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Frontier artist captured life in early Juneau days

Posted: Thursday, November 02, 2000

Drawn to Juneau in 1891 by the lure of adventure and impressive scenery, London-born artist Frances Brooks Davis fell in love and stayed. She spent the rest of her life in Juneau, painting the landscapes and peoples of Southeast Alaska.

Davis' 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. On Friday evening, the House of Wickersham is hosting a presentation on Davis' life and work. Her granddaughter Connie Davis will show slides of her paintings, and some of her original work will be on display.

"She'd be 150 years old on November third," said Connie Munro, one of the organizers of the event, which benefits the Wickersham Society. In honor of her birthday, an assortment of cakes, some made from historic recipes, will be served. Others will be auctioned.

Juneau picture framer and art aficionado Tony Pope studied Davis' life and work for his bachelor of arts thesis at the University of Alaska Southeast. He interviewed her family members, including extensive conversations with her son Trevor, studied her original paintings and researched her life.

Davis was born in 1855 and raised in London, where she received a first-class art education, Pope said. She came to California for a vacation about 1890 to visit friends, English expatriates who recommended she head north.

"They said, 'Fanny, if you want to paint beautiful scenery, go to Alaska,'" Pope said.

When she arrived in Juneau, she met and fell in love with an Englishman named Montgomery Davis who was working as an accountant for the mine. She spent the next 40 years painting, 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, in the collections of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum and the Alaska State Museum and in private collections.

"She was extremely prolific. She was compulsive, and that's 80 percent of being an artist," Pope said.

 

Local life: Frances Davispaintings included local people. Her granddaughter, Connie Davis, said this painting was based on a photograph her father took on a boat trip up the Taku River.

COURTESY OF CONNIE DAVIS

"She painted like she breathed. She painted all the time," said her granddaughter Connie Davis. "She kept a list, like a shopping list, of things to paint."

In the 1920s she painted the apostles and other religious images in the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Gold Street.

"Some of her best work is there," Pope said.

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.

Connie Davis agreed. She 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."

The Frances Brooks Davis event will begin at 7 p.m. Friday at the House of Wickersham. Tickets are $10, available at Hearthside Books.



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