This short blog post will introduce the Glasgow born artist and designer, Grace Wilson Melvin (1892-1977), who helped to establish and shape the Vancouver School of Design and Applied Arts.
Grace Wilson Melvin was born in Glasgow on the 28th May 1892. During her 35 years in Glasgow, she lived in various properties in the Southside of Glasgow including Alison Street, Dixon Avenue and Cessnock House on Kilmarnock Road. At the age of fifteen years old, she began her art education at the Glasgow School of Art by attending Drawing and Painting afternoon classes. Throughout her ten year education at the School (1907-18) she was taught by design pioneers Anne Macbeth (1875-1948); Annie French (1872-1965); the influential painter and teacher Maurice Greiffenhagen (1862-1931) and studied decorative art under Robert Anning Bell (1863-1933). Shortly after her graduation from GSA, with a Diploma in Art and a special certificate for embroidery, her former teacher Robert Anning Bell offered her a teaching position in the Design section, where she remained until 1927. Melvin, who specialised in lettering and illumination, oversaw the part of the Diploma Course which offered a Lettering and Illumination elective in the syllabus.
During her time teaching at GSA she was a scribe for the Corporation of Glasgow and designed and executed many illuminated addresses for several prominent people including H.R.H the Duke of York, H.R.H Princess Mary and the Baron Blythswood of Blythswood. She also produced two illuminated Rolls of Honour for two Southside churches in Glasgow; one for St Ninian’s Episcopal Church in Albert Drive in 1914 and another in 1915 for Newlands United Free Church in Cathcart. She also produced illuminations as personal gifts for family members and friends including an illumination for her sister Jean in 1916.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Melvin accepted a teaching position at Vancouver School of Design & Applied Arts (VSDAA) viewing it as an ‘opportunity to impact her rich background of Arts and Crafts knowledge in a relatively untilled but fertile ground.’ On the 29th September 1928, aged thirty-five Grace Melvin arrived on the ship Anthenia to Canada to start her teaching career at the Vancouver School of Design and Applied Arts. Although now Melvin is not celebrated either in her native Glasgow, or within Vancouver, her impact along with Charles H Scott (1886-1964) in shaping not only the Vancouver School of Design and Applied Arts, and Vancouver’s art scene in general cannot be ignored.
The newly opened VSDAA’s curriculum was basic in 1925 only offering classes in Drawing and Painting, Commercial Art, Modelling, china painting and costume design. From Scott’s appointment as Director of the Vancouver School in 1926 it is evident that he is handpicking artists to teach new subjects at the School thus creating a fuller curriculum. By 1927 Design and Crafts were added to the School’s curriculum under the watchful eye of Scott who recruited another Scottish artist, J.W.G Macdonald who had studied at The Edinburgh College of Art.
The School’s curriculum was further restructured when Melvin arrived at the School in 1928, to now include the new subjects of pottery and embroidery. The pottery course, which was taught by Melvin, was a subject which was previously not available at the School due to a lack of an instructor with practical pottery experience and equipment. This addition had a strong impact on the artistic community and its creative output, as before the School acquired the equipment to produce such pieces, it was difficult for artists in the area to fire their own wares. In the interview from 1974 Melvin discusses how the purchase of the pottery firing kilns brought together Vancouver’s artistic community. She states ‘did you know I introduced pottery to B.C and we had the only kilns – even commercial people used to come to us to get us to fire for them.’ The addition of the kilns allowed the artistic community of Vancouver to gather around the Art School as it now not only provided new skills and equipment, but a fostering of a new artistic support network with Scott, Melvin and Macdonald in the centre.
Melvin taught many students throughout her 25 years at the School retiring in 1953. In 1977, Grace Melvin died in Vancouver aged 85. She had requested that there be no funeral as she only wanted to be remembered by her work. However, Melvin and Scott’s pioneering achievements of reigniting the VSDAA and their legacy is currently being eradicated from Vancouver’s history. The VSDAA, which is now the Emily Carr University used to honour Charles Hepburn Scott with a prestigious art gallery named after him but his memory and contributions to the institution are slowly fading, as in 2016 the gallery was renamed due to a very generous donor. His artwork, which used to proudly hang in the President’s Room has been discarded to a darkened corner of a storage room. Grace, however, never had the privilege of having any memorial nor has her work been recently exhibited. Through this short blog post I hope I have honoured Melvin in small but significant way.
Creating Connections: Grace Melvin is an edited version of a paper first presented at The University of Glasgow’s Postgraduate Conference in Spring 2018. Karen Mailley-Watt is PhD researcher at The University of Glasgow and The Glasgow School of Art.