Mural commissioned for the Officer’s Mess at HMCS Discovery on Deadman’s Island in Vancouver by Robert Samuel Alexander (August 25 1916 - April 20 1974). Commissioned in 1944 while he was stationed at HMCS Discovery, the mural was completed in 1945.
There is much to study in this mural, though the physique of the sailor at the far left often attracts extra attention. The two sailors at left are caring to the cannons below the deck, and they appear to be holding a tool called a sponge used for cleaning the bore after firing. A ribbon stating “In Which We Serve” scrolls along the bottom of the mural; this phrase also happens to be the title of a 1942 British patriotic war film directed by Noël Coward. The film revolves around the exploits of Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, commander of the destroyer HMS Kelly when it was sunk during the Battle of Crete. The left half of the mural shows naval technology from the era of Captain Vancouver, while the right half of the mural shows modern day technology, circa WWII. It would appear that Captain Vancouver himself is reaching out to offer a hand to the modern day captain and his crew.
The panoramic image above has been digitally stitched together from 3 separate images I took last fall, when Sub-Lieutenant Brunton gave me a tour of Vancouver’s Naval Reserve Division. I found it interesting that HMCS Discovery is a building but still referred to as a ship or stone frigate (a naval establishment on land); when you are inside HMCS Discovery, you state you are ‘on board’. From the Navy’s portal:
HMCS DISCOVERY was named in honour of HMS DISCOVERY, which, under the command of Captain George Vancouver, was responsible for surveying much of the northwest coastal area of North America.
The final photo above of a self promotional brochure by the artist is included in Gary Sim’s BRITISH COLUMBIA ARTISTS:
This photograph was taken courtesy of the artist’s daughter, Renee Alexander. The artist is seen at work drawing and painting the mural at HMCS Discovery’s Officers Mess in Vancouver. Art techniques listed in the brochure are fresco, baked enamel, tempera, glass, graffito, and oil on plaster.
Renee Alexander also posted these comments about her father to Mother Tongue Publishing’s website:
He was born 1916 and died 1974. He was a contemporary of Toni Onley, Gordon Smith, Gordon Caruso etc. He was an honours graduate from the Vancouver School of Art and received a scholarship to study at the Art Students’ League in New York. He won many art competitions including two for the Seattle Art Museum. UBC commissioned him to do two portraits, which are both hanging in the main Library. In the early 1960s he received a Canada Council Grant. He also published a couple of books. The Penticton Library and Civic Centre restored a mural he did in the early 60s for the then new Penticton Airport and it now hangs in the Civic Centre. In the book ‘Letters from Nan’ one of his paintings was referenced as the only great painting in the Confederation of Artists show.
For some reason he has not been recognized in the Vancouver scene today like many of his contemporaries though he was viewed as a rising star in the early Vancouver art world. I can only put it down to the fact that he was not an aggressive self-promoter and died at the age of 57.
A number of years ago I did a CD of my father’s work. Copies may also be found at the Vancouver Art Gallery, UBC special collections, the National Gallery of Canada, Emily Carr, Penticton Library and Civic Centre etc.
Surviving murals are a rarity, especially in Vancouver, and to ensure their preservation, public awareness about these murals needs to exist. Fortunately, this mural has been well preserved, and based on its current condition, I expect RS Alexander’s mural will survive for many generations to come.
Cross-posted to VancouverIsAwesome.com.
Update! More interesting anecdotes from Renee: her father also painted some black light murals at the Waldorf, one of the murals in the old Grosvenor Hotel in the Potlatch Room, as well as a mural somewhere in The Ritz hotel at 1040 West Georgia (this is the hotel that took over the St Julien Apartments circa 1929).
Another great bit of Alexander family trivia: this brush script logo for the Woodward’s Store was designed by Renee’s mother, Irene Alexander (Porter), when she was head show card writer at the downtown Woodward’s store in the 1940s. An amazing family legacy!