst & Blackett Ltd., 1929. Volume 1, p. 517. (http://www.archive.org/stream/armorialfamilies01foxd#page/516/mode/2up)
[British Columbia] Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act. Schedule C—Marriages. Arthur John Beanlands and Sophia Theresa Pemberton, September 11, 1905. Registration No. 05-09-013020.
“Captain Paul Beanlands, Military Cross accidentally killed flying in England.” The Daily Colonist, May 13, 1919, p. 5. From Index of Historical Victoria Newspapers at viHistory (http://web.uvic.ca).
“Doré Gallery.” On London Gallery Project by Pamela Fletcher and David Israel. At http://learn.bowdoin.edu/fletcher/london-gallery/.
Holmes, Vincent, interview with the author, Oak Bay, March 9, 2012.
Marriages, District of Nippissing, Divison of North Bay. Ontario, Canada, Marriages, 1801-1928. On Ancestry.com.
“Rector Resigns from Cathedral. Canon Beanlands Retires from Position Long Held.” The Daily Colonist, July 20, 1909, p. 15. From The British Colonist Online Edition.
“Miss Beanlands Better. Details of Accident Which Befell Cathedral Rector’s Daughter.” The Daily Colonist, March 16, 1909, p. 7. From The British Colonist Online Edition.
“Passed to the Great Beyond. Mrs. Beanlands Dies Suddenly at Shawnigan Lake on Sunday.” The Daily Colonist, June 23, 1903, p. 5. From The British Colonist Online Edition.
“Pemberton Chapel Dedicated Yesterday.” The Daily Colonist, December 30, 1909, p. 7. From The British Colonist Online Edition.
Tuele, Nicholas Craig. “Sophia Theresa Pemberton: Her Life and Art.” MA thesis, University of British Columbia, April 1980. Downloadable PDF at https://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/21949. Much of the material in this article is derived from Tuele’s study. To date it is the only substantial exposition of Sophie Pemberton’s life and work.
UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960. On Ancestry. com.