Pioneer artist

Holy Trinity plans fund-raiser for restoration of Davis' work

Posted: Thursday, September 09, 2004

In the winter, when the sun went down and the mountains turned pink, Frances Davis would paint.

The time was more than a century ago. Davis, a noted scenic and wildlife artist and one of the first European female artists in young, gold-town Juneau, moved to town from London in 1891. Her surviving oil landscapes indicate that she was captivated by Southeast's pink mountains and ice. It was certainly unlike anything she had seen in her native England.

"She loved the pink mountains," said her granddaughter, Juneau resident Connie Davis. "She has that in most of her landscapes. Ice was also a challenge for her. She painted ice over and over again. It's kind of interesting to see the different strokes she used to give it the texture."

Outside of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum and the Alaska State Museum, some of Davis' best-known work can be seen inside the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, downtown at Fourth and Gold Streets. One of the church's co-founders in the mid-1890s, she donated and designed a series of religious paintings for the building in 1910 and 1916.

Nine decades, of course, has taken its toll on the work. The paint has darkened and the canvases have loosened.

The church has been trying off and on since early 2001 to raise money for their restoration. It brought in a restoration expert from Denver in March 2001 to inspect the works and lecture on the restorative process. So far, the church has raised about $6,000 of its total goal of $26,000. If it can get there, the Rasmussen Foundation may pledge $8,000 more.

Connie Davis, 5 when her grandmother died, will give a lecture and slide show on Frances' art during a fund-raiser at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18, at McPhetres Hall. Admission is $6 and includes English tea, cakes and a silent auction.

Those who donate $150 or more can order prints of Frances' work. Connie Munro, with the help of Atelier Alaska Inc., has made prints of four of Davis' works in her private collection.

Davis was born Frances Caroline Brooks in 1855. She came from a wealthy family and spent seven years at London's Kensington School of Art, a training center for teachers.

It seems as if she received fine instruction. Her school was one of the few institutions that used nudes for its figure painting classes. Her teacher, Sir Sidney Poynter, went on to become the director of the nearby Royal Academy of Art.

Davis had the money and leisure to travel and paint. She spent most of her adult life painting in different countries. In the early 1890s, she traveled across Canada with friends. They turned back, and she continued to visit other acquaintances in California. They suggested she visit Alaska.

She was 37 when she arrived in Juneau in 1891 with the intention of staying for just a few months. Many of her paintings were done on canvas, but some of her other media include scraps of wood and tin. She also painted on the backs of posters.

"She painted everything; she was very versatile," Connie Davis said. "There are portraits of people that are in the City Museum, and she also painted a few street scenes. I've got paintings of the original St. Michael's Church in Sitka. She did paintings of buildings and people, and she also painted beautiful flowers."

"She was very prolific," she said. "She just painted because that's what she did. She always had a list of things that she wanted to paint. It was sometime she did all the time. To her, it was like breathing."

Juneau was a young town, just over a decade old. She soon met J. Montgomery Davis of Liverpool, a bookkeeper with the Nowell Mining Co., whom she eventually married.

As time went on and her situation in Juneau became more stable, Davis was able to order more supplies. She opened a studio in the Valentine Building downtown and began to sell a few paintings.

"I know that when my mother first came to Juneau she wanted one of her paintings, but she didn't have the money for it," Connie Davis said. "Later, it was her wedding gift from my father."

Davis was an avid painter of religious imagery before moving to Juneau. She and her husband were part of the group that founded the Holy Trinity Church in the mid-1890s. It was completed in 1896. In 1910, she donated six scenes of Jesus' life for the church chancel - the area around the altar set aside for the clergy and choir. Six years later, she painted portraits of the apostles for the front of the pews.

"It's definitely time to restore them and make sure they will keep," Connie Davis said. "They need that attention."

Connie Davis has about 26 of her grandmother's paintings in her private collection. A few of those can be seen in an upcoming First Friday exhibition in the Valentine Building.

Besides the church, Davis' works can be seen at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, the Alaska State Museum and the Governor's Mansion.

She died in 1932.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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