Artwork by Bill Ronald Reid,  Chief of the Undersea World

Bill Reid
Chief of the Undersea World

22 karat gold sculpture
signed, dated 1983 and numbered 4/5; presented on a jade base (the weight of the gold is 145.1 grams)

4.5 x 2.25 x 1.25 ins ( 11.4 x 5.7 x 3.2 cms ) ( overall )

Auction Estimate: $175,000.00$125,000.00 - $175,000.00

Price Realized $129,800.00
Sale date: May 29th 2018

Buschlen-Mowatt Gallery, Vancouver
Collection of Ted Harrison
By descent to the present Private Collection
Doris Shadbolt, Bill Reid, Vancouver, 1986, pages 45 and 46
Karen Duffek, Bill Reid: Beyond the Essential Form, Vancouver, 1986, pages 23 and 49
Martine J. Reid, “Three Phases of Bill Reid”, Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art (website –
Bill Reid and Buschlen-Mowatt Gallery, Bill Reid: All the Gallant Beasts and Monsters, Vancouver, 1992, page 28, reproduced page 34
William Ronald (Bill) Reid, sculptor (1920-1998) was an internationally recognized Haida artist, often credited with the innovative revitalization of Northwest Coast Native arts. The striking 22 karat gold killer whale, “Chief of the Undersea World”, exemplifies Reid’s mission and mastery of expressing his ancestors' visual traditions in a contemporary form.

Son of a Haida mother and a Scottish-American father, Reid was unaware of his native heritage until his teenage years. He was raised by his mother, whose life had been shaped during a period of intense disruption for Native people. She had assimilated and emulated Western values, thus raising her children in white communities, far removed from Haida culture. Reid’s maternal grandfather had first introduced him to Haida art, and through him, Bill inherited the artistic tools of his great-great-uncle Charles Edenshaw, a renowned Haida artist.

Reid developed a keen interest in Haida art while working as a radio announcer in Toronto for CBC Radio in 1948, where he also studied European jewellery and engraving at the Ryerson Institute of Technology. He returned to Vancouver in 1951, where he set up a basement workshop for jewellery-making during his free time. Reid became accomplished in several media; he carved in silver, gold, wood and argillite and cast in bronze, referring to himself as "a maker of things" rather than an artist. The West Coast setting rekindled Reid’s interest in Haida art and he applied the traditional jewellery-making techniques he had learned to Haida designs. When he began his career, Haida art had vanished due to the demoralizing effects of years of colonization, disease, and repressive Canadian laws. Reid immersed himself into traditional Haida art by making personal objects of adornment that were adaptations from old crest and tattoo designs or identity symbols.

In the late 1960s Reid furthered his artistic studies at the Central School of Design in London; he returned to Canada in 1969 and settled in Montreal for three years, where he created many important works in gold inspired by Haida mythology. Among them was an engraved gold box with a three-dimensional whale leaping from its lid, completed in 1971. Created using the “lost-wax” process he learned in London, this object served as the progenitor for Reid’s subsequent interpretations of the killer whale in jewellery, drawings, prints and sculptures in gold and bronze.

Reid’s remarkable 22 karat gold sculpture “Chief of the Undersea World” was created during the production period of one of the artist’s best-known monumental works, the eighteen foot bronze killer whale at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1984. Traditional Haida characteristics are evident in both sculptures, in the form of the head, the face in the blowhole, and the stylized designs cast in bas-relief along the dorsal fin and body. The breaching whale’s design was adopted from a fine Haida speaker’s staff that Reid had admired in the Smithsonian Museum.

The plaque accompanying the bronze killer whale sculpture at the Vancouver Aquarium reads, "Chief of the Undersea World, who from his great house raises the storms of the winter and brings the calm seas of the summer. He governs the cycle of the salmon and is the keeper of all the oceans living treasures." To the Haida people, all life was classified and had a distinct spiritual meaning. The killer whale was chief of the sea; the large mammals were thought to lurk under the Pacific islands’ rocky cliffs and reefs, where they kept seals and sea lions as slaves and watched over the spirits of the deep. The Haida communities connected with their supernatural world through songs, dances and visual art forms.

Although bronze and the “lost-wax” technique are new to native art, Bill Reid’s killer whale is traditional in its ideas and style. Reid has masterfully rendered “Chief of the Undersea World” as an acclamation to his heritage that is at once both contemporary and traditional. Renowned Vancouver jeweler and friend of the artist, Toni Cavelti writes of Reid’s success in his career-spanning endeavour: “It has been stated that the designs of the Haida are perhaps the most beautiful, the most cohesive, the most harmonious of any of the early cultures. If that is so, then Bill Reid’s interpretation of it has brought it to its highest form. His creations exist because they had to be done and because for generations this sense of beauty and design and craftsmanship has been an inherent part of his people and his heritage.”

This fine sculpture has been held in the collection of celebrated Canadian artist Ted Harrison for more than two decades. Harrison was represented by the Buschlen-Mowatt Gallery in Vancouver, who were committed to developing an international market for the painter. A strong exhibition of Harrison’s work in 1992 led to the artist’s attendance at Art Asia later that year. Buschlen-Mowatt also represented Bill Reid, of whom Harrison was a great admirer. Through their mutual representation, the two became acquainted. Ted Harrison purchased this rare work during the late 1980s or early 1990s from Buschlen-Mowatt, which given his high regard for Reid, he considered a prized piece in his personal collection.

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Bill Ronald Reid
(1920 - 1998)

Born in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1920, Bill Reid was a Haida metalsmith, carver, and printmaker. Reid’s father was German-Scots-American, and his mother was Haida. He proclaimed that he was raised with little knowledge of his aboriginal ancestry, and it was not until adulthood that he realized his mother was Haida and he was related to generations of artists who lived on Haida Gwaii. Upon learning this, Reid contacted his maternal grandfather and his mother’s siblings to learn of their shared heritage.

Inspired by the Haida Gwaii, and the work of his maternal uncle, Charles Edenshaw, Reid was interested in pursuing goldsmithing as a career. He decided to attend the Ryerson Institute of Technology in Toronto from 1948-1950 to study goldsmithing. Reid apprenticed at the Platinum Art Company of Toronto after finishing the program at Ryerson. After university and his apprenticeship, Reid then moved from Toronto to Vancouver in 1951. Reid started his own jewelry workshop after moving to Vancouver. Here, he used his knowledge of both European and Haida jewelry found in museums, as well as his education in Toronto to make jewelry for his clients. Eventually, his knowledge of Haida culture and analyzation of Haida jewelry allowed Reid to become an expert of Haida design. His research linked traditional Haida culture to twentieth century art. In 1958, Reid was commissioned to re-create a section of a Haida village from the nineteenth century at the University of British Columbia. The project included two traditional Haida houses, seven totem poles, and other cedar carvings. Throughout the 1960s, Reid worked on commissions from institutions, corporations, and private individuals. Reid attended the Central School of Design in London in the late 1960s, and then settled in Montreal, where he began to create miniature sculptures.

However, Reid is most well-known for the large works he produced late in his life, such as The Raven and the First Men and Loo Taa. His projects helped create changes in the relationships between Haida and Canadian politics and culture. As an artist, Reid’s works have promoted northern design tradition, and bridged the generational divide in artists on the Northwest Coast. Not just an artist, however, Reid was a powerful public speaker and writer who argued against destructive ecological practices in British Columbia.

Literature Sources:
Joel Martineau, “Autoethnography and Material Culture: The Case of Bill Reid,” University of Hawai’i Press 24, no. 1, Winter 2001, pages 242-258.
Martine Reid, “Bill Reid,” Oxford University Press, Grove Art Online, 2003

We extend our thanks to Danie Klein, York University graduate student in art history, for writing and contributing this artist biography.