This year marks the 80th anniversary of the death of Vancouver’s first public art superstar, Charles Marega (1871- 1939). If that name doesn’t sound familiar I’ll bet you’re familiar with many of his works. In fact, many of you probably pass by at least one of his pieces every day without even realizing it.
Carlos Marega was born into a large middle-class family in 1871 in Lucinico, Trieste, Italy, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In addition to his academic education, Marega was trained in the trade of artistic plaster design and sculpture. In 1899, he married Berta Panitz, the widow of his sculpting mentor, in Zurich. After a period of time living in South Africa, the Maregas immigrated to Vancouver in 1909. They originally intended to head for California, but the natural beauty of Vancouver reminded Berta of her native Switzerland, so they decided to stay.
The Maregas arrived in Vancouver just at the right time; the city was in the midst of a financial boom and was striving to become a cosmopolitan place. It was the perfect era for a cultured man of the arts to enter Vancouver society and make a living.
Not long after he arrived, Marega won his first commission: the David Oppenheimer memorial gate at the entrance to Stanley Park. Though no mean accomplishment, it was just the beginning for Marega.
Trained in the classical style and a proponent of the Beaux-Art style and later Art Deco, Marega created an extensive repertoire of art and sculpture found all over the city:
- – Captain Vancouver statue at City Hall, unveiled August 20, 1936, made of bronze & granite.
- – Twin Lions at the south end of the Lions Gate Bridge- installed January 1939 – Marega wished them to be cast in bronze, but the builders wanted a cheaper version cast in concrete.
- – Busts of Burrard and Vancouver and the city’s coat of arms on the Burrard Bridge – 1931
- – David Oppenheimer Memorial, in Stanley Park (1911). Bust of Vancouver’s second mayor, David Oppenheimer – his first commission in Vancouver.
- – Joe Fortes Memorial Fountain, Alexandra Park, 1926 – much of the cost of this memorial was raised from pennies donated by local children, many of whom had been taught how to swim by Fortes.
- – King Edward VII Memorial Fountain at Vancouver Art Gallery, initially installed in the front of the then Court House along Georgia Street, later moved west of the building along Hornby Street. Commissioned by The Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire in 1910, the fountain features a bas-relief of the King’s face.
- – 9 caryatids on the World (Sun) Building, also known as the Nine Maidens – 1911
- – Warren Harding memorial, also known as “The Altar of Peace”, in Stanley Park, 1923, along with the architectural firm of Twizell & Twizell.
- – Maple Tree Memorial Fountain, unveiled on June 13, 1925. The bronze plaque is now inserted in the base of the Gassy Jack statue in Gastown.
- – Michelangelo & Leonardo da Vinci busts on the front of the former home of the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 1931 Marega was commissioned to create busts to flank the entrance of the 1st VAG. When the gallery moved and the old building was demolished, the busts were headed to the garbage dump. Fortunately, the busts were rescued and became the property of a private collector.
- – Two small figures (Evol & Funda) in stone above the main entrance to the UBC Library (Irving K. Barber Learning Centre): a monkey holding a book titled ‘Evol’ (for evolution) and a man holding stone tablets inscribed ‘Funda’ (for fundamentalism). These are in reference to the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Tennessee regarding teaching evolution in the schools.
- – Marega sculpted many of the motifs for the Marine Building (1930) under the direction of Giles Holroyd, the lead on plasterwork for the project.
- -In Victoria, he designed 14 statues of then-famous figures from British Columbian history. He sculpted 3-foot maquettes for each figure, and then a stone carver made the 9-foot high figures that grace the exterior of the Legislature Library building.
Charles Marega’s contribution to the Vancouver art scene wasn’t just limited to the oeuvre of public works he created. He was also involved in the birth of fine arts education in the city. Marega was a member of the Vancouver Art League, a group committed to the encouragement of art in Vancouver and to the acquisition of an art school and an art gallery for the city. When the Vancouver School of Art (later to become Emily Carr University of Art and Design) opened in 1925, Marega was a member of the faculty, teaching sculpture part-time.
Between gigs for major sculpture commissions, Marega’s bread and butter work, aside from teaching, was decorative plasterwork. He designed elaborate plaster decorations for the walls and ceilings of many of Shaughnessy’s finest homes. The wealthy homeowners were only too happy to commission a European-born artist to decorate their homes – “he was in vogue and his pieces were status symbols”. Marega’s decorative work can still be seen in Hycroft Mansion and the ceiling of the dining room at Crofton House School (formerly the home of Alvo von Alvensleben). His decorative plasterwork also graced many of the city’s theatres – including the Orpheum and the Stanley Theatres.
After a promising first five years in his adopted city, the financial boom ended, World War I began and the commissions stopped. Marega busied himself during the lean war years by creating smaller scale sculptures, including small busts of famous people that were sold through Birk’s Jewellery store for $1 each. During this time (1912 to 1921) Marega had a home and studio on a property at 1424 West 10th Avenue at Hemlock. The Marega’s sold this house and his plaster business in 1921 and moved back to Europe. The reason they left the city is unknown, as is the reason they came back two years later in 1923. Upon his return, Marega established a studio at 822 Hornby and lived for the remainder of his life in a series of rental properties in the West End.
After the war, the Maregas found themselves back in Vancouver just at the right time. The late 1920s were productive years for Marega; he was teaching sculpture part-time and significant sculpture commissions started up again. Charles and Berta Marega became a much-admired part of the bohemian social scene happening in Vancouver. In a 1994 ‘Sun’ newspaper article, they were described by a former student as a “very handsome couple – she beautiful and he distinguished”. Another described Marega as a “great conversationalist with this very strong, refined Italian accent…always beautifully groomed and loaded with charm.” Things were once again going well for Marega. Then the worldwide economic depression hit.
The 1930’s were hard on Charles Marega; he was forced to borrow money. He managed to secure a few smaller jobs (like the figures for the Burrard Bridge) but the commissions quickly dried up as everybody was feeling the pinch of hard economic times. And then the worst blow of all – his “beloved Berta” died suddenly in January 1935. According to Marega biographer and long-time champion, Peggy Imredy, “all his vitality left him. People who knew him saw him as a shrunken and poverty-stricken artist.” Ironically, it was during this dark period that Marega created his most well-known and celebrated works – the bronze statue of Captain George Vancouver (1936) and the twin Lions of the Lions Gate Bridge (1939).
Two months after Marega’s Lions were installed at the south end of the Lions Gate Bridge, Charles Marega died suddenly on March 24th. He was just 68. Marega had just finished teaching a class at the Vancouver School of Art when he suffered a massive heart attack as he reached for his hat and coat. He died a few minutes later. It was said that at the time of his death he had only $8 in his bank account.
According to Imredy, after Marega was cremated, his ashes (along with Berta’s) were “apparently turned over to a friend” under the expectation they would be eventually sent home to Europe. Mysteriously, they were never sent. Imredy commented in the 1994 newspaper article: “what happened to Marega’s personal possessions is unknown”. She recalled, “a year after Marega died the friend still had the ashes, but with on didn’t know what to do with them. His ashes have no known resting place. It’s a complete mystery”. What ever happened to Charles Marega’s ashes is still a mystery 25 years later.
For someone who was so instrumental in the memorials of others, it is a sad end. There is no Marega memorial and no final resting place. His works are his only legacy.
Peggy Imredy (wife of “Girl in a Wetsuit” sculptor Elek Imredy) was such a fan of Marega and his work that she lobbied city hall in the 1970’s to have Block 61 (now Robson Square) named “Marega Square “ in honour of the artist who once had his studio on that block and whose works helped identify the city.
Perhaps Charles Marega is finally getting the due he deserves. The Italian community in Vancouver has long admired Marega and his work. They, under the leadership of Ray Culos, recently recommended Marega and his life achievements as a sculptor for recognition by Parks Canada’s Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. On December 7, 2017, a large bronze plaque commemorating the unique achievements of sculptor Charles Marega was unveiled at Il Museo in the Italian Cultural Centre.
For all the Vancouver artists have a tough time making ends meet today, they can take some comfort knowing it wasn’t any easier in the past. Vancouver has always been a tough city to make a living in as an artist, even for one once called “the greatest sculptor in Western Canada”.