This isn't a story about me … and yet, in a way, it is. Is artistic ability carried in your genetic makeup? Do we have colour-wielding chromosomes? Detail-freak DNA? Painterly gene sequences? Or is it simply passionate interest resulting in a lifetime of dedicated practice? Maybe a bit of both?
Today I'm doing something different - I'm paying homage to my artistic lineage, whether hereditary or not. It doesn't seem all that strange or miraculous to us that we can share our work around the world literally with the click of a mouse. A century ago, a “mouse” was a rodent you didn't want in your house. The internet would have sounded like something out of a Jules Verne novel - total fantasy. But today, it's commonplace to post your work and have someone on the other side of the planet see it and perhaps even comment or purchase. Back then, unless you were lucky enough to catch the art world's attention, no one outside of your hometown likely saw it. And that's why today I'm giving my great-grandfather an opportunity he never had in life. I'm sharing his work with the world.
Let me introduce you … The artist, John Alexander Caldwell, was born on Christmas day in 1844, in Glasgow, Scotland. He's something of a mystery. Family stories are few and far between and the public records don't give a very detailed account of his life or his own ancestors. He had two wives (not at the same time!), 9 kids – two from the first marriage, 7 from the second, and there was a vague family rumour that he was a bit of a ladies' man. He was at various times, a locomotive engine driver, a mechanic, a carpenter, … and of course, an artist. He carved the bannisters in the old Capitol Theatre in Vancouver. He must have had a spirit of adventure because he moved briefly to Montreal and then to Tennessee, where his first wife died of yellow fever. And then after returning to Scotland, remarrying and starting another family, he set sail for Canada, and ultimately the wild west coast. As of 1886 the police force in his new home of Vancouver, was a one man operation, and the real estate office was a hollowed out log. We've expanded a bit since then! But it takes guts to move to a place on another continent, that's pretty much just a start-up city with beautiful scenery, and decide you're going to make a living and a life there.
John was a carver. If he was also a painter, that is lost to history, but his carvings and leather tooling made their way through the family after his death. One piece in particular, has fascinated me since I was little. It's a round plaque, 14.5” in diameter. The motif is ancient Egyptian, the style Greco-Roman.
Although signed on the back, there is no date and no title. I can guess it was likely produced during the time of “Egyptomania” in the late 19th Century, although it could have been done as late as the early 1920's, which would put it into “Tutmania”. It spent a number of years sailing the high seas. My grandfather (his son), was a cruise ship captain and the plaque sailed the Vancouver to Alaska run on the walls of his cabin. Later it would come into my mother's possession where I would make my acquaintance with it. It hung on the living room wall of my childhood home. I spent many long hours staring at it and running my fingers over the smooth details. It still fascinates me today.
Looking at the minute details, if artistic ability is indeed genetic, I can see clearly where my detail-freakism came from! His choices intrigue me. I have long wondered about the stylistic choice of Egyptian crossed with Greco-Roman. Sounds like something I'd do! I marvel at his ability to carve such perfect tiny fingers and toes. You can feel the curve of muscle in her legs. Did he have a title for it? It makes me think “Roman Bath”, yet the motifs are clearly Egyptian. It's a quiet, intimate moment between a high-born woman and her servant. I assume the steps are into a bath, and that she has disrobed, handing her garments and jewellery to her trusted servant. The servant's head-covering, jewellery and toplessness, seem a cross between Greek and Egyptian. The framing around them looks to be incorporating the Greek palmette and then the top and bottom, the Egyptian lotus and the Winged Sun of Thebes.
Was he slipping symbolism into his work in the same way I do, or was it merely a decorative choice? If it was symbolism, I like his choices! Crafty old bugger, I like him even more! I've long considered painting a version of his work myself, but never got around to it. But the more I researched his symbols the more interested I am in doing my own take on it.
The Winged Sun of Thebes is a symbol of the soul and eternity and when flanked by a Uraeus (rearing cobra – which you can see is suggested in the carving) is used as a symbol of sovereignty, royalty, and divine authority. Perhaps the woman on the left is not just high-born, but a queen? The Uraeus is also a symbol for the goddess, Wadjet. Did John know that and choose it because it fit the story in his mind for the image?
The lotus represented the sun and was the sacred flower of Hathor, the cow goddess of magic, fertility, and healing, known for her powers of healing and regeneration.
Whatever his reasons for creating the image in the way he did, it's a thing of beauty and has been a source of inspiration for me, my entire life – and THAT is quite a legacy right there! I can only hope that my work will matter and inspire at least one other person, at some point in time, the way his obscure, rarely seen piece has! It gives me great pleasure to hand the spotlight over to him today!