You don’t always have to leave home to be a “tourist.” Recently, I curled up with a book I bought on a whim in a used bookstore in Salt Lake City (they have some of the best used and rare bookstores). Entitled “Colour in the Canadian Rockies” this 1947 book was authored by Fredrick Niven with full colour illustrations by Walter J. Phillips.
Regular readers know I am mostly an urban guy, but once in awhile I like to get beyond the glitz, grit and grid of the street and experience the pastoral pathways of nature.
I had never before heard of Niven, but I did know Phillips and just looking at the 32 full-page, full-colour reproductions of his watercolours of the Canadian Rockies is like taking a trip to the mountains without leaving your La-Z-Boy (the book also has 33 of Phillips’ fine pen and ink drawings). I later learned that he was commissioned to do the watercolours to illustrate Niven’s prose as opposed to just a selection of his works.
I am also not usually drawn to wordy, flowery, poetic prose but for some reason Niven’s descriptions of the sense of places as he travelled up, around and through the Canadian Rockies seemed authentic and appropriate for the magic and majesty that is the Rockies.
I was immediately captured by “Sometimes they are the colour of ripe plums and seem immense. Sometimes they are just a low wavering inky smudge along the horizon…Sometimes they are smoky-hued mountains of illusion, clouds, and peaks blending in the eye….they give a sense of eternal permanence that makes the sound of bells ringing down the quarters of hours over Calgary, and the honking of motor cars in the streets, and the cough of trolley cars’ warning seem vague, unreal.”
On the opposite page was Phillips’ painting of Mount Rundle, which at first glance is a straightforward tranquil painterly realism representation, but upon further portrays the clouds in the sky and the reflections in the water as wonderful colourist abstractions.
For several hours over a few days I was quickly transcended back in time and place to when the Canadian Rockies were first being discovered by Europeans on foot, by horse and by canoe. Niven tells his personal tales of exploring the hills, rivers, and peaks, as well as the people of the mountains in a philosopher’s prose. Phillips would paint the sense of space, place and silence.
There were even a few history lessons, like was makes a good guide, "A good guide is one who breaks his dude (client) in slow, if he sees he's not in form, without letting him know it, and brings him in to camp just reasonably and healthily tired and with an appetite on him.
“the names of the creeks and peaks had for me the quality of ballad music.”
“the still reflection of the spire-like trees that stood, as in tranced stillness…an effect of eternal imperturbability on the mountains…lonely projections into radiant space…two pyramidal, very majestic slashed with moonlight and shadow.”
“memory also I have of how the sense of immediacy fell away and yielded to a sense of timelessness.”
“a sense of loneliness inevitably enfolds us in these great solitudes”
“In the tree-tops down Sheol Valley, beyond the awesome slide, little winds sigh and pass and leave profound silence. The tom-tomming of creeks only accentuates the silence.”
“A forest of pillared quiet.”
“They rode on. Immediately we were again alone. Such is the effect of these places when others are encountered and pass. Loneliness enfolds us. The meeting takes on a quality of unreality. Human beings seem transient. They were here; they are gone; they are ghosts; we are all but as ghosts travelling through that quiet.”
Frederick John Niven (born March 31, 1878, in Valparaíso, Chile, died died January 30, 1944, Vancouver, B.C., Can.), regional novelist who wrote more than 30 novels, many of them historical romances set in Scotland and Canada. Three of his best-known novels - The Flying Years (1935), Mine Inheritance (1940), and The Transplanted (1944) - form a trilogy dealing with the settlement of the Canadian west.
Educated in Scotland, Niven worked in libraries in Glasgow and Edinburgh before immigrating to Canada about 1900 and working in construction camps in the Canadian west. Returning to the British Isles, he was a writer and journalist in England until after World War I, when he settled permanently in British Columbia. He also published verse and an autobiography, Coloured Spectacles (1938).
Phillips was born in Barton-on-Humber in Lincolnshire, England. As a youth, he studied at the Birmingham School of Art. After studying abroad in South Africa and Paris he worked as a commercial artist in England. In June 1913, he moved to Winnipeg, where he lived for more than 28 years. Phillips died in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1963.
Phillips is famous for his woodcuts and watercolours. His artistic career spanned from the 1900s through the 1940s, during which time his work was exhibited throughout North America and Great Britain. Common subjects for Phillips included the lakes of Manitoba, the prairies and in his later years, the Rocky Mountains where his ashes were scattered.
In 1940 he was asked to be a resident artist at the Banff Centre, then known as the Banff School of Fine Arts, where he played an important role in the development of their visual arts program. The Walter Phillips Gallery, in Banff, which focuses on contemporary, is named after him. The Glenbow Museum in Calgary holds an extensive collection of Phillips art and a research archive.
To paraphrase Niven, “it is not only scenery that the forest and mountains offer, but their memories, experiences, restlessness, peacefulness, solitude and companionship.”