Have you noticed the small plaque on the front facade of the Mount Royal Hotel? It's been there for decades. And it's got an intriguing backstory.
There are so many stories to be read in the architecture of the Mount Royal Hotel and all its incarnations. Every reconstruction of the building, as it evolved over the last century, tells a story about the culture of that time.
So, we knew a curious plaque mounted on an outside wall of the Mount Royal Hotel must have a good story behind it. A closer look at the weathered grey sculpture depicting two men packing a horse revealed the name of the artist: C. A. Beil.
Some digging into the history of the hotel revealed that celebrated Banff “cowboy artist” Charles Beil created the plaque to honour the origins of Brewster Transport. The plaque had been mounted after a major 1940 reconstruction of the hotel that extended the building along a half-block stretch of Banff Avenue.
A Brewster colleague and friend
Best known for the bronze trophy sculptures he created for the Calgary Stampede in the mid-1900s, Charles Beil also had special ties to Banff and a close relationship with the Brewster family.
There’s long been a strong relationship between Banff outfitters like the Brewster, Peyto and Simpson families, with artisans. In the early days of tourism, outfitters would rely on artists to help spread the word of the area’s appeals.
This was mutually beneficial since it helped artists get into the mountains for inspiration and also helped outfitters spread the word of their services.
Born in Germany in 1894, Beil spent much of his life in Banff after settling there in the 1930s. The artist developed an interest in clay casting after he settled in the flourishing mountain town, where he worked out of a studio on Bear Street and nurtured his love for the culture of the Wild West. Beil produced oil paintings, murals and dioramas but became most well-known for his bronze sculptures and casting.
The artist had arrived in Banff via Glacier Park, Montana. Beil had worked on a ranch as a cowboy and mule skinner, where, reports say, he first met the Brewster family. Museum and library records of Beil’s travels show he also struck up a friendship with renowned painter Charles Marion Russell in Montana. The preeminent cowboy artist had a great influence on Beil’s work and championed his talent as a sculptor.
After Russell’s death in 1926, Beil helped with unfinished bronzes and paintings his mentor had left behind, and continued his legacy of capturing the frontier lifestyle through art.
Beil’s legacy in Calgary
By the early 1930s, Beil’s work was being recognized and displayed prominently in the city. Beil had contributed to the Calgary Zoo’s dinosaur exhibit, and later, to the Palliser Hotel. A donation of a special bronze sculpture to the Calgary Stampede kicked off what would become a defining business relationship for the burgeoning sculptor. Beil’s partnership with the Stampede led to further commissions for plaques and trophies by the end of that decade, and for years afterward.
Charlie Beil, Ca.1955. Photographer: Nicholas Morant. Courtesey of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies V500/B2/2/124-2
The relationship not only benefitted the artist in terms of prominence, it helped create a visual identity for the annual rodeo. Over the years, the Stampede has become a major art collector of murals and bronzes from rodeo and chuck wagon events. In fact, some of Beil’s murals have adorned the walls of Stampede headquarters.
Tributes to Banff’s cowboy artist
During the late 1950s, Beil’s work was being featured in prominent Banff businesses as well. He created murals for places such as the Cascade Hotel and the Luxton Museum. Over time, the admired artist received many honours and awards prior to his death in Banff, in 1976. He became an honorary member of the Cowboy Artists of America and an honorary associate director of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede. He was named to the Order of Canada in 1973.
In 1980, a special exhibit to honour his work was held at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, where some of the marvellous sculptures by Banff’s cowboy artist can still be admired today.
Strolling down Banff Avenue in front of the Mount Royal, don’t miss the opportunity to look upwards at this remarkable piece of history.