A 1965 painting of Ashcroft by renowned west coast painter Edward John (E.J.) Hughes recently sold at a Heffel Fine Art Post-War and Contemporary Art live auction for $205,000 (including buyer’s premium). Its estimated sale price was $125,000 to $175,000.
“Ashcroft (On the Thompson River in Central BC)” is a 32 x 48 inch oil on canvas work. Over the years it has been exhibited at several shows across Canada, including one at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
Hughes—now regarded as one of the most accomplished B.C. landscape painters of his time—was born in North Vancouver in 1913 and grew up in Nanaimo.
He trained at the Vancouver School of Art and became a commercial artist, then enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery in 1940 and became an Army artist. He was soon promoted to the position of official Army War artist, and worked in Canada, Great Britain, and the Aleutians.
When the war ended Hughes returned to Vancouver Island, where he continued painting. In 1951 he signed a contract with the Dominion Gallery in Montreal and was able to earn a living as a full-time artist.
He was commissioned by Standard Oil to create a series of works depicting B.C.’s coast, and spent a good deal of time travelling through, and painting, the province’s Coastal and Interior regions.
Hughes was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy in 1966. He continued to paint until he passed away in Duncan, B.C. in 2007, aged 93.
In 1956—when Hughes was already celebrated for his West Coast landscapes—Vancouver art collector Doreen Norton sponsored him on a sketching trip to the B.C. Interior. Hughes was very much impressed by what he saw, writing to Norton that “I can understand your enthusiasm in the country up there. The views are really magnificent.”
In 1958 Hughes returned to the Interior, making detailed graphite sketches which he took back with him to his studio at Shawnigan Lake and used to produce oil paintings of what he had seen. One of them was “Ashcroft (On the Thompson River in Central BC)”, which the Heffel’s catalogue describes as a “magisterial work”.
The catalogue goes on to describe the painting in more detail: “This stunning panorama showcases Hughes’s keen powers of observation and his ability to divine the essence of the landscape. Here he captures both the fine details of the town, overshadowed by its dramatic setting, and the vastness of the surrounding landscape, from the sinuous Thompson River to the striking clouds rolling up over the distant mountains.
“The colour palette in this canvas is brilliant and intense—a hallmark of his sought-after 1960s works. Hughes’s unique and powerful vision of the landscape in works such as this made him one of the most important landscape painters in Canada.”
The painting’s selling price, although hefty, is far from the highest price paid at auction for a Hughes work. His painting “The Post Office at Courtenay, BC” was estimated at $600,00 to $800,000 when it went to auction in May, 2016, and sold for $1,593,000 (buyer’s premium included). “Coastal Boats Near Sidney, BC” also topped the $1 million mark at auction (in 2011)
Hughes is not the only well-known Canadian artist to have visited Ashcroft and drawn what he saw there. In 1945 A.Y. Jackson, a member of the Group of Seven, came to Ashcroft and produced two studies of it: one looking south down Railway Avenue (the north edge of the Central Café building is just visible) and one looking east over the town from the north end of Brink Lane.
Both of Jackson’s Ashcroft works have been interpreted and recreated as glass mosaics, and are visible on the Rolgear building on Railway Avenue and in the Heritage Park near the gazebo.