Credit: Royal British Columbia Museum/BC Archives.
Thanks to Wayde Compton for sending the link to this article in the Victoria Times-Colonist: Black artist a trailblazer in Victoria's early days. I'd never heard of Grafton Tyler Brown. Excerpt:
Grafton Tyler Brown became the first professional artist in the province when he reinvented himself in his move to British Columbia in 1882. Two years later, he headed south to Tacoma and has since become famous in the United States as the first and one of the best black professional artists in California and the Pacific Northwest.
Practically unknown now, his paintings of the Fraser, Thompson, Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys as well as southern Vancouver Island, were celebrated in Victoria in 1883 when he opened his inaugural exhibition. But Brown, the famous American black artist, was, surprisingly, a white artist in British Columbia!
Brown was African-American by birth. His parents, Thomas and Wilhelmina, were two free blacks who had left the slave state of Maryland for the free state of Pennsylvania in 1837. Grafton Tyler Brown born February 22, 1841, was the first of three sons and a daughter, all of whom appear as black in the censuses of the period.
At age 17 he headed west for Sacramento, California, on his own, and worked over the next two years as a hotel steward and porter, where the local census and directory makers described him as “Black” and “Colored.” There, his painting caught the attention of the local paper, which reported on Nov. 15, 1859: “We noticed last evening some very excellent painting done by Grafton T. Brown, a servant boy in the St. George Hotel…. The lad has never taken lessons but his execution will compare favorably with that of acknowledged artists.”
In a move that changed his life, and, it would seem, his colour, in 1861, age 20, Brown left Sacramento for San Francisco, where he was hired as an artist by a German printer, Charles Conrad Kuchel. Brown was sent around the west to draw panoramic views of towns which Kuchel lithographed and sold to the townspeople, many of whom had also paid extra to have their homes and businesses prominently represented.
Kuchel died in debt in 1864, and his widow turned over the business to Brown. At age 24, the former black porter owned an established print shop in San Francisco, and was one of only 55 lithographers in the entire United States. But he was no longer entirely black.
Whether by chance or more likely by craft, when Grafton Tyler Brown, who had inherited his father’s lighter colouring, was enumerated by the San Francisco directory makers for the 1861, he was listed without the designation “coloured” applied to blacks. The 1870 census taker called him a “Mulatto” suggesting he was thought to have only one African American parent while that same year the Dun and Bradstreet credit agency called him a “quadroon,” meaning that he was thought to have a single African-American grandparent. In the census of 1889 he was listed as “White.” Race, the idea that people can be rigidly separated by their looks, proved itself to be quite arbitrary and open to interpretation.
Grafton T. Brown and Co. took the lead in colour printing on the Pacific Coast. When in 1870, the first salmon canner in British Columbia, John Sullivan Deas, himself a black entrepreneur, needed colourful labels, he turned to Brown, whom he likely knew from when both lived near each other in San Francisco.
In 1882 Brown moved again and reinvented himself one more time. Now generally accepted as “White,” he decided to make a living as a painter, selling original landscape paintings, and he chose to do this reinvention in Victoria.
To see the little known parts of the province, he joined a geological survey party in 1882 as they travelled from Kamloops, through the Okanagan valley, up the Similkameen, and back to the Fraser by late October in order. By November he had established himself in a studio in Victoria in the Occidental Hotel at the corner of Wharf and Johnson streets and the British Colonist newspaper directed clients to him, describing him as “an artist of more than local celebrity in California and elsewhere.”