The Art of Early Juneau

City museum, Episcopal church highlight the work of Frances Davis

Posted: Thursday, October 10, 2002

Beauty drew her to Juneau and love kept her here.

London-born artist Frances Brooks Davis came to Juneau in 1891 in search of inspiration and adventure and stayed for the rest of her life. Her oil paintings and drawings document Juneau's earliest days as a frontier town and capture the people, the rivers and glaciers, the landscapes and seascapes of the region.

An exhibit of her paintings, "Portraits, Landscapes and Saints: Another Look at Frances Davis" opens Saturday, Oct. 12, at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. The museum will host a reception and admission will be free from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday. Art aficionado Tony Pope, who has studied Davis' life and work, and Davis' granddaughter, Connie Davis, will present a slide show and commentary on the artist.

When Davis stepped off the boat in downtown Juneau she was 36 years old and Juneau had been founded just 11 years earlier. She had received a first-class art education at the South Kensington School of Art in London and was an accomplished painter.

"My grandmother traveled through Europe, parts of Canada and North America in order to paint landscapes," Connie Davis said. "While in California, visiting friends, she heard about the magnificent landscape in Juneau. She probably came to Juneau not intending to stay permanently."

In 1892 Frances married J. Montgomery Davis, an Englishman who worked for Juneau's Nowell Mining Co. They had three children and were active in the growing community. In 1896, they helped found and build Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, which still stands at Fourth and Gold streets. Davis, who had painted religious images for churches while in England, painted six scenes from the life of Christ for the church in 1910, and images of the apostles in 1916.

After the presentation Saturday at the museum, Pope and Davis will lead a group three blocks to the church to look at the paintings there.

"That's an important body of work for her, and it was painted from the heart," Pope said. "She was a very religious person and it's superb work."

The exhibit at the city museum will include studies she made for those paintings, offering a rare look at the development and evolution of those pieces. It's like seeing a writer's rough draft, said Jane Lindsey, curator of education and public programs.

"You can see how she was working out her ideas for the final piece. The painting is rougher, faster. She was not as careful as she is with her final work." Lindsey said. "Anyone who enjoys painters and paintings can appreciate seeing how it affects the final work of art."

A project is underway to restore the paintings at the church, and Chapin Heumann and members of the restoration committee will talk about the progress of the project at the reception.

Davis painted in Juneau for almost 40 years, until her death in 1932. She painted hundreds of pictures, many of which she signed with the initials FCMD, for Frances Caroline Montgomery Davis. Her work is in the governor's mansion, the collections of the city museum and the Alaska State Museum, and in private collections.

The Davis family has donated more than 51 paintings to the city museum, including portraits, religious scenes and landscapes. Many are identified and dated, making the city museum's collection perhaps the most comprehensive assemblage of her work, said City Museum Curator Mary Pat Wyatt.

"She painted on anything she could get her hands on, including scraps of wood, advertising boards, pieces of metal and treasured canvas," Wyatt said. "She kept a list of items to paint and eked out her supplies of oils and canvas between steamships."

Davis received a painting award at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition and a gold medal in the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909.

In spite of those awards and her prolific output, financial rewards were not forthcoming. Pope said she had a studio downtown, but it was not particularly successful. There was a tremendous gender bias in those days against women artists, he said.

Pope studied Davis' life and work for his bachelor of arts thesis at the University of Alaska Southeast, and interviewed her family members, including extensive conversations with her son Trevor.

Connie Davis said her grandmother studied painting in London for seven years, but then was stifled in her career.

"That period of time was different for women painters. They were given the same training as men, but not given the same opportunities," Davis said.

She was also an early Juneau feminist, said Pope, citing stories Davis' son Trevor had told him of her dedication to her work and her refusal to bow to gender roles of the time.

"She was definitely a colorful person," he said. "She was a strong lady."

"Portraits, Landscapes and Saints: Another Look at Frances Davis" will include 18 paintings, mostly landscapes, and the three studies of the apostles done for the Episcopal Church. The Juneau-Douglas City Museum is at Fourth and Main streets. The exhibit will run through September 2003.

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.



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