E. J. Hughes


Dear Artist,

One of the interesting things about Ed Hughes is the deal he cut with his dealer in 1953. The dealer was Max Stern of Montreal’s Dominion Gallery. Ed lived in a bungalow on the west coast of Canada. Ed and Max met only four times. Their deal was done by mail. Ed’s deal was this: “I’ll give you everything I make and you pay me a salary.” Ed was a pretty slow worker — about a dozen paintings a year during his good years. Gradually, his annual salary edged up. Then a new Jaguar was thrown in for good measure. Ed insisted on that. He liked the classics.


“Mill Bay, Vancouver Island, B.C.”
1969 oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches
by E. J. Hughes (1913 – 2007)

In the meantime Max took control of Ed’s output. He took advantage of the natural shortage to create a demand. He placed Ed’s work into good hands. Prices went up. Two collectors bought most of his major output — about fifty canvases each. These two guys are the ones who reached into their pockets to pay for a spectacular coffee table book. This led to an important retrospective in a major public gallery. Ed stayed home — didn’t like arty crowds. He liked his paintings to speak for themselves.

Sitting on his vintage chesterfield, doilies on the arms, a faded Vermeer poster tacked up behind, Ed’s gluing together one of his plastic model cars. It’s his hobby. Rolls Royce. Bugatti. Packard. Over there, his studio door is open. It’s a spare room, small, fluorescent, can’t be used at night because of the light. There is only one painting in there and he’s been working on this one for two months. In order to view it properly he has to stand in the closet. “Maybe you notice something about that painting,” he says. “No crows. Since my wife died I haven’t put a single crow in a painting.”


“Coastal Boats Near Sidney, B.C.”
1948 oil painting
by E. J. Hughes

Over at the retrospective, everybody will be quite happy by now. The curator will probably phone later. “Can you imagine the prices they’re getting for my work these days?” Ed asks. I hand him his glue. Ed will stay up until eleven and then take the phone off the hook.

Best regards,


PS: “The main reason I’m not going to the opening is the worrying. I’d worry so much I couldn’t concentrate on my present painting.” (E. J. Hughes)


“The Beach at Savary Island”
1998 watercolour by E.J. Hughes

Esoterica: Curator Ian Thom said, “Hughes is an artist who thinks through his canvases with an obsessive level of detail. But his extreme depth of focus, his bright colours and the curiously lucid quality of his painted atmosphere brings to Hughes’ work the very accessibility for which he was reaching.”

This letter was originally published as “E. J. Hughes” on February 4, 2003.



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“Unfortunately, when I start to talk or when someone watches over my shoulders, my pencil either stops or I draw meaningless lines.” (E. J. Hughes)



  1. Exactly… honest, cooperative marketing where everyone does OK. Good for Ed! Supply and demand may not be kind to me… The problem I have is that I view every canvas as a chance to practice, get better and to just maybe create that magical masterpiece. Practice may make perfect but it also creates a lot of supply. I don’t see any way out of this one unless I hide my art in the garage.

    • I utilize a ‘burn pile’… here in Texas we have some rural property which is full of brush we are always clearing and burning, and it serves something of a spiritual purpose to throw some of those practice canvases onto the pyre. As for my other efforts, I definitely find myself creating work that I think will sell because I don’t know how to go about it any other way. It may be dry and calculating, but that’s just the way it is and I’m not going to put anymore effort into the pretense of being an artiste and take a page from those working artists of the 20th century, the illustrators who had assignments. I give myself assignments. Paint on!

    • I had the same problem, in fact I still do. What I have been doing is going over…review older images and check out why the piece is not better and rework it. Odd that I can always find how to improve the painting…now why can’t I think of those things while I am painting it the first time around?Sometimes I have to use sand paper to flatten some ridged oil paint. When all fails, remove it from stretcher, reverse, re gesso and start anew! But when I do this I am cognisant of the fact that the oil painting will not longer be breathable from the underside so the painting has to be on the thinner side becasue now it will have to dry strictly from the “top”… So far, nothing has peeled off.

      I use the second side to practice new techniques or to develope new ideas.

      For watercolours on watercolour paper (as compared to watercolour canvas) the fix is simple…as a last resort I cut them up into mini masterpieces…often use them as postacards for invitations or just keeping in touch.

      • Brilliant Carol… I have always just grabbed a new canvas. I wonder if thinking about your art is over-rated? If I think too much, the subject gets stiff and over-worked… but everything is an experiment and I like your approaches.

  2. Ed was allowed peace of mind to do his works, something that is rare these days with everyone having their hand out and no time nor finances to get away and do your work.
    I understand that comment from Hughes that if people are around- I draw meaningless lines … I have a terrible time telling non artists that think they are artists from travelling with me on road trips. Artists need time to think and to act and not produce thousands of meaningless digital photographs lol!

  3. Bridget Syms on

    Ed has it spot on. The deal I have with my gallery is that I paint ’em, they sell ’em. My gallery is good at what they do and I just keep trying to be good at what I do. Horses for courses.

  4. I love hearing about artists and their various quirky ways. A lovely neighbour of mine has an Ed Hughes painting, and a letter from him. She wrote to tell him as a little girl she stood on the dock he had painted and waited for her father, the fisherman, to come into harbour., he wrote her back.
    My artist friends and I (all beginners) call the canvases that stack up, stock! I don’t think I could burn the ones I don’t like, first of all, there are too many!!!! I just paint over them and get something new that I like better. Miss your dad Sara, you are doing a wonderful job following in his footsteps.
    By the way…..my .com is my travels …not my paintings…..yet anyway!

  5. What a spectacular arrangement to have between an artist and art dealer. This is an arrangement that frees the artist to create which is what every serious artist wants and needs to do. An arrangement such as this gives the dealer the security they need when the commitment is made to represent an artist. The investment is good on both sides. It is good business for both but particularly for the artist who wants to paint and leave the marketing of the work to others.

    The key to success is that the target for both artist and art dealer is a good match.

  6. Mr. Hughes lived down the road from where I grew up. He stopped by our home occassionally, one time to see the new baby my Mom had delivered (my sister).
    Mrs. Hughes used to sit on her porch in her rocking chair holding a doll. My Mom always felt a great deal of compassion for her.
    It seems we all deal with some tough life circumstances that we don’t always know about another.
    I found out later when I became an adult that Mr Hughes was a ‘famous’ artist. I love his work as so many of his subjects are ones I know from my childhood.
    Thank you for featuring him again Sara.

  7. Thanks Sarah

    this article is a fine mind-opener. For those of us working with galleries and “cutting a deal”, it reminds us to be open-minded and give not only art, but pathways to help our dealers sell the art.

  8. Linda Spear on

    I saw an exhibition of Hughes’ work on a visit to BC a few years ago. If I remember correctly, he stopped painting because he couldn’t work with toxic oils and solvents any more. I wonder if he tried water-mix -able oils. I’m always surprised by the number of professional artists who haven’t heard of them. They’re a joy to work with and clean up with soap and water. I know of three companies who make them: Grumbacher Max, Winsor Newton Artisan and Holbein Duo.

    L. Spear

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