The following appeared first in the latest edition of the Revelstoke TIMES magazine, which can be found in local businesses and the Revelstoke Review office.
Contributed by Cathy English, Curator at Revelstoke Museum & Archives
Revelstoke has seen many talented artists over the years, and Sophie Atkinson stands out among them for her contribution to fine arts in Revelstoke, and her formation of the Revelstoke Art Group.
Atkinson was born in Newcastle, UK in 1876 and began sketching at the age of nine. She received formal art training at the Newcastle School of Art for two years and studied for a further two years under Sir Hubert Von Herkomer, professor of fine art at Oxford. She travelled throughout Europe, India, and spent a year on the Greek island of Corfu, publishing a book, “An Artist in Corfu” in 1911, which was enthusiastically received by the London critics and established her reputation as a professional artist.
In 1925, she was sponsored to come to Canada by the Canadian Pacific Railway, and spent the next few years painting a wide variety of Canadian scenes. One of her paintings of Indigenous people at the Calgary Stampede, painted during that period, was recently acquired by Revelstoke Museum and Archives. Lawren Harris, dean of Canadian artists, and a member of the Group of Seven, described her water colours as among the best he had seen.
In 1929, Atkinson was the first woman artist to hold a solo show at the art gallery in Newcastle, UK. The Prince of Wales opened the exhibit which included a series of landscapes from his Alberta ranch. She presented the Prince with one of her pictures.
Two of Atkinson’s paintings were acquired by the National Archives of Canada in 1938. Lady Byng, wife of Lord Byng, former Governor General of Canada, purchased four of Atkinson’s paintings for her home in England.
During her fourth trip to Canada in 1948, she spent considerable time in Revelstoke, and in 1949 decided to settle here. She rented a room in the apartment of Mrs. Agnes Quinlan, who lived in the top floor of the boarding house that was then known as Birch Lodge, at 815 Mackenzie Avenue.
Sophie Atkinson was 73 years of age when she moved to Revelstoke. Mil Crittenden, writing in the Vancouver Sun Magazine Supplement on August 11, 1951, described her. “The artist is a tiny woman with darting, birdlike mannerisms. Spry and bright as a spring robin, she has a habit of cocking her head intently, while her keen, cobalt-blue eyes fairly sparkle with animation.”
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In September of 1949, the local branch of the Parent-Teacher Association sponsored an exhibition of her work at the King Edward Hotel. The show included more than 30 pictures painted on Mount Revelstoke, as well as numerous scenes from across Canada and from England and Scotland. Some of her paintings of London showed buildings damaged by bombing during the war. The Revelstoke Review described the show as “an intellectual and aesthetic feast which should inspire local artists and art lovers to continue in their efforts to foster self-expression and the appreciation of the unsurpassed beauty of our mountains, rivers, and lakes.”
R.H. Mann, Superintendent of Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Park was instrumental in arranging for Atkinson to stay in Revelstoke and apply for permanent resident status. Mann was one of the founders of the Revelstoke Parent-Teachers Association (PTA). Mann invited Atkinson to teach art at the Adult Evening Classes arranged for by the PTA. Seventeen students joined the weekly class in October of 1949, and before long, they were meeting twice weekly.
Revelstoke’s first annual Hobby Show was held on April 22, 1950 in Knights of Pythias Hall. More than 200 exhibitors displayed hundreds of handicrafts, and more than 500 adults visited the show. Among the work shown were more than 100 paintings by the students of Sophie Atkinson.
On May 12, 1950, several of Sophie Atkinson’s night-school students met to discuss plans for outdoor landscape painting classes under her direction. The students decided to form the Revelstoke Art Group as a movement for the promotion and appreciation of art in the community. Sophie Atkinson was named Honorary President, with R.H. Mann as President. Among the early members of the Revelstoke Art Group were Estelle Harvey, Mary Wells, Paula Overhill, Flossie Middleton, Muriel Parker, Doris Morgan, and Mrs. McKay. Works of many of these artists are now in the collection of Revelstoke Museum and Archives.
Sophie Atkinson continued to hold exhibitions throughout Canada and the UK. In 1953, she travelled to England for exhibitions at British Columbia House in Regent Street, London, and at the gallery of the School of Art in Newcastle, where she was born and received her early training.
In 1963, she was invited to mount an exhibition of her paintings at the Calgary Stampede, and she had regular exhibitions throughout the Okanagan.
Sophie Atkinson returned to the UK in 1967, and died in Edinburgh, Scotland on May 5, 1972, at the age of 95. She left a strong and enduring legacy in Revelstoke. Revelstoke Museum and Archives currently holds more than 30 paintings by Atkinson, 13 of which were recently featured in an exhibition by Kelowna Art Gallery, entitled “Geography Lessons.” The museum also holds a copy of her book “An Artist in Corfu,” and some of her painting supplies and her portable stool.
The Revelstoke Art Group continued to be active in the community for decades. When Revelstoke Museum and Archives moved into the former Post Office building at 315 First Street West in 1974, the Revelstoke Art Group occupied the second floor and ran an Art Gallery in the space. They moved out in 1999, and worked with the Revelstoke Visual Arts Society to create the current gallery space at 320 Wilson Street in 2002. The Revelstoke Art Group was dissolved in 2012, but their legacy lives on. Their local art collection and their archival records are now housed at Revelstoke Museum and Archives.