John Kyle, A.R.C.A (Honours), BCSFA
1871 - 1958

Artist, Teacher, Educator, Administrator, Author, Illustrator

John Kyle has been described as "an outstanding educationalist and one of the most influential men in the history of British Columbia Arts and Crafts."1 His services to the province were considered "a remarkable pioneering achievement."2 These were not idle words. The following biography highlights some of his accomplishments in education and in the arts, but is not intended to be comprehensive or complete - that task remains for another day. The information is presented in chronological order, as much as possible. All illustrations are by John Kyle.

Kyle was born in 1871 in Hawick, Scotland, an old town built at the confluence of the Teviot and the Slitrig Rivers.3 His parents were established dealers in fine art, and Kyle noted in his memoirs, "Father had his shop full of the most interesting pictures, and one could see long lengths of golden mouldings leaning up against the wall, from which Father made picture frames."

He "studied art at his native place", according to a short biography published in Opportunities magazine in 1910, and distinguished himself at an early age.4 His teachers recognized his talent and skills and Kyle later wrote that "I felt very grateful to my teachers, who recognized that I was good enough in drawing to enter the government exams. It was owning to this that I opbtained the South Kensington Teachers' D Certificate that elementary school teachers were anxious to possess." He also won the Queen's Prize for drawing at Hawick School.5

Kyle graduated from Hawick School in 1885 and for the next eight years worked as a watch-maker and jeweler while taking art courses at night school. He applied for a national art scholarship without success, then took a position as Assistant Art Master at a school in Lancashire. His artistic ambitions were not thwarted, though, and in 1897 he won a three-year scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, later noting that "those were the three most interesting years in my life."

While there he "went through various courses with great credit" and was made an Associate of the College of Arts, with Honours, with the designation ARCA (Hon).6 In Canada, this can be confused for the identical ARCA, Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art). In national competitions "open to the entire Kingdom," Kyle also won the Queen's Prize for Artistic Anatomy and a Bronze Medal for achievement.7

After leaving the College he "studied for a time in Bruges" and "completed his artistic training in France." He painted in Paris in 1899 before returning to England, where he took up a position as Second Master at Huddersfield Technical School in Yorkshire. Four years later, Kyle accepted the position of Head Master in Alloa, Scotland, where he established an art school. He apparently only stayed in Alloa for about a year, though, before moving to Canada.

He arrived in Vancouver in 1905, the same year that the first automobile drove into town. He was thirty-four years old when he took up the position of Art Supervisor for City Schools in Vancouver.

In addition to his job for the School Board, Kyle was busy in other ways. Between September 1907 and May 1908 he wrote and illustrated six articles on leatherwork, repoussé, and stencilling, that were published in Westward Ho! magazine under the heading Home Arts & Crafts. A few months later in August 1908 he started a new series of articles, Sketching From Nature, by wryly commenting:

After dealing with so many crafts suitable for working at home during the long winter evenings, it has been suggested that I change my subject with the season and give some hints on sketching from Nature.

The articles on sketching were discussed by Douglas Cole and Maria Tippett in their art history book From Desolation to Splendour: Changing Perceptions of British Columbia Landscape (1977):

In painting, Vancouver artist and teacher John Kyle prescribed that "the eyes should be half closed" in order to see tones, the relative depth of shades and the depth of colour masses. And he advised his students, "never sit in direct sunlight, unless under an umbrella."

The articles were accompanied by illustrations by Kyle, where he showed how to build up a pencil sketch by layers, do a watercolour wash, or frame a scene with a piece of cardboard with a hole cut out of it. He also drew a number of pen and ink illustrations for poems and articles in Westward Ho! by other authors, as well as for the monthly jokes column Helps to Smile.

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In 1908 Kyle was one of five people who got together in Vancouver to create an arts society. They put out a public call for members and assistance, and on 13 November 1908 a general meeting was held. The B. C. Society of Fine Arts (BCSFA) was created that night, with twenty members including Kyle, who was appointed Honourary Treasurer. The group held their first annual exhibition five months later 20-23 April 1909, with 179 original artworks by local artists on display.

Kyle had six paintings in the show: A Cornish Village, At Caulfields, Lieutenant Bundy, Canal Scene - Bruges, A Scene In Bruges, Street In Bruges, and In Chinatown. He had previously displayed works in Vancouver at Studio Club exhibitions in 1906 and 1908. He continued to exhibit with the BCSFA, showing another twenty-five paintings between 1909 and 1915. His subject matter, from titles of paintings listed in exhibition catalogues, was a record of his travels and of life on the West Coast: The Last Relic of the Beaver, Secret Cove, Quai du Rosaire - Bruges, Chief's House - Alert Bay, The "Casco", Harrison Lake, Early Dawn - Buccaneer Bay, Sketch of Indian Mat Weaver, and Flowery Teviot, Scotland.

In 1909 Kyle created the first night school classes in art. They were given in six Vancouver schools, but today only the original Seymour School building at 1130 Keefer Street remains as it was then. The biography in Opportunities magazine noted that "Mr. Kyle has taken an important part in the establishment of technical evening classes in Vancouver, among which those devoted specially to art work may be mentioned as doing great credit to the institution and management. It is not too much to say that in his art teaching in the public schools, he has done much for art in this Province."

That same year Kyle "was instrumental in bringing W. P. Weston to the city as an instructor." Weston had also been to the art school at South Kensington, according to one article, and became an important figure in the Vancouver education and art scene. In addition to teaching art, he joined the BCSFA and exhibited regularly. Weston was later the first artist in Western Canada to be made an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art, and invited to join the Canadian Group of Painters as a founding member.

In 1910 Kyle was appointed Art Master at the Vancouver Normal School. In 1913 he was appointed Director of Technical Education for the Province of British Columbia, a position he held until 1938. This appointment was noted as far away as London, England in a February 1918 article in The Studio magazine that stated one of the active members of the BCSFA group was "John Kyle, a former South Kensington student, who is now employed by the B. C. Government as Director of Technical Training."

Kyle was one of the founders of the Island Arts and Crafts Society, and exhibited in a number of their shows in Victoria, including 1913, 1915, 1917, and 1921. He put three paintings in the BCSFA 1917 show in Vancouver, another three in 1921, and was also in exhibitions in 1924, 1926, and 1927. His career as an artist tapered off, though, as his career in education subsumed his time and efforts. W. P. Weston and Charles H. Scott both commented that Kyle's time was so fully occupied with his duties that he had little time for painting.

In 1917 the Department of Education, in conjunction with the Department of Mines, created Coal Mining Correspondence courses, partly in response to Kyle's concerns after visiting coal miners at Nanaimo. In 1919 Kyle assisted The University of British Columbia in giving World War I veterans instruction in agriculture, mining, mechanics, steam engineering, and machining.

In 1919 Kyle organized the distribution of notes and textbooks to 86 children living in isolated parts of the province. This was the first time elementary correspondence courses were offered by the Education Department in British Columbia. Thirteen of the children were living in lighthouses, and Kyle noted in the 48th Annual Report of the Public Schools that "this unique educational step has been the means of bringing a note of pleasure and profit into their otherwise lonely lives." Ten years later there were over six hundred children taking the correspondence courses.

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The exhibition catalogue for a retrospective solo show of his work many years later included a short biography that discussed his achievements at this time:

This brief summary gives only the barest hint of Mr. Kyle's manifold achievements. In Vancouver he established the night schools on their first successful basis, even going out among the workers himself to distribute 'dodgers' describing the values of adult education. So successful were these classes that the Provincial Government shortly invited him to establish them on a province-wide basis. The correspondence courses of the Department of Education, now so widely used throughout the province, resulted from his concern on observing the educational isolation of Nanaimo miners. His annual reports show his thinking to have been well ahead of his times in almost every branch of adult education.

Kyle married Nellie Hadfield on 10 August 1920, in a "quiet ceremony" at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver. The groom was a 49 year old Presbyterian bachelor, the bride was a 27 year old Methodist spinster. Kyle was living in Victoria at the time, and Nellie, an English-born school teacher, moved from her home in Vancouver to join him.

Kyle was also interested in the preservation of the environment. In 1924 John Davidson, President of the Vancouver Natural History Society, published his annual speech to the society titled: "The Handwriting on the Wall or Wake Up! Vancouver (An Address on the Conservation of Plant Life)." One of Davidson's main complaints was regarding the logging of the Vancouver watershed, and he made an impassioned plea for the logging to stop and for the watershed to be left alone. One thousand copies of the speech were distributed "to individuals and organizations concerned," with the response being both negative and positive. John Kyle wrote to the publisher:

Your timely pamphlet on the Forestry question received and I would suggest that these pamphlets be sent to each Manual Instructor. We have seventy- one men engaged in this work and it would be well if we enlisted each one to broadcast the message that is contained in the little publication. What would one hundred copies of this booklet cost? If you would send me the pamphlets we would send them to each man. When one considers each Manual Instructor has an average of two hundred boys under his care you will see how easy it is to reach the public.

In direct comparison to Kyle's generous (and important) offer of support, the Chief Forester of the province, Peter Caverhill, minced no words when he stated that the pamphlet was "an attempt to spread discord and misconception for some purpose not disclosed." He also failed to see "how it can further the subject of conservation in the Province," and considered it to be "a type of propaganda with which I have no sympathy." Logging of the watershed eventually ceased in 1933, but began again many years later once the second growth forest was again harvestable, and the seventy-five year old debate continues again today with the same cast of players.

The B. C. Art League (BCAL) was formed in 1921 with two goals - to promote the creation of an art school in Vancouver, and the creation of a public art gallery. At first the League organized classes, lectures, and exhibitions to raise funds and public awareness. In April of 1921, an article titled "Important Meeting of British Columbia Art League" in the Western Woman's Weekly noted that:

Helpful and effective plans for the coming year have been laid down as shown by the reports of various committees ... Mr. Kyle, Provincial Organiser of Technical Education, will be asked to give the benefit of his knowledge and experience to the League in the matter of starting classes in arts and crafts under the League's auspices.

Kyle lectured at a league-sponsored meeting at the Technical School auditorium in July 1921, where he talked for an hour about the life and art of William Morris, the famous craftsman designer of Victorian England. The League continued their fundraising and membership efforts for another couple of years, but finally approached the government for help when they realized that they weren't able to start and run the school on their own, let alone an art gallery as well. A series of meetings were held in early 1925 between the BCAL and the Education Department, represented by John Kyle. He outlined the financial conditions that needed to be met in order to have his support for starting the school.

The conditions - mostly monetary, such as making the students pay $50.00 per year tuition - were met, at least on paper. The way was clear for the school to open, and even a slight hitch in the provincial budget did not stop the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts (VSDAA) from taking its first students in the Fall of 1925 in facilities borrowed from the School Board. The school has been in continuous operation since then, although the name has changed a number of times, and is now called Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design (ECIAD).

In his annual report for the 1929-1930 school year, Kyle wrote that "the School of Decorative and Applied Arts represents the refinement of technicial education, in so much as mechanical skill alone in incomplete. Maximum success can only be gained by a combination of art and mechanical skill, and it is only by a realization of this situation that the greatest value can be added to the natural resources of the province."

Charles H. Scott, Director of the VSDAA for many years, later wrote that much praise was due Kyle not only for starting the night art classes in the city, but for taking "art education to every School Board throughout the province."

An article in Maclean's magazine, March 1927, stated that "under instructor Howard (John) Kyle, women potters in Victoria are decorating pottery with Indian motifs in response to an influx of tourists". Later that year that Kyle was appointed Director of the Teachers Provincial Summer School in Victoria, a post he held until 1936. This was the last year that Kyle was a member of the BCSFA - he could only do so many things at once, and the activities of the BCFSA were mostly in Vancouver.

Kyle is credited with giving Emily Carr the first public exhibition of her unique West Coast paintings, while he was Director of the Summer School in Victoria:

It was fortunate for the arts that anything new and vigorous could count on Mr. Kyle's support, unpopular though it might be at the time. He ranks among the very first in the west to have grasped the importance of Emily Carr's gifts, being in fact the first to sponsor an exhibition of her work. As Director of Summer School, he staged a large display of her paintings for the benefit of teachers from all parts of the province.

In 1931 Kyle wrote and illustrated three books for teaching woodwork, lettering, and metalwork, titled Design for Industrial Arts, published in Toronto by Thomas Nelson & Sons. In the General Preface to the volume on lettering, Kyle wrote:

In the light of present-day educational philosophy the subject of industrial arts has assumed a broader aspect than ever before. Creative thought and motor activities have been brought into close relationship; aesthetic and constructive problems are correlated with each other and the educational worth of industrial arts has been increased, enriched and dignified.

He also gave practical advice:

Excellent pens for script writing and poster work are made by William Mitchell, Birmingham, England. The prices will be found to be more suitable for school boys and girls; Script pens, five cents each or fifty cents per dozen; Poster pens, sixty cents per dozen. A good pen for large work is called the 'Witch' - price ten cents.

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In 1934, as Director of the Provincial Summer School in Victoria, he sent his thanks to the visiting British child education pioneer Marion Richardson after her lecture to his class, as she stopped in Vancouver en-route to England:

I have posted to your address in London some little text-books on Design. The principles which I drew up for our Manual of Design are applied to Lettering and I thought you would be interested in this little book as showing that I have some appreciation of the type of Lettering which you are developing in London. I am enclosing the little volume on Lettering by itself so that you can look it over at your convenience while you are journeying homeward.

Kyle was sixty-three at the time, and when he retired four years later in 1938 he had held the position of Organizer - Technical Education for a quarter of a century. During that time the number of students registered in the B. C. school system had quadrupled to one hundred thousand. The responsibilities of his position had also expanded significantly. When he took up the position in 1914, Kyle was responsible for organizing Elementary and High School Correspondence, Home Economics, and Elementary Agricultural Education (abolished in 1928).

In 1937, just prior to his retirement, the B. C. Department of Education organization chart showed that he was responsible for organizing Extension & Adult Education, Elementary Correspondence, High School Correspondence, Home Economics, Physical Education, Community Self-Help Groups, School & Community Drama, and Dominion-Provincial Youth Training Programs. All of this was accomplished with the help of a great many people, and Kyle was always generous in his thanks to those working for him and appreciative of the support he received.

Kyle's paintings continued to be exhibited sporadically over the years following the 1927 BCSFA exhibition. He was in the Island Arts and Crafts exhibition of 1940-41. He had two paintings accepted to the 1949 First Jury Show of The Arts Centre of Greater Victoria: H.M.C.S. Beacon Hill and Summer in Saanich. Entries had been requested from Vancouver Island artists only. The next year Mrs. Jonathan Rogers loaned one of his watercolours from her collection to the 40th Annual BCSFA exhibition in 1950 at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG).

He had one major retrospective solo exhibition in 1957, at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Oils & Watercolours by John Kyle. There were thirteen oil paintings and seven watercolours in the show. The exhibition catalogue included a three page biography of Kyle and his achievements, with information supplied not only by Kyle, but also by the Deputy Minister of Education Dr. Harold Campbell and Miss Ethel Bruce, who provided "valuable assistance in unearthing many facts which Mr. Kyle was too modest to bring to our attention."

The exhibition catalogue noted, for example, that:

As one of the originators of the Island Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria he helped to organize a number of its special loan exhibitions, notably that in the Crystal Garden during the last war. With his backing and guidance the Society also developed a wide range of art classes.

Through his regular visits to school boards in various parts of the province Mr. Kyle persistently fostered the arts, often resorting to ingenious devices to make their furtherance acceptable to board members who found it hard to believe in their desirability. He also did much to encourage the growth of music wherever he found no one else doing it.

Mr. Kyle is now enjoying a thoroughly earned retirement in this city. Yet though advanced in years he still remains active, preferring to continue his services by teaching two of those provincial correspondence courses in art which he initiated many years ago.

He was eighty-six years old and still teaching. Kyle died a year later on 29 March 1958 at age 87, in a Victoria hospital. He was survived by his wife Nellie, two daughters, a son, a sister in Scotland, and three grandchildren. A memorial article in the Vancouver Province on 31 March 1958, summarized some of his accomplishments:

A native of Hawick, Scotland, Mr. Kyle was organizer of technical education for the provincial government from 1914 until his retirement in 1938 and directed the summer school during most of that time. He founded or helped to found such organisations as B. C.'s night school and correspondence course systems and the new Vancouver school of arts. He developed most of the first craft organisations in B. C., including the Island Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria and the Victoria Pottery Club. As a youth, he took first prize for all of Britain in anatomy at the Royal College of Art, graduating as an associate of that college. He came to B. C. in 1905 as supervisor of drawing in Vancouver schools. B. C.'s night school system was patterned after his Vancouver classes and its correspondence course system resulted from his concern over the educational isolation of Nanaimo coal miners. Mr. Kyle was the first to sponsor an exhibition of Emily Carr's paintings and was a painter himself, remaining active in retirement.

In 1960, two years after his death, three of his oil paintings were displayed in the Historical Section of the BCSFA's 50th Annual exhibition, also at the VAG, on loan from his son Jack. The BCSFA ceased to exist in 1967, having continued on just a bit longer than the man who had helped to create it fifty-eight years earlier, itself passing from the public's eye almost as quietyl as John Kyle slipped away.

The artists file on John Kyle at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria has an undated exhibition catalogue from the Maltwood Museum at the University of Victoria for another solo exhibition of Kyle's work, titled "John Kyle - Artist and Education, 1871-1958."

Kyle did not just participate in groups and societies - he created them. He did not just draw and paint, he created draftsmen and artists, potters and metalworkers and the schools to train them in. He died in the year that British Columbia celebrated its 100th anniversary. John Kyle was an important part of the province's educational development for almost half of that hundred years, and his contributions should not be forgotten. The technical schools he created, and the art school he supported, continue to teach, grow, and prosper. The continuing and distance education programs he created and organized still carry on today, following the path leading directly from the first steps he took almost a century ago.

Notes & References

Written and researched by Gary Sim, May 2002