Painting Within Tent: Frances Anne Hopkins in Hudson’s Bay

Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919), Shooting the Rapids (Quebec) (1879), oil on canvas, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Many of those whose paintings I have featured in this series only came to be explorers by accident. In the case of Frances Anne Hopkins (1838-1919) it was by marriage.

Daughter of an artistic family, her father was a hydrographer in the Royal Navy. It’s not known whether she underwent any formal artistic training, but when she was twenty she married the secretary to the Governor-General of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was much of the fur and other trade in central and northern Canada at the time. He was a widower, whose first wife had died of cholera. Following marriage, the family moved to Lachine, in what was then Lower Canada, now part of the city of Montreal, where her husband worked.

From her arrival there in 1858, Hopkins sketched and painted her unusual new life. In 1860, her husband was promoted to Superintendant of the company’s Montreal department. She was extremely busy, as a well-known hostess to business visitors and active in artistic circles in the city. She also had three children, and together with the three from her husband’s first marriage, domestic duties must have been demanding to say the least.

Hopkins wasn’t content as a housewife and hostess, though, and accompanied her husband on his business trips whenever possible. Between their arrival in 1858 and her husband’s retirement in 1870 she is known to have travelled with him on at least three major trips in 1864, 1866 and 1869 (for his farewell tour). These extended to Manitoulin Island, Lake Huron, and Kakabeka Falls, Lake Superior.

At that time, overland travel in those parts was still slow and unreliable. Hopkins became one of very few women to travel long distances by canoe, as a voyageur. She drew and sketched extensively during her trips, then developed those into more finished watercolours and oil paintings when she was in her studio at home. In 1869, during preparations for their departure from Canada, she exhibited many of her paintings in Montreal, becoming the first woman to do so.

Hopkins was even more successful when they had returned to Britain. She first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1869, and enjoyed greater commercial success in the British market over the following two decades. She continued to work in her studio in Hampstead, on the outskirts of London, turning her Canadian voyageur sketches into finished oil paintings, and reproductions in print. Her last work to be exhibited at the Royal Academy was in 1902, and she died in 1919, at the age of eighty-one.

Although many of her paintings have continued to be used as illustrations, particularly in educational books, her artistic achievements were soon forgotten in the twentieth century. Interest was revived in 1990, but usable images of her paintings are few and generally very small. I show here just five, and hope that as she becomes better-recognised these will grow in number.

Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919), The Lumber Raft (c 1868), watercolour and gouache over graphite on laid paper, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Her Lumber Raft is a watercolour from about 1868, showing a mobile camp used by voyageurs, complete with its sails and tent.

Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919), Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall (Canada) (1869), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall (Canada) from 1869 shows a large freight canoe operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company passing a waterfall. This is presumed to be on the French River. One of the paddlers is picking water-lily flowers, which they are passing to Hopkins, who is shown sat next to her husband.

Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919), Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior (1869), oil on canvas, 121.9 x 68.6 cm, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Wikimedia Commons.

Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior from 1869 is a substantial oil painting which was her first work exhibited at the Royal Academy that year. Once again the artist shows herself and her husband sitting in the canoe.

Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919), Encampment of Voyageurs (1870), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Encampment of Voyageurs from 1870 shows a couple of canoe parties camping on a small beach during a trip.

Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919), Shooting the Rapids (Quebec) (1879), oil on canvas, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Shooting the Rapids (Quebec) from 1879 is another major oil painting of hers which was justly popular. The artist places herself in the middle of the canoe, with her husband on her left (I think).