Peter Morrell goes to the Algonquin Park in Ontario to see the raw beauty that inspired Canada’s most famous and influential painters
I was standing next to the memorial cairn erected in honour of artist Tom Thomson on a remote promontory overlooking Canoe Lake in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. This lake was where Thomson was found dead in 1917 aged 39. It had been a long journey and I felt quite emotional, as if I were visiting the grave of a long lost relative.
In The Beginning
My journey to this point, both physically and spiritually, had started in late 2011, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London. With no pre-conceptions I had gone to an exhibition, the gallery’s fourth most popular in its 200 years, called Painting Canada, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. I was completely enthralled by their art. They had captured in paint the raw beauty of the Canadian wilderness: rushing torrents of water, lonesome pines, melting snow, glittering lakes and outcrops of the Canadian Shield, the rock plateau that covers half of the country. I had to go and see first-hand what had inspired them. What made my quest even more compelling was that Thomson’s untimely death was, and still is, a mystery.
The story starts when five of the group, J. E. H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston and Franklin Carmichael plus Thomson, worked together at Grip, a Toronto based graphic design company. The group were joined by two other artists, A. Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris, heir to the Massey-Harris agricultural machinery fortune. In 1914 the combined wealth of Harris and Dr. James MacCallum, a benefactor, financed the construction of the Studio Building in Toronto’s Rosedale Ravine where the artists could work. The group also gathered in the city’s Arts and Letters Club where they exchanged ideas with writers, actors and poets
By this time Thomson was encouraging the group to make summer visits to the Algonquin and Georgian Bay on Lake Huron to the west. Working en plein air like European artists, they painted copious numbers of sketches before returning to the Studio Building in the winter to convert their works into full sized canvases. Thomson himself was uncomfortable working in the studio, so MacCallum the benefactor paid for a workman’s hut to the east of the building to be converted to give Thomson a wilderness environment in the city.
The Studio Building
The first leg of my journey was to travel to Toronto and meet local guide Judy Hammond, who would show me aspects of the city connected to the Group. From my hotel we took the highly efficient subway to Rosedale station just a few stops from the centre. Walking into the Ravine, not nearly as vertiginous as it sounds, we took a look at the Studio Building, now designated a National Historic Site of Canada.
The building, designed by Arts and Crafts architect Eden Smith, features large north facing windows, ideal for the neutral light an artist needs. Tom Thomson’s workman’s shack is long gone but there will be an opportunity to see a replica later in my trip.
The Arts and Letters Club
From there we wandered over to the current location of the Arts and Letters Club, a charming late 19th Century period building where archivist Scott James, describes the history of the Club and the formation of the Group. The Club was a focal point for the ‘LAMPS disciplines’, Literature, Architecture, Music, Painting and Theatre/Stage so it was a natural place for artists to congregate. It was in the Club in 1919 that the artists began formally calling themselves the Group of Seven. Scott speculates that the name could have been coined for marketing reasons. Poignantly the missing member and catalyst for the Group was Thomson, who had died so tragically two years earlier.
By 1920 they were ready for their first exhibition which was held at my next destination, the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibition opened to generally good reviews and their Impressionist style was starting to define the Canadian School of Art. Scott has many anecdotes about the group that have been passed down through the years as well as a wealth of archive material.
He produced a humorous hand-drawn postcard sent by one of the artist to Deerhurst, another destination I would be visiting on my Group of Seven journey. There is also a a very formal photo of the Group in the Club, suited and booted, which is in total contrast to their paintings which are bold, exuberant and colourful. Scott was a very informative and engaging host who moved me much closer to understanding these artists. Although the Club is not open to visitors Scott is willing to meet people with a particular interest in the Group, mail me for details.
The Art Gallery of Ontario
The visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) proved equally as rewarding. I met curator Greg Humeniuk who showed me round their massive collection of Thomson and Group of Seven works. Many of the paintings had been bequeathed by avid art collector Ken Thomson, of Thomson Reuters fame and not, by the way, a relative of Tom.
The broad range in the collection gave me an opportunity to compare their works and see how their painting evolved over time. I was curious as to why Thomson’s work stood out above the others. Greg explained that Thomson spent the most time in the wilderness. He was even an Algonquin park ranger at some point, so observed the landscape through the seasons, at all times of the day and in all types of weather. This had given him his unique insight.
Although they had an early homogeneous style based loosely on Impressionism, by the late 1920s they were travelling further afield, both artistically and physically. As they visited places like the Rocky Mountains their work became more Art Deco in its nature and Lawren Harris eventually moved even further into abstract painting.
Thomson’s last work is also his most famous, The West Wind. I had already seen it in Dulwich so was not disappointed that it was on loan from the AGO during my visit. The original sketch was there, it’s a painting of a lone pine growing, by a choppy lake, on a rocky point. Although blown by the wind it stands defiant. It is suggested that the pine is a metaphor for the Canadian Spirit, surviving despite the challenge of the elements.
I had spent my time in Toronto immersed in the Group’s history, it was time to go and see where they got their inspiration. The next day I bid a fond farewell to my hotel, the luxurious Fairmont Royal York, for an early start and the drive north to the Algonquin. I was going to stay in Deerhurst, a luxury golf resort, and a million miles away from the primitive accommodation used by the artists.
Deerhurst is near Huntsville and both in the town and the surrounding area there are more than 90 paintings and murals which are reproductions of pieces by Thomson and the Group. The most famous of the reproductions is The West Wind and was completed in June 2010 at Deerhurst by some rather special guests. The resort was being used for the G8 summit and the final brush strokes were applied by leaders including Barak Obama, Angela Merkel, Stephen Harper and David Cameron. The painting now hangs in the nearby Canadian Summit Building.
It was about a 45 minute drive to the Algonquin Park and just before the entrance I met with my guide for the day, Gord Baker who runs the Algonquin Outfitters, a one-stop shop for anyone planning on exploring the lakes. As well as selling items such as outdoor clothing and camping equipment, the very experienced Gord and his team put together bespoke kits for individual trips. This will cover just about everything you would need including food rations for several days, pot and pans, tent, sleeping bags and even a canoe.
With our canoe firmly tied to the roof of Gord’s van and us liberally sprayed with insect repellent we set off for Canoe Lake. Within minutes we pulled up sharply for a good look at a large moose we had spotted grazing lazily on fresh ferns by the roadside. This is just one of the many species of wildlife that you can spot in the park which is about a third the size of Wales.
A turn down a dirt track brought us to the southern end of the lake. It was a stunning sight, the lake stretched before me, punctuated by rocky fir-clad islands and framed by dense forest. We had arrived the modern way. Tom and the Group would have used the now defunct railroad to get to the north shore, sometimes parking a box car in a siding for their sleeping quarters or staying at the lodge in the now deserted lumber town of Mowat. Another attraction of the area for Tom was that he was rumoured to have had a girlfriend, Winnie Trainor. She lived in Huntsville and stayed at her family’s cottage on the lake
Some tuition from Gord on how to paddle and a precarious but safe boarding soon saw us canoeing north to the place where Thomson was found dead floating in the lake, some eight days after he went missing.
The mystery of his death endures and there has been speculation of suicide, an accident or murder related to money he was owed. He was found with a bruise on his head and with fishing twine around his ankle. Whatever happened the deep waters of the lake retain their secret. Journalist Roy MacGregor published Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson in 2010 in which he gives a plausible answer to the question.
It is said that the group wanted to create a visual language to describe the raw beauty of the Canadian wilderness and, if that were the case, then they were fluent. In every view, every glance you can see one of their paintings. A stand of trees, a rocky outcrop, sunlight on the water, a scudding cloud. These were the images that had captured my imagination at the Dulwich exhibition 18 months earlier.
We paddled across the lake, passing the still standing Trainor family cottage, to Thomson’s cairn. Next to it is a totem pole decorated with his icons – trees, waves and an artist’s brush and palette. I stood quietly reading the commemorative poem by Frank Braucht on the back of the pole, this is one of the verses
His heart was in the forest;
Its message to him told
When framed by Borealis,
Of sunset’s burnished gold
The silence was broken by the ‘call of the wild’, the haunting cry of the aquatic Loon Bird. It was time to head back, this had been a unique and magical moment but there was still more to see.
The Algonquin Art Centre
Painting the wilderness is still a popular pursuit, so I stopped off at the Algonquin Art Centre to see the work of some contemporary artists. Director Joel Irwin explained that they have an annual exhibition with an elemental theme. Last year it was water and this year is art featuring the Canadian Shield. Amongst the exhibits was a painting by Cory Trepanier who I met last year in the Yukon and who is upholding the tradition of capturing the beauty of the landscape in some of Canada’s most remote locations.
When one of the group, Frank Johnston, left he was replaced by A J Casson who continued the tradition of painting the Algonquin. Two of his most famous works feature the Ragged Falls, so on our way back to Deerhurst we took a detour to take a look at what had given him his vision. One can easily imagine Casson with his easel sketching this white cascade of foaming water as it rushed over smooth boulders, it’s the very essence of their work.
The McMichael Canadian Art Collection
The final stop of my pilgrimage was about a 30-minute drive north of Toronto, the pretty little town of Kleinburg. It is home to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The gallery sits in 100 acres of attractive landscaped gardens and is a haven of peace. It was started by Robert and Signe McMichael and has evolved into a world class art destination.
They have a large number of paintings by both Thomson and the Group of Seven. Chris Finn, the Curator, explained that Thomson endeavoured to produce a sketch a day and that he had a specially slotted box to store paintings that had not dried. There were also interesting archive material about the Group of Seven’s first UK showings at the British Empire exhibitions of 1924 and 1925.
After spending time admiring the paintings and visiting the extensive collection of Canada’s First Nations art, I moved outside. In the gardens is a replica of the hut that originally stood next to the Studio Building and served as Tom Thomson’s winter painting workshop. It was primitive but that had not affected the quality of the work he produced. A short walk away is a sculpture garden and on the way I stopped to see where six members of the Group are buried. Their graves are fittingly marked with simply inscribed rocks from the Canadian Shield and next to them rest Robert and Signe, a permanent reminder of the couple’s devotion to art.
My journey was over and it has exceeded all my expectations, the landscapes they painted have an intensity that need to be seen. I felt that I had got to know the artists personally and can understand why they exert such a powerful influence on art and artists in Canada even to this day.
|Peter Morrell flew Air Transat to Toronto with Canadian Affair
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