Robert Alexander (known as Rab to friends and family) was born in Vancouver, B.C. in 1916 to parents Agnes Boyd and Arthur Forbes Alexander. He was the oldest of four boys, who were raised alongside two cousins that were taken in by the family. He attended Hastings Elementary School, Templeton Junior High School and Britannia High School. He wanted to attend the Vancouver School of Art at age sixteen, but due to his father’s illness and the family’s financial situation he was required to look for work. With a keen interest in the arts, he applied and was hired to work at David Hall’s on Beach Avenue, the largest pictorial and sign company in Vancouver in the 1930’s. Alexander took painting and portraiture evening classes at the Vancouver School of Art and studied under Fred Varley and Platon Ustinov. He remained good friends with Ustinov after meeting as instructor and student.
During the 1930’s, Robert painted in his free time and exhibited regularly at the Vancouver Art Gallery. He was invited to become a member of the B.C. Society of Fine Arts in 1937 and received various honours including First Honourable Mention for Oils in the Annual B.C. Artist’s Exhibition in 1939 and later in 1941, First Honourable Mention for Watercolours. He also designed street and building decorations for the visit of King George and Queen Elizabeth in 1939.
Around this time, Robert became interested in the landscapes of the interior and northern areas of British Columbia. His uncle, Charlie Alexander, arranged a job opportunity for him working in Telegraph Creek as part of a crew to keep the telegraph trail open for repairs between Hazelton and Lake Atlin. He lived and worked on the territory of the Tahltan peoples for roughly a year and half, during which time he built relationships with members of the Nation.
Robert returned to Vancouver in 1941 as his father had fallen ill. After his father passed in October of 1941, Robert went back to work at David Hall’s where he worked on contracts to design and produce posters and displays for war bond promotions. He applied for service in the Navy and was accepted in the spring of 1943. He was stationed at the HMCS Discovery barracks on Skwtsa7s (what is known as Deadman’s Island) where he painted a mural over the entrance to the Officer’s Mess in 1946.
Robert used his wartime gratuities to attend the Vancouver School of Art and received his diploma with honours in 1947. He met Irene Cattelle Porter in 1943. Together, they built their home in North Vancouver. The house was designed by Robert, who also constructed it with the help of a builder. Alexander and Porter married in 1949. During this time, he worked as a designer and foreman of David Hall’s until 1952. Irene and Robert had three daughters in 1951, 1953 and 1961. After leaving David Hall’s, he worked as a freelance artist in various capacities, including illustrating books for W.G. Gage Publishing and teaching classes at the Vancouver School of Art, West Vancouver Sketch Club and art classes held at Britannia Beach on Sunday afternoons.
In 1955 he began teaching art classes in North Vancouver. In 1956, Robert completed further studies at the Art Students' League in New York. He came back to Vancouver and together Irene and Robert formed a business, Studio Workshop, offering art classes in Vancouver. He rented studio spaces at various locations including Robson St., West Broadway and Marine Drive (North Vancouver). He also had a studio space in the family home.
In the years between 1956 and 1967 Robert accomplished numerous and varied projects. He received Canada Council funding to work on a series of optical illusions. He completed portraits for clients in Toronto, Ottawa, Regina, Victoria, Vasar, New York, and Tokyo, Japan, as well as numerous portraits in Vancouver (including portraits of W.P. Weston, Justice Nathan T. Nemetz and George Cunningham). He also submitted the winning Christmas card design for UBC, competing against other prominent artists. Alexander completed another large mural for the Penticton Airport in 1963, which was later restored and relocated into the Penticton Civic Centre in 1989. Robert designed fresco panels for the Hotel Vancouver and also completed four murals for the now-demolished Grosvenor Hotel on Howe Street in Vancouver. His work was exhibited across North America and received a Purchase Prize Award from the Washington State Art Commission in 1963 and the Seattle Art Museum in 1966.
With development in Vancouver, including rising rents and an increasing demand on Robert’s time, the couple began to phase out Studio Workshop in 1969. They stopped using the name, as UBC had started using the name to refer to an art department. He worked out of the home studio, after making some improvements to the space. He returned to landscape painting and also took up an interest in heraldic art and the medieval art of illuminating. Robert collaborated with Irene, an accomplished calligrapher, on a variety of projects, including three Freedom Scrolls for the City of Vancouver.
After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January of 1974, Robert Samuel Alexander passed away in his home in April of 1974.