Two black and white images. One shows a classroom with five girls seated at desks working on artwork. Artwork is also hung up on the walls. The other photo shows Miss Jessie Topham Brown. She has white hair and glass with thick black frames and she is wearing a striped collar shirt with pearls.
An undated photo of a class at Miss Jessie’s art studio; (inset) a portrait of Miss Jessie in the 1970s.

International Women’s Day

March 8 was International Women’s Day. One woman who had a particularly important influence on the local art scene was Miss Jessie Topham Brown.

Miss Jessie immigrated to Canada from England in 1909, and later arrived in Vernon in 1916. She began working at the St. Michael’s Boarding School for Girls, located on East Hill, as a cook, coach, and art teacher. After World War One, she started teaching at the Vernon Preparatory School, and in the summers, offered art classes for both children and adults from a camp on Okanagan Lake near the Killiney Wharf.

Summer Art Camps

Those who attended these camps would pack out their supplies on horseback, and spend several days sleeping beneath the stars and painting during waking hours. The groups would sometimes venture to other locations, including the Mara and Shuswap Lakes, to capture different landscapes.

Described as a “paragon of the arts,” Miss Jessie had been exposed to creative pursuits since childhood, having spent three years at the Slade School of Art at University College, and although she did not paint much herself, loved cultivating the talents of others.

Art Studio and Art Gallery

Miss Jessie later opened her own studio on 32nd Street, which she then moved to the former Post Office building at 30th Avenue and 30th Street. Besides drawing and painting, she also taught pottery, weaving and silk screening until her retirement in 1967. Many of Miss Jessie’s former students went on to be accomplished artists, one of whom was Joan Heriot, good friend to fellow artist Sveva Caetani.

Miss Jessie was also integral in creating a facility to house a permanent collection of local artwork. The Topham Brown Public Art Gallery was originally located in the top floor of the Vernon Museum (now used as a storage space for artifacts); it later moved to its current location at 3228 31st Avenue, around the same time as its name was changed to the Vernon Public Art Gallery. To honour Miss Jessie’s contribution, the main gallery at the VPAG continues to be known as the Topham Brown Memorial Gallery.

In 1971, “in recognition of her service, contribution, influence and encouragement in the field of the arts to all residents,” Miss Jessie was granted Freedom of the City. She passed away a few years later, in 1974, at the age of 92.

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts

Gwyneth Evans, Head of Archives

 

 

 

 

Two women seated smiling at the camera. The woman on the white is wearing a white shirt and a pink coverall dress. Next to here is a woman in a white dress with blue and green flowers on it.
Joan Heriot (right) with friend Sveva Caetani circa 1990.

Canada History Week

Nov. 20 to 26 is Canada History Week, and this year’s theme is Arts, Culture, and Creators.

Although the name of her close friend, Sveva Caetani, might be more well-known, Joan Heriot was also a talented artist whose gift to Vernon was a series of beautiful creations.

Joan Heriot was born in Vernon on January 7, 1911, and lived with her parents Allan and Jessie in Coldstream. Allan worked as an entomologist, but both he and Jessie were also amateur artists. Joan was fascinated with her father’s work, and decided to pursue her own career as an entomologist when she was only six-years-old.

Entomologist by trade, artist by passion

Joan went on to complete a science degree at UBC, but was told she would never find employment as a female entomologist in Canada, and so departed for England. She completed a Master’s degree at the University of Liverpool, and then taught as a lecturer at the Brighton Technical College for around 30 years.

After her retirement in 1966, Joan returned to Coldstream. With a renewed reminder of the beauty of the Okanagan’s scenery, Joan decided she wanted to start painting again, a hobby she had not indulged since her childhood. She tracked down her former art teacher, Miss Topham Brown, who was then in her nineties, and took a series of art classes with her, but it was in working with pastels that Joan found her calling.

She went on to create a series of beautiful pastel landscapes, and was particularly fascinated with trying to capture light and form. Her artwork was in high-demand, and although she did not paint on commission, she did have a waiting list of people to whom she would offer her new creations.

A Lasting Legacy

 

Joan Heriot’s circa 1930 watercolour depiction of Miss Topham Brown’s drawing camp near Killiney Beach on Okanagan Lake.

Joan was also an active community member and supporter of several local organizations, including the

Allan Brooks Nature Centre

and the North Okanagan Naturalists Club. She maintained an interest in biology, geology and archeology throughout her life, and was always ready for an adventure; when she was in her 70s, Joan went white-water rafting for the first time. 

Joan passed away on July 29, 2012, but her legacy lives on. The Joan Heriot Studio at the Caetani Centre and the Joan Heriot Centre for Environmental Studies at the Mackie Lake House serve as reminders of her dedication to both organizations. The Vernon Public Art Gallery has exhibited her artwork on several occasions, and a series of her personal records are held at the Vernon Archives. A tree was also planted in her memory at the Bishop Wild Bird Sanctuary.

 

To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts

Gwyneth Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator