ABOUT THE ARCHIVE
The Cunningham Archive is a unique and historically significant collection of photographic images taken by Dr. Jeffree Cunningham (1886-1974) predominantly in and around Victoria, BC, Canada in the middle decades of the Twentieth Century. As a marine biologist who lived his entire life near the ecologically rich shores of the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Cunningham was a keen observer of the natural and cultural world around him. Consisting of many hundreds of images, the Archive represents an attempt to digitize and catalogue all of Jeffree's photographs through the full range of his career, from the 1910s up until the 1970s. Also included are the many photos taken by his wife, Lucy Brooke Cunningham, who would often join Jeffree on his photographic walks from their house in Oak Bay and their summer cabin at Brentwood Bay on the shore of Saanich Inlet. Most were captured on 35mm Ektachrome film, though both Jeffree and Lucy also shot many images using a Zeiss Super Ikonta medium format camera.
ABOUT DR. JEFFREE CUNNINGHAM
“Since my retirement the advances in science have been phenomenal... But along with these advances lies the haunting specter of a deteriorating environment – of pollution by land, by sea, and by air. ‘Ecology’ and ‘environment’ are words on everyone’s lips, but lip service is not enough. Man’s conscience must be stirred and he must act if we are to be prevented from joining the dinosaurs. It is my heartfelt hope that the staff of this building will dedicate themselves to fighting this environmental problem.”
- Excerpt from Jeffree Cunningham’s speech upon the opening of the Cunningham Biology building at the University of Victoria. (March, 1972)
Jeffree Aiken Cunningham was born in Victoria on January 8th, 1886, in the Fort Street house of his maternal grandfather and namesake W. J. Jeffree, himself an early settler in the city. These roots were always important to Cunningham and inspired in him a strong sense of home in the town where he would remain his entire life. He also acquired a strong work ethic at an early age, having been taken out of school at 14 to help support his family. Fortunately, he was able to return 5 years later to complete his high school diploma. This was the longest time away from education and schooling- either as a student, teacher, or community educator- that he would take until his retirement almost 5 decades later!
Cunningham’s foremost interests were always in the natural world. After graduating from high school in 1905 he registered for classes in the emerging field of biology at Victoria College, then operating out of Victoria High School building as an affiliate of McGill University. He briefly considered a career in taxidermy and museum work but was drawn by better pay to become a teacher. Working at various high schools around the city (including as principal of Central School from 1911-21) while completing his biology studies and teacher training, he eventually returned to Victoria College as a teacher, becoming a full time biology instructor there in 1927. During these formative years and through his connections with the Victoria museum and Natural History Society Cunningham got to know many of the City’s leading naturalists, including the renowned Doctor CF Newcombe, whom he often accompanied on collecting expeditions for the Provincial Museum.
Throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century Cunningham remained deeply immersed in the natural world both in and out of the classroom. He led the marine biology section of the Victoria Natural History Society for many years, conducting field trips to local beaches and giving public lectures on his findings, and was president of the Society from 1952-4. During these years he also developed a keen interest in photography – perhaps inspired by the ethnographic work of Dr. Newcombe – and would often take photographic walks from his home in Oak Bay and summer cabin at Brentwood Bay on Saanich Inlet to document what he saw. He also formed a number of close friendships in First Nations communities in Victoria and Saanich and was often invited to attend and photograph sacred dances and cultural practices in those communities. Today these photos are valuable records of the rapidly changing natural and cultural landscapes of the Greater Victoria region, changes which increasingly concerned him and which he increasingly fought to mitigate and bring awareness to.
In May of 1964 Cunningham was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree from the University of Victoria in recognition of his work and service. The following excerpt from the citation speech on that occasion gives us an indication of the personality of the man himself:
He is “uniquely respected for his greatness as a teacher, for his communication to generations of students of the intellectual curiosity, the painstaking industry, and the total integrity that marked all his endeavours... Known for his fairness, devotion, and humanity [and] most loved for his qualities of frankness and simplicity, free from pretence and pomposity, intolerant only of bigotry and self importance, he has never been slow to speak his mind with candid humour and blunt honesty”.
These achievements brought further recognition when, in March of 1972, the Arthur Erikson designed Cunningham Biology Building at the University’s new Gordon Head campus was opened with much fanfare and named in his honour. He died almost exactly 2 years later- on the 22nd of April, 1974- leaving one daughter and one grandson, as well as hundreds if not thousands of former students and members of the public vastly more informed and appreciative of the incredible natural world that surrounds them.