Canada

This Week in History, 1933: A Vancouver Sun mural depicts the wealth and opportunities in B.C.

Murals were all the rage in the 1930s across North America

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Murals were big in the 1930s. In the U.S., the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) commissioned thousands of murals through the Federal Art Project. Many were in post offices, others in public spaces like Coit Tower in San Francisco.

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Murals were popular in Canada, as well. On Oct. 21, 1933, The Vancouver Sun announced it had commissioned artist Julius Griffith to paint a pair of murals in the lobby of its headquarters at 125 West Pender Street.

One was called “The West” and “depicts the wealth and opportunities in this section of Canada.” The second was called “The Press,” and showed “the gathering, printing and distributing of news.”

Sadly the mural seems to have been lost when The Sun building was devastated by fire on March 22, 1937. The paper relocated across the street to what became known as the Sun Tower .

There also don’t seem to be any photos of the mural, aside from reproductions in the paper. But it drew raves at the time it was done.

Sun writer Julia Henshaw was impressed by the “boldness and brightness” of The West, which she said was a “ most pleasing and remarkably reasonable adaptation of the modernistic school.”

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Henshaw waxed eloquent through each part of the mural — “The golden sunset!” “The mountains!” “The forest!” — with over-the-top writing and exclamation points.

“The harbour!” she wrote. “Griffith shows us a ship symbolical (not modernistically diabolical) of transport, indicating travel for pleasure and business, cargoes of grain and merchandise, of timber, and ores, and produce — it is an effect of solid, stolid Dominion industry, and reminds us that despite the rivalry of other competing nations Britain rules the seas.”

The Sun was quite pleased — it ran a staff ad boasting “It is a mark of Good Culture and Thoughtful Family Interest to Be a Reader of The Vancouver Sun.”

Staff ad in The Oct. 21, 1933 The Vancouver Sun boasting “It is a mark of Good Culture and Thoughtful Family Interest to Be a Reader of The Vancouver Sun.”
Staff ad in The Oct. 21, 1933 The Vancouver Sun boasting “It is a mark of Good Culture and Thoughtful Family Interest to Be a Reader of The Vancouver Sun.” PNG

It also urged other businesses to follow suit with murals of their own.

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“Vancouver is full of artistic talent,” said a story. “It is also full of blank walls. How to bring the two together, and get the young artists of Vancouver to work making pictures on the blank walls is the subject that engrosses hundreds of people in this city … who are interested in promoting the cause of beauty.”

Charles Scott of the Vancouver School of Art concurred.

“‘This city and this province are fairly crying out to be pictorialized,’” said Scott. “There is a great opportunity there to make schools more attractive. Primary rooms could illustrate nursery rhymes and childhood stories. Our Sunday School room walls are a medium for pictorializing the Bible stories taught to pupils.

“Take our hundreds of downtown business offices, the grain exchange, the stock exchange: there are wonderful possibilities in those places for decorative art, with their lofty unadorned walls.”

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In fact in 1930-31 the San Francisco Stock Exchange had tapped the great Mexican painter Diego Rivera to do a mural, The Allegory of California , in its tower.

“California, a heroic figure of a woman, holds in her arms the symbols of her fertility,” said a description of the mural in the Jan. 14, 1931 San Francisco Examiner.

“There is gold from under the earth — and the miners that found it. Fruits and flowers from the earth’s surface — and the men that cultivate them. There is science, and power, and shipping — and youth — all represented in drawings that captivate the on-looker.”

Rivera’s mural was famous at the time, and may have led The Sun’s owner Robert Cromie to commission The West. Rivera’s 1932 mural for the Rockefeller Centre in New York was more overtly political, and controversial, so that probably wouldn’t have been an inspiration.

Griffith was commissioned to do another mural at the Shawnigan Lake School For Boys in 1934, shortly after he had a one-man show at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In 1935, he went to England to study at the Royal College of Art. During the Second World War, he joined British Intelligence. He was posted to Russia, where he secretly did sketches.

In 1946 he moved to Toronto, where he was known for his printmaking — some of his prints are in the National Gallery collection in Ottawa. He died in 1997 at 85.

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Artist Julius Griffith working on his mural The Press in The Vancouver Sun lobby at 125 West Pender, Nov. 11, 1933. The mural was probably destroyed in a fire in March 1937.
Artist Julius Griffith working on his mural The Press in The Vancouver Sun lobby at 125 West Pender, Nov. 11, 1933. The mural was probably destroyed in a fire in March 1937.
Diego Rivera’s 1930-31 mural The Allegory of California. The mural was painted on the grand staircase between the 10th and 11th floors of the lunch room at the San Francisco Stock Exchange, which is now the private City Club.
Diego Rivera’s 1930-31 mural The Allegory of California. The mural was painted on the grand staircase between the 10th and 11th floors of the lunch room at the San Francisco Stock Exchange, which is now the private City Club.
The Vancouver Sun’s Julia Henshaw wrote about Julius Griffith’s mural on Nov. 2, 1933.
The Vancouver Sun’s Julia Henshaw wrote about Julius Griffith’s mural on Nov. 2, 1933.
The second half of Henshaw’s story.
The second half of Henshaw’s story.

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