Capilano Canyon, by J. Williams Ogden
Capilano Canyon, by J. Williams Ogden

J. Williams Ogden

A letter many years ago from Canon Stanley Higgs, the well-known (and since deceased) Anglican priest, set me off on the trail of the late J. Williams Ogden (1858-1936). “There are some old paintings at Fairview Baptist Church in Vancouver,” Canon Higgs had written. “I think you might be interested in them.”

That letter helped to bring back into the light of day an obscure early B.C. artist, the Rev. J. W. Ogden, whose paintings and illuminations, I later learned, are scattered all over Vancouver and beyond. His paintings—all of them landscapes, some enormous—are quite good. But there was a surprise to come.

I visited Fairview Baptist, and was taken on a tour of the Ogden art by Canon Higgs. (The canon, by the way, was a charter member of the Council of Churches in Vancouver, which had its offices in Fairview Baptist, and he had always admired the Ogden landscapes there. That's why he wrote me.)

Stashed away in a dark closet of the church, covered with dust and leaning against a wall, was a large portrait, a head of Christ. It was a very good one, too. But it wasn't by Ogden—it was by his daughter, Fannie. And leaning against Fannie's painting was a large illumination by her father, an ornately decorated Roll of Honor. It was exceptionally well-done. (Illuminations are decorative designs in color and gold or silver of manuscripts, books, proclamations, etc.)

Then we unearthed, in a church history, a brief biographical note about J.W. Ogden which mentioned other paintings and illuminations he had done. Some were at UBC's Union College, the note said, some at First United. My search was broadening. Vancouver's City Archives has obituary clippings on J.W., noting that the “veteran minister and nationally known artist had died in October of 1936.” The Archives also has a letter Ogden wrote to The Province, published August 13, 1928. It's an impassioned attack against “the notorious Group of Seven,” a collection of whose paintings had recently arrived from Ottawa. “We know that these ‘freakists’,” Ogden wrote, “by political influence and press manipulation have, for the time, captured the seats of power in connection with the National Gallery of this Dominion and that good public money is being paid for the purchase of the works of these men.”

Attached to the Ogden clippings was a typewritten note by the late archivist, Major J.S. Matthews. "There is a very fine illuminated address (by Ogden) in the Union College," Matthews had written. "A huge thing."

That's putting it mildly.

It covered a wall to the right of the entrance as you entered the college, (on the UBC campus), and it was a marvel. The beautifully and painstakingly-shaped words refer to the building of the college (now absorbed into the Vancouver School of Theology) and they're lavishly decorated and colored. Ogden presented it to the college when he joined the United Church in 1927—he was given a D.D. by them that same year. The late Bob Stewart, of VST, showed me a smaller Ogden illumination on the opposite wall. It's not as grand, but it's a genuine little charmer. It was given by Ogden to Captain William Oliver, who'd done missionary work on the coast in his boat the Glad Tidings. There are four tiny multi-colored landscapes worked in among the red and gold lettering, and the whole effect is really striking.

Bob Stewart filled in more details on Ogden's life. He came to Vancouver in 1920, and filled vacant pulpits in several churches: Kitsilano Presbyterian, Fairview Baptist, Chalmers and St. Stephen's United Churches. Ogden was born in 1859 in Batley, Yorkshire, son of a Methodist minister who had young J.W. preaching by the age of 14. (He was ordained in 1883.)

While researching this piece, I discovered that Ogden's work can be seen outside Vancouver, too. I spoke with the Rev. Clyde Woollard, United Church minister in Kelowna. A large Ogden painting, a landscape called An Entrance to the House of God, hung in his church.

“And we had another painting,” Clyde told me. “It's of Ogden himself. We gave it to the Kelowna City Archives years ago.” Mrs. Surtees, of the archives, found that painting for me. “It was done by Fannie, his daughter.” she told me. “It's here in Kelowna because another Ogden daughter, Mrs. A.J. Pritchard, was once a music teacher here.”

And, in a dusty alcove of the First United Church at Gore and Hastings in Vancouver—thanks to its then minister, the Rev. Art Griffin— I found yet two more paintings (also big landscapes) by this prolific painting minister. One of them, dated 1935, was the last he ever did.

The paintings were a pleasant discovery. But those illuminations . . . those are masterpieces.

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