Entries in Canada (5)



Algonquin is over now, but I can’t let it go without writing something about Tom Thomson, whose work is such a reflection of the spirit of Algonquin. He’s Canada’s greatest painter and when you view his work in the gallery it’s not hard to see why.

The Tom Thomson story is a surprisingly short one for an artist who had such an impact in the world of art. In May 1912, he and work colleague, friend and fellow artist, Harry Jackson, made a visit by train to the eight thousand square kilometer fish-and-game reserve that was then known as Algonquin Park. They were on a two-week fishing trip, hoping to find plenty of black bass and speckled trout. However, as graphic designers working in the same company in Toronto, they’d packed Kodak cameras and painting gear as well as their fishing-rods. 

This visit is reckoned to be seminal in the creation of the Group of Seven and in the birth of a specifically Canadian style of art. During their stay, Thomson and Jackson produced a number of small oil sketches of Algonquin’s landscapes, including one - an uneasy precursor of Thomson’s fate - showing an upturned canoe on a lake.  This was the first of many visits, especially for Thomson, whose affinity with his surroundings immediately found their way onto canvas.  Later the Group of Seven turned their attention to other places, including Georgian Bay, Algoma, the Prairies, the Rockies, the West Coast and the Canadian Arctic.  But their ascendance as a group is primarily associated with Algonquin Park.

Tom Thomson was the sixth of ten children of farming stock with a Scottish immigrant background.  As a child he loved the woods and the outdoor life. He grew up to be a literate young man with artistic talents, but didn’t go to art school or university and later was wryly amused at the idea that his work might ever be taken seriously.

For many years, Thomson drifted from one job to another, gathering a reputation amongst some of his work colleagues as an erratic and difficult person to deal with. Ross King, in his book ‘Defiant Spirits, describes him as ‘handsome, shy, moody, profligate, rebellious, dandyish, rootless, secretly ambitious and given to drink.’

Working as a graphic designer for Grip Limited, Thomson came across a group of lively young artists and designers all concerned with how to awaken artistic awareness in their home country, Canada, whose art was primarily and distinctly Anglophile in style.  Thomson drew inspiration from this group, and they from him and quickly he found himself at its heart. Canada was a new young country, they reckoned, less than a hundred years old, and it needed a new and identifiable form of Canadian art. 

The Group of Seven was formed in March 1920 at an historic meeting in the home of Lawren Harris in Toronto.  The artists who were present on that occasion, and who offically formed the group, were Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, F.H. Varley, Frank Carmichael [my personal favourite, largely because of his fabulous watercolour skies] and Frank Johnson.  A.Y. Jackson was away at the time but was considered to be one of them. 

And Tom Thomson was dead.

Undeniably, in the few short years following his first Algonquin visit, Thomson had emerged as the star of the group, a real leading light in terms of ideas, inspiration and talent. It was he who paved the way that the others followed in Algonquin, and it’s he who’s recognised as Canada’s greatest artist today.

But to produce such an astonishing body of work, Thomson paid a high price.  After his first visit to Algonquin, he returned again and again until, by the time of his death, he was living in the park throughout the year except for the winter months.  To travel into the wilderness in search of his subjects, Thomson frequently used a cedar wood canoe.  He became proficient at paddling and the canoe gave him a point of view from which to paint that he would otherwise have missed. It also - arguably - became the means of his death.

In July 1917,  Thomson’s upturned canoe was found on Canoe Lake and, after a search, his body was found too.  Nobody knows how he died, but today it's more or less acknowledged that it wasn’t by drowning that he met his death but by foul play.  Certainly at the time rumours of arguments abounded, suggesting that Thomson had made himself unpopular with fellow residents in the Park. A mystery surrounds the speedy burial of his body near to Canoe Lake, and its later removal by his family.  Even today there are disputes about where Thomson’s body really lies, and whether or not he died from drowning or a blow to the head.

However he met his end though, Thomson’s death was a tragedy for Canadian art, and a terrible loss for his artist friends who never frequented Algonquin or painted in it again in the same way. 

I’m drawing on information here from two books on the subject of Thomson and the Group of Seven.  The first is the Ross King book [published by Douglas & McIntyre] I mentioned above. The second is David Silcox’s book, ‘The Group of Seven’ [published by Firefly].  In this latter book, Silcox calls Tom Thomson the Group of Seven’s ‘centre of gravity and their boldest spirit’.  His artistic career was short, but it was also prolific and in this I find echoes of one of my favourite English painters, Samuel Palmer.

Like Thomson with Algonquin Park, Palmer had his ‘Valley of Vision’, in his case, Shoreham in Kent, to which he moved in 1826.  The years during which he produced his greatest works were quickly over – again like Thomson.  And, like Thomson again, he had around him a like-minded group of fellow painters – in Palmer’s case the Ancients – whom he inspired to follow in his footsteps.

In Palmer’s case, the vision faded and though he lived to old age, his later works lacked the originality and power of his Shoreham years.  Thomson, however, died at the peak of his powers. No one knows what he might have achieved next, but hints of unpainted masterpieces were tantalizingly left behind in his sketch box, including some on the subject of the Northern Lights.

The possibility of painting nocturnal landscapes appeared to have fascinated Thomson as it had fascinated other painters before him. One bitterly cold winter, when the aurora borealis was lighting up the sky, he decided to depict them and spent the entire night dashing back and forth between his cabin and the open sky outside.  The board he painted on that night, and others found after his death, suggest that he was planning a large canvas on the subject – something that’s now regarded as a great lost masterpiece.

In Algonquin today is a cairn erected in Tom Thomson’s name. It’s on Canoe Lake, which Dave and I visited last week. The cairn was erected at the instigation of Thomson’s friends.  The stones for it had to be hauled sixty feet up a cliff so that the cairn could be built against spruce trees a short distance from rocks that contained smears of paint left by Thomson when cleaning his palette. An inscription on a brass plaque was placed on the cairn.

‘He lived humbly but passionately with the wild.  It made him brother to all untamed things of nature. It drew him apart and revealed itself wonderfully to him. It sent him out into the woods only to show these revelations through his art. And it took him to itself at last.’

At the bottom of the plaque MacDonald added that Thomson’s friends and fellow artists joined in this tribute to his character and genius.

So that’s the story of Tom Thomson, and the background to the Group of Seven. Today if you go to Toronto’s Art Gallery you’ll find the second floor full of their work.  They had a vision and pressed ahead with it even though their work was much derided in the early days. What they worked for was a body of work that was specifically Canadian.  That Canada now has its own chapter in the history of art is all down to them.  



The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, David P. Silcox, Firefly

Defiant Spirits, The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, Ross King, Douglas & McIntyre

Northern Light, Roy MacGregor, Vintage Canada






I’m back from Niagara, which ridiculously and much to my surprise reduced me to tears.  So, what to write about next? I could write this blog post on Canadian food but my instinct is to save that interesting subject [and keep collecting the photographs] for another day.

So I’m going to write about Toronto instead.  Not that I’ve seen much of it.  We went in on the train this morning only to spend most of the day in the art gallery, captivated by the paintings of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.

One painting,  Thomson’s ‘Maple Saplings in October’, reduced me to tears too.  Why that one in particular, I don’t know, but somehow I found myself suddenly imagining Thomson standing back and realizing that in some small way he’d made the world a better place.

That’s what artists do, isn’t it? As well as pointing out life’s flaws and its injustices, they sometimes actually succeed in creating a better reality for the rest of us? Well, Thomson and the Group of Seven have definitely done that.  Coming home again on the train, the sky outside my window wasn’t just an ordinary sky - it was a pink-rimmed, grey-ridged, fluffy white-clouded bright-blue Canadian sky.  A Thomson sky.  More than that, a Frank Carmichael sky. 

He was the artist I liked best.  I stood in front of a series of his watercolours and didn’t want to see another painting afterwards.  I wanted out of there, keeping what I’d just seen in my head. 

This was easier said than done, however.  In order to get out of the building, we had to pass through the David Milne rooms, which were sensational.  Then we had to pass through the bookshop, which was unmissable.  Finally - four hours after we’d arrived, expecting to see the whole city in that time - we made it out of our first and almost only port of call. 

But what a four hours they’d been.  If, like me, you’ve never seen the work of the Group of Seven or Tom Thomson, grab any chance that comes your way.  You’ll be glad you did. 

Afterwards Dave and I walked up to the University area of Toronto, pausing to snack in Chinatown between the Hanoi Bistro and the Yung Sing Pastry Shop. Further into the University district, lining its fine buildings we found lamp-posts hung with banners advertised the boundless virtues of Toronto University, personified by its professors in an on-street photo-gallery.

Boundless Democracy was celebrated in the person of Professor Ron Deibert, Cyber Rebel. Boundless Innovation had Dr David Jenks, National Pioneer, to speak for it. Boundless something else which I can’t remember [Boundless Chemistry?] had Professor John Polanyi, Nobel Chemist at its head.  Then there was Boundless Promise, Boundless Ingenuity, Boundless Impact and Boundless Creativity, all with their accompanying professors. 

What sort of country is this, I thought, that lionises its academics on lamp-posts? I have to tell you between being wryly amused, I was also seriously impressed. On and on the boundlessness went. At the end of it all I had the feeling that, for a boundless future, Toronto University was the only place to be.

The air of positivity was all over the city though, not just on its lamp posts. On one side of the road a massive banner on a building would proclaim: ‘Believe It! We Will Conquer Cancer In Our Lifetime’.  Then another would echo this with: ‘There Are Always Answers. Help Us Find Them’ or: ‘Together We Can, Sick Kids Hospital’ or words to that effect.   

If Toronto has something it wants to say to you, it seems nothing if not direct. Even when it’s feeling less than positive, it doesn’t mince its words:  ‘Sicko Gets Prison Sentence,’ screamed the headline on the evening paper as we headed back towards Union Station.  I caught a glimpse of a man’s photograph and wondered what crime he’d committed to incur the ire of such forward-looking and optimistic-sounding city as Toronto.

But I never found out.  We were too close to missing our train. We hurried up, down and up stairs, trying amid something like forty – yes, forty - other platforms to find Platform No 6. When we did, the platform was packed.  This morning’s train in Oakville had been two storeys high with largely empty seats.  Tonight’s one was obviously going to be a bit different, and we had the Blue Jays baseball team to thank for that. It came slowly into the station, light blazing, bell tolling like a church and everybody piled on board.

People were excited and high spirited.  Plainly they’d had a good time and it appeared that the home team had acquitted themselves well. As the level of chat grew louder and more animated, I noticed something about the Canadian accent that I hadn’t picked up before.  Frequently people’s voices went up at the end of sentences as if whatever they were saying was a question, whether or not it really was [and often it plainly was not].  A couple of paragraphs ago, I tried experimenting with this interesting way of using words, and you may or may not have noticed.  If you didn’t, here’s another example, this time from a conversation I picked up on the train:

‘Oh my God?’

‘I’m going bowling tonight?’

‘I don’t want to see the O’Bradys? There’s Agnes?  And her dad? And the other one, Elinor? They give me a pain in the head?’

‘You are just the word? Caroline, just the word?’

So much for that, then, and Toronto – at least for today.  We’re going back tomorrow to take a ferry out to the islands and cycle round them.  Then later next week, we’re planning to hire a car and follow in the footsteps of the Group of Seven by heading off to the Algonquin Provincial Park. So there’ll be loads more to tell you about.  And loads more adventures to be had. So see you tomorrow?  [That’s a real question, not a Canadian one.]







It’s far from what I’d call ‘first light’ We’re on our way to the airport, and I’m half asleep. The news and weather comes up.  ‘It’s a dry story today,’ says the reader, then there’s a ‘but’ and I’m sure I hear him say something about a hurricane out in the Atlantic, coming this way. What does this mean for us, who’ll be heading across the Atlantic in just a few hours? Or did I hear right?

We’re caught up in a queue.  We won’t be heading anywhere if it doesn’t move. There’s been an accident. Nothing moves. Five lanes, just in the time it’s taken us to slow down, are suddenly jammed up.  Good job we left early.  Nice to know there was some purpose to our being on the road at half past two.

Finally we reach the airport, park our car and wait for the terminal bus.  The man behind us is telling total strangers all about his life.  Why do people do that?  It wouldn’t be so bad at some other time of day, but at six in the morning, do I really have to know he’s come up from Hampshire and stopped off last night at his aunt’s? Then the man behind him starts on about his precious little pretty three-year-old being able to count to eight.  He announces this really loudly, looking round and trying to catch someone’s eyes as if expecting a ‘well done’.  

You can tell I haven’t had a decent coffee yet.  Nothing can brighten me up until a plane flies over on its way in to land.  Immediately I feel a pang of excitement.  Until now, nothing has raised my spirits, but suddenly that plane represents the whole wide sky in all its freedom.  This new, excited feeling lasts until I’m in Costa, my luggage checked in and a coffee in my hand, when I catch sight of a passing headline and it’s official now. An Atlantic hurricane really is on its way.

Our gate is called.  Will we make it across the Atlantic without being blown off course? Grace phones while I’m still debating with myself the possibility of my imminent demise. Dave wanders off with a toothbrush, looking for somewhere to brush his teeth just as our numbers are called to board the plane.  He comes hurrying back with a furry mouth.  We queue. We get on board. Our hand luggage is stowed.  I’m by the window, I’m glad to say. I love watching the earth fall away as the plane takes off.

If I can stay awake, of course. This always happens when I fly.  I’m so busy beforehand that the first chance I get to relax is on the plane and, as soon as I sit down, I immediately fall asleep. 

Later I awake to find us in the air and Dave - having finally decided to put on the travel socks I’ve bought him - struggling in cramped conditions to get them over his heels and up his legs.  People are glancing at his less-than-pretty feet, but at least he won’t get deep vein thrombosis, I tell myself. 

I stick my head in my book, John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’, only to find him on the subject of what it means to be a real man [as against an elderly baby] which with Dave still struggling seems mildly relevant. Reading on, I discover that Steinbeck's feelings about leaving home are not unlike mine. He talks about a war between the ‘me’ who wants to travel and the ‘me’ who wants to stay.  I know exactly what he’s talking about. Yesterday at the allotment, walking between rows of beans and sweetcorn, and later by the river shining in the afternoon sun, and later again at Beulah’s house, saying goodbye to her and the dog, I longed for something to come along that had urgently to be attended to, resulting in my having to stay.

But looking out of the window I’m glad I didn’t stay.  There’s blue above me and blue below, and the clouds are gone that lined the sky at six this morning. The sun’s so bright I can scarcely look at those white clouds as they drift by.  My eyes start watering. I wouldn’t be anywhere else.

It’s always like this once I get going. I even felt it one time in a hot air balloon. After that balloon had landed, I’d have gone straight up again despite the sunset saying enough’s enough. I’d have travelled all night, following the stars, no fear of what I might bump into in the dark, if only I could have gone up again.

When we arrive at Toronto Airport, the passengers clap.  I’ve never been on a plane before where they do that, but I can’t say I blame them.  I’m full of admiration for a man or woman who can get that many human lives - not to say anything of that tonnage of metal – down out of the sky and land it safely in one piece.

Dave and I step off the plane. We’re here at last after a seven hour flight. The sky is as blue in Toronto as it was up in the air. The day is warm, bordering on hot.  We collect our luggage, show our passports, show them again – and again - then head out in the direction of a loading-bay where hopefully we’ll find David’s Uncle Ivor waiting for us, and the holiday ready to commence.