BlogSeptember 7, 2018

Edwin Holgate, "Indian Grave Houses", 1926



In late August 1926, Edwin Headley Holgate (1892-1977; fig. 1) traveled with his friend A.Y. Jackson (1882-1974)  and the anthropologist Marius Barbeau (1883-1969) to the upper Skeena River region of British Columbia. The thirty-four-year-old Holgate had already joined Jackson on sketching trips along the lower St Lawrence River in early 1924 and again in the spring of 1926. Barbeau was employed by the National Museum (today, the Canadian Museum of History) and was fascinated by the traditional Indigenous cultures of the Northwest Coast of British Columbia, which he described to Holgate in May 1926 as "the most inspiring, from the point of view of art, in the whole of British Columbia".2  Three years earlier he had travelled along the Skeena River to inventory totem poles and grave houses as part of a larger project to preserve and restore the poles and promote tourism to the area.


-Jean Chauvin, 1928  

Portrait of Edwin Holgate by M.O. Hammond, 1930

Fig. 1 Photograph of Edwin Holgate 

by M.O. Hammond, 1930, NGC record no.35128


 In a letter written three months before Holgate departed Montreal for British Columbia, Barbeau tried to entice him by offering to show him "the most interesting spots from Hazelton to Prince Rupert".3 Little more than a week later, in a letter to Jackson, Barbeau suggested a more detailed itinerary, starting at Port Essington and then progressing to Usk, Kitwanga, Hazelton and the Hagwilget canyon.4  Holgate was enthusiastic, not least because Barbeau was able to arrange free passes on the Canadian National Railways. In the end, Holgate spent some six weeks travelling with Jackson in Gitxsan territory,5 and Barbeau's list of recommended sites is well reflected in their resulting images. Although the title of Indian Grave Houses (oil on canvas; 61 x 61 cm; fig. 2) is generic, the cemetery buildings-most strikingly the one on the right, with an elaborate finial - were also drawn by Jackson when the two artists visited the impressive cemetery that overlooks the village of Hazelton (Gitanmaax) (fig. 3).6 


Edwin Holgate painting - Indian Grave Houses

Fig. 2

Edwin Holgate, R.C.A. 1892-1977

Indian Grave Houses, 1926

Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 in

signed, "E Holgate" (recto, lower right).



Dominion Gallery, Montreal (A9428);

Private collection, Westmount.


AY Jackson drawings - Four Graves at Hazelton  

Edwin Holgate painting - Totem Poles, Gitsegukla

Fig. 3

A.Y. Jackson, Four Graves at Hazelton, 1926,

pen and ink over graphite on wove paper, 22.6 x 27.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Inv. 17455r


Fig. 4

Edwin Holgate, R.C.A. 1892-1977, Totem Poles Gitsegukla, 1927, 

oil on canvas, 80.9 x 81.1 cm, National Gallery of Canada, purchased 1939, Inv.4426 



Aside from Indian Grave Houses, Holgate produced only one other known oil on canvas painting of a Skeena subject: Totem Poles, Gitsegukla (1927; National Gallery of Canada; fig. 4). The trip also resulted in an oil on panel sketch of another cemetery subject (Indian Grave Houses, Skeena River, 1926, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; fig. 5), and several portrait and figure drawings (fig. 6). In the following months Holgate also printed a series of wood engravings: a medium in which he was exceptionally skilled. 



Edwin Holgate painting - Indian Grave Houses, Skeena River,  

Edwin Holgate drawing of Gitxsan Chief Wii Hlengwah

Fig. 5

Edwin Holgate, R.C.A. 1892-1977, Indian Grave Houses, Skeena River, 1926, oil on panel, 31.8 x 40.6 cm, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Mrs. Max Stern, Inv. 1978.23


Fig. 6

Edwin Holgate, R.C.A. 1892-1977, Gitxsan Chief Wii Hlengwah (Jim Lax n'itsx), 1926, charcoal and brown chalk on paper, 58.5 x 47.3, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, acquisition c. 1930, Inv. 35.01


 Indian Grave Houses is an outstanding example of Holgate's art. "I had a natural feeling for drawing as opposed to painting", he stated in 1973.7  That predilection was reinforced by Adolf Milman, an expatriate Russian artist with whom he had studied in Paris in 1920-22. Described by Holgate as "the most potent influence I had",8  Milman had himself been inspired by Paul Cézanne's transformation of nature into art through the use of strong draftsmanship and heavily modeled, volumetric forms that were tied together into tightly integrated images. Holgate deployed those techniques to full effect in Indian Grave Houses. Spaces between objects are as solid and as compositionally essential as the objects themselves, knitting the scene's disparate elements-clouds, mountains, architecture, human figures-into a unified, decorative whole. The upward diagonal slant and the crowning finial of the largest grave house parallel the slope and the peak of the central mountain in the background. The numerous verticals of the grave house architecture reverberate across the canvas in patterns of repetition and variation, while the intersection of perpendicular elements crops up in the houses themselves, in the shadow of the railing in the left foreground, and in the "H"-shaped form that lies on the grass in the right foreground.  Colour is also a key component. The painting features a subtle harmony of tonal gradations, mostly blues and greens. Five years earlier, in Fête des filets bleus, Concarneau (1921; Art Gallery of Hamilton; fig. 7), Holgate had orchestrated a similarly sensitive composition by relying on various shades of blue and brown that, like the tonal variation in Indian Grave Houses, ground the entire image within a structure of compositional cohesion, balance and order. As the art critic Jean Chauvin confirmed in 1928, two years after the Skeena trip, "For Holgate, art is artifice … He translates, transposes, and transcribes nature rather than slavishly copying it."9   


Fêtes des filets bleus, Concarneau is populated by dozens of figures that are dwarfed by the architecture but that imbue the painting with human liveliness. Indian Grave Houses contains a single pair of figures: an Indigenous woman carrying a child, the woman seen in half profile, with minimal facial or other details. Standing in shadow, she is captured in a moment of contemplative stillness amidst the houses of the dead: an haunting evocation of a passing civilization.   The concept of Indigenous cultures being doomed by the apparently inexorable sweep of non-Indigenous civilization was widely accepted at the time, including by Marius Barbeau, who was eager to document such cultures before what he anticipated to be their loss of purity and their subsequent slide into extinction. Indian Grave Houses encapsulates the similar emotion that overwhelmed Holgate in Gitxsan territory. He wrote that he came away with the impression that he was "witnessing the rapid decline of a splendid race of creative and well-organized people. There persisted a brooding gloom which I found it impossible to dispel."10  Given that outlook, Gitxsan grave houses must have seemed to him a resonant subject. In the most thorough analysis to date of Holgate's imagery from his 1926 trip, Sandra Dyck draws attention to the consistency with which the human figures in his paintings, prints and drawings underscore Holgate's beliefs.11  In Totem Poles, No.4 (fig. 8), for example, he shows nearly a dozen figures standing amongst the poles, casting shadows as they gaze toward the sunset. Figures in Holgate's other Skeena works are often limited to single, passive women seen from oblique angles. The women in Indian Grave Houses, in Indian Grave Houses, Skeena River and in Totem Poles, Gitsegukla all turn away from the viewer.   




Edwin Holgate - Fête des filets bleus, Concarneau  

Edwin Holgate woodcut - Departing People, Skeena River

Fig. 7 Edwin Holgate, R.C.A. 1892-1977, Fête des filets bleus, Concarneau, 1921, oil on canvas, 60.3 x 73.4 cm, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Gift of The Hamilton Spectator, 1972, Inv., 72.72.2 


Fig. 8 Edwin Holgate, R.C.A. 1892-1977, Departing People, Skeena River, 1926, wood engraving on laid paper, sheet: 22.5 x 19 cm / image: 15 x 12.3 cm, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Gift of Robert & Margaret Hucal, Inv., 2012.007.001 




 Indian Grave Houses was included in the major 1927 exhibition Northwest Coast Art, Native and Modern, organized by Barbeau and Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery. In a May 1926 letter to Holgate, Barbeau had stated that their trip to the Skeena River that summer was being planned with just such an outcome in mind. "We are thinking", Barbeau wrote, "of [the] possibility of exhibitions in Toronto, Ottawa & Montreal of Indian masks & miniature totem poles with interpretative paintings by [American artist Langdon] Kihn & if you came with Jackson, of yourself and others, next winter or spring."12  The exhibition was held first at the National Gallery in December 1927, followed by showings at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario; January 1928) and the Art Association of Montreal (now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; February-March 1928).  



Edwin Holgate - Indian Grave Houses in exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern, 1926 - photo from National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives Holgate, Jasper Tea Room, Chateau Laurier, Ottawa (1927, NGC photo) 

Fig. 9

Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern, National Museum of Canada (today National Gallery of Canada), December 1927.  National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Ottawa. (Holgate's Indian Grave Houses is the painting at the extreme right). 

Fig. 10 

Chateau Laurier Hotel - Jasper Room - waterfall. Waterfall and Rocky Mountains mural and totem pole pillars in the Jasper Room of the Château Laurier Hotel, 1929, Library and Archives Canada, Arch. Ref. no. R231-3076-4-E 




Northwest Coast Art, Native and Modern juxtaposed recent and historical Indigenous objects with non-Indigenous paintings and other items, almost all of them by contemporary Canadian artists-most notably Emily Carr, who would upstage Langdon Kihn. This reflected one of Brown and Barbeau's goals: to encourage recognition of a distinctively Canadian art by suggesting lines of continuity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous traditions and aesthetics. Installation photographs show Indian Grave Houses in one of Holgate's hand-carved frames, hanging beside a Nuxalk grizzly bear house post from the Bella Coola region, well south of the Skeena River (fig. 9). Holgate, who assisted with the installation in Ottawa and Montreal, was also in 1927 selected by the CNR to design the Jasper Tea Room in the railway's Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa. The décor-totem pole columns, wall decorations and table lamps-was based on Indigenous design prototypes. (fig. 10) The Jasper Room no longer exists, but the people whose portraits and culture Holgate portrayed during and immediately after his 1926 trip have flourished. Indian Grave Houses is both a record of contemporaneous racial assumptions, and a superb example of Holgate's distinctive visual aesthetic at the height of his career.   



1. This essay is indebted to Charles C. Hill, who generously shared his research and expertise with me. 

2. Marius Barbeau to Edwin Holgate, 26 May 1926 (Canadian Museum of History: Marius Barbeau fonds, letters to Holgate, Temp. Box 18). 

3. Marius Barbeau to Edwin Holgate, 26 May 1926 (Canadian Museum of History: Marius Barbeau fonds, letters to Holgate, Temp. Box 18). 

4. Marius Barbeau to A.Y. Jackson, 4 June 1926 (Canadian Museum of History: Marius Barbeau fonds, letters to Jackson, Temp. Box 19). 

5. Edwin Holgate to Naomi Jackson Groves, 29 November 1966 (Library and Archives Canada, Naomi Jackson Groves fonds, MG 30 D351, vol.85, file 1, "Correspondence Binder H, 1923-1998"). The origins and progress of Barbeau's 1926 Skeena trip are summarized in Laurence Nowry, Man of Mana: Marius Barbeau (Toronto: NC Press Limited, 1995), pp. 221-226. 

6. Two Grave Houses at Hazelton (acquisition no.17454r); Grave House and Detail (acquisition no.17454v); Four Grave Houses at Hazelton (acquisition no.17455r); Three Grave Houses at Hazelton (acquisition no17455v).  

7. Edwin Holgate, interviewed by Charles C. Hill, 20 September 1973 (National Gallery of Canada Archives). 

8. Edwin Holgate, interviewed by Charles C. Hill, 20 September 1973 (National Gallery of Canada Archives). 

9. Jean Chauvin, Ateliers. Études sur vingt-deux peintres et sculpteurs canadiens (Montreal: Louis Carrier, 1928), p. 20. 

10. Edwin Holgate, quoted in Naomi Jackson Groves A.Y.'s Canada (Toronto and Vancouver: Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, 1968), p.166. 

11. Sandra Dyck, "'A New Country for Canadian Art': Edwin Holgate and Marius Barbeau in Gitxsan Territory," in Rosalind Pepall and Brian Foss, Edwin Holgate (Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2005), pp. 55-67. 

12. Marius Barbeau to Edwin Holgate, 26 May 1926 (Canadian Museum of History: Holgate correspondence). 


Extended catalogue description

Edwin Holgate painting - Indian Grave Houses in original frame Edwin Holgate, R.C.A. 1892-1977
Indian Grave Houses, 1926
signed, "E. Holgate" (recto, lower right)
Oil on canvas - huile sur toile
24 x 24 in
61 x 61 cm



Dominion Gallery, Montreal (A9428);
Private collection, Westmount.



Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada; 20 November - 31 December 1927; Toronto, Art Gallery of Toronto, 7 January - 28 January 1928; Montreal, Art Association of Montreal 17 February - 25 March 1928, Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern, no. 29 as "Indian Graveyard, Rocher Déboulé";


Montreal, Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, September 1 to October 9, 2004; Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1 Sept 2004 - January 23, 2005, Max Stern: The Taste of a Dealer. Works from Private Collections Acquired through the Dominion Gallery, cat. no. 65, as "Indian Village", 1926;


Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, 26 May - 2 October 2005; Glenblow Museum, Calgary, 11 March - 4 June 2006; The McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinberg, Ont,, 21 June -16 September 2006; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 6 October 2006 -7 January 2007; Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, 10 February - 15 April 2007, Edwin Holgate (1892-1977), cat. no. 41;


Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, 24 Oct 2015 - 31 January 2016; Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton, Ont., 20 February - 8 May 2016; Art Gallery of Windsor, Windsor, Ont., 24 June - 2 October 2016; Glenbow Museum, Calgary, 22 October 2016 - 29 January 2017, 1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group, cat. no. 189.



Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern, exh. cat., (s.l (Ottawa?): The Mortimer Company Limited, 1927), no. 29 as Indian Graveyard, Rocher Déboulé;


Jacques Des Rochers, François Marc Gagnon, Édith-Anne Pageot, and Michel Moreault, Max Stern, Montreal Dealer and Patron, (Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts / Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, n.d. [2004?]), cat. no. 65, pl. 10, as "Indian Village, 1926, Private collection.";


Jacques Des Rochers and Brian Foss, et al., 1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group, (Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2015), cat. no. 189, reproduced in colour p. 172;


Brian Foss, Rosalind M. Pepall, et al., Edwin Holgate (1892-1977), (Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2005), cat. no. 41, reproduced in colour p. 116.

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