Ted Harrison

A few years ago the papers of the artist Ted Harrison were deposited in the University of Victoria’s “Artists Archives”. For months I sorted through his correspondence, read his reviews, arranged his photographs and even laid out the paints, brushes and the paper plates he habitually used as palettes. I catalogued heaps of his correspondence, written in neat italic hand, with more than 20 galleries which had hosted his sell-out shows. It was an honour to write his obituary on January 20, 2015. 

Ted Harrison is gone, but in his 88 years he gave us much to remember. In hundreds of joyful paintings, his uninflected colours seem to shimmer and glow. Rollicking curves define lake shores, swirling clouds and dancing Northern lights. They exactly look like the Yukon, but somehow they convey the essence of Canada’s north. 

When he arrived in the Yukon in 1968 Harrison brought a world of experience. From the slag heaps of Hartlepool, his hometown in the English midlands, he brought a classical art training. The British greyness became infused with the colours of Africa and India where he was stationed during WW2. He taught elementary school with his wife Nicky in Malaysia and New Zealand, and the reluctant scholars helped him hone his drop-dead comic timing. Harrison was the finest raconteur I ever met.

One day in the Yukon, this mediocre traditional painter suddenly became an inspired original. His new “happy” stylewas first seen at the public library in Whitehorse, where it was discovered by a visiting civil servant from Ottawa. He took the news back to our nation’s capital and Harrison’s subsequent show in Ottawa in 1973 found a receptive audience among civil servants. A follow-up show in Vancouver in 1974 sold well and Harrison soon gave up teaching – an overnight success at 48 years of age. 

Harrison’s unique style was adaptable. His illustrations for Children of the Yukon (1977) won him fame at the Frankfurt and Bologna Book Fairs. The Cremation of Sam McGee (1986) was named a Best Book by the New York Times. Hundreds of editions of screen prints sold strongly; stained glass windows were commissioned for the Whitehorse cathedral; the Yukon pavilion at Expo 86 in Vancouver was a giant walk-through Harrison painting. 

The Harrisons came to Victoria in 1993, in search of better health care for Nicky’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease. At first they were lonely for the Yukon, but after Ted discovered the whales and fishing off our west coast, he accepted Victoria as home. Social service was natural to Harrison. During his first year in Canada’s north, in Wabasca, Alberta, he noticed his students were puzzled by the urbanism of their “Dick and Jane” readers. So he created A Northland Alphabet (1968), based on their tundra frame of reference. Harrison was active in the Boy Scouts, and then the Rotary Clu. He volunteered for years as “artist in the school”  at Monterey Elementary, and was always a feature of the Moss Street Paint-In. 

I got to know Ted at the annual Painters at Painter’s Lodge event at Campbell River. With his dog Maggie curled at his feet, wearing a Cowichan sweater and paint-spattered apron, Ted sat at his easel and told stories while he painted. Harrison told me he visualized his paintings entirely at night while he lay in bed (he suffered from sleep apnea) and every line and colour was ready when he sat down to his canvas the next day. Though fans constantly interrupted him, Harrison later made himself available in his studio in the front window of his shop on Oak Bay Avenue. He spent his last years at Carlton House.

Ted Harrison was probably Canada’s most popular artist. Once I asked his business manager (for he truly needed one) if she was involved in promotion. “Ted doesn’t need any promotion,” she laughed. “Every school child in this country knows him.” Yet our National Gallery doesn’t own any of his work. That will surely change. His paintings are magic, even better “in the flesh” than in the cheerful reproductions or prints. Who else but Harrison could have successfully illustrated O Canada (1992), a book whose text is our national anthem? His work and his words are a hymn of praise for the country which he came to love. 

Harrison received Honorary Doctorates from four universities, was elected to membership in the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts and was awarded the Order of British Columbia. Personally, my memories of him center on his fund of naughty limericks and the irrepressible twinkle in his eye. Ted Harrison is gone, but his was a life well-lived. We are better for having known him.

For the full story, find Katherine Gibson’s biography, Ted Harrison: Painting Paradise (Crown Publishing, Victoria, 2009).

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