From the Rockies to the Sound: The Whyte's Paintings of Tofino

Written by Abigail Franceschetti, Museum Intern.

Archival documents, files and logbooks may seem unassuming to many people. To others, they have the power to unlock a beautiful story, one that is closer to Tofino than originally appears. The intricate letters of artist Catherine Whyte reveal many details about daily life in Tofino during 1943-1944.  

Catherine met her husband Peter Whyte while studying fine arts at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1925. After marrying in 1930, the two moved to Peter’s hometown of Banff, Alberta, making a comfortable and fulfilling life for themselves. At the start of World War II, Peter enlisted in the Army. In 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Peter enlisted in the R.C.A.F. with the desire to become a photographer. Although he was initially turned down, he was later assigned to Patricia Bay, North Saanich, in 1943 to train as an Airforce photographer.

The first mention of Tofino in Catherine’s letters is on Thursday, August 19th, 1943. “[Peter] has been posted to a place called Tofino and as yet we know very little about it... one takes a train to Port Alberni and I guess a boat after that. It is a small place we imagine, we have heard all sorts of different opinions...” [1]

The house that the couple had moved into was owned by Tofino’s Mrs. Ragnhild Ericksen. Described as a “good hearted soul” by Catherine,[2] Mrs. Ericksen owned the Variety Shop in town.vi Mrs. Ericksen also rented out rooms in a home that she owned, separate from her own residence. The large rental home was located close to Main and Fourth Street, on the beach. The Whyte’s were to move into two of the rooms, becoming housemates to Gordon and Chris Sinclair, the Halls, and Christine Swanson, the local schoolteacher, "its really a very pleasant way to live when we’re all friends” [3]

As artists, both Peter and Catherine spent some of their time in Tofino sketching and painting as a leisurely activity. Peter Whyte’s painting titled Tofino depicts two people walking down a road, surrounded by homes and buildings located on a rolling street. One could presume the pictured road is Tofino’s Main Street, with the church in the foreground being St. Columba’s Anglican Church, located on the intersecting Second Street. This would make sense, as the Whyte’s also resided just off Main Street. Other paintings that Peter completed are more specific to his work as a war painter. In the paintings, it is not confirmed that they are painted pictures of the air force hangar, but one could make an educated guess that the hangars are depicted.

Catherine created numerous stunning paintings of Tofino’s landscape, sunsets, and local buildings. The painting titled Tofino Sunset depicts a stunning pale blue sky, with light pink clouds rolling through above treetops. Catherine mentions painting from the window in her room in Tofino, “This morning I tried to paint the sunrise but not very successfully, from the window, it was a bit too dark indoors to see the colors and the sunrise is hard to guess and then is over in a few moments.” [4] One could speculate that the piece titled “Tofino Sunset” was painted from the window of her Tofino house, although we will never know. 

We do know that Catherine painted pictures of the home in which she and Peter resided, as pictured in the piece titled Whytes’ House in Tofino. The painting depicts the Ericksen home, or what Catherine called the Whytes’ House, in the foreground, with the ocean and a mountain in the background. Each of these paintings are homed at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. It is a sincere privilege to call upon Catherine’s letters and gain insight into what Tofino life was like for someone in the 1940s. Although the Whyte’s spent majority of their lives in Banff, especially beyond the war years, it is heartwarming to know that their paintings of Tofino continue to be safely maintained. 

The Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum would like to thank the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies for their generosity in contributing the photographs of Peter and Catherine’s paintings included in this article. The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies is located at 111 Bear Street, Banff, Alberta.  

Endnotes & Painting Citations.

[1] Letters to Mother [August - December 1943]. pp. 26. 1943. Robb Whyte, Catharine. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. M36 / I / A / 2b / i / 116. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

[2] Letters to Mother [August - December 1943]. pp. 128. 1943. Robb Whyte, Catharine. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. M36 / I / A / 2b / i / 116. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

[3] Letters to Mother [August - December 1943]. pp. 143. 1943. Robb Whyte, Catharine. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. M36 / I / A / 2b / i / 116. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

[4] Letters to Mother [August - December 1943]. pp. 153. 1943. Robb Whyte, Catharine. Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds. M36 / I / A / 2b / i / 116. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

Tofino: Peter Whyte (1905 – 1966, Canadian). Tofino. 1944. oil on canvas. 27.5 x 35.1 cm. Gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, O. C., Banff, 1968. WyP.01.092. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

Tofino Sunset: Catharine Robb Whyte, O. C. (1906 – 1979, Canadian). Tofino Sunset. 1943 – 1944. oil on canvas. 22.8 x 28.0 cm. Gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, O. C., Banff, 1979. WyC.01.178. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

Whytes' House at Tofino: Catharine Robb Whyte, O. C. (1906 – 1979, Canadian). Whytes' House at Tofino. 1944. oil on canvas. 22.8 x 28.0 cm. Gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, O. C., Banff, 1979. WyC.01.199. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

Date published: Thursday June 20, 2024.

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