Coast to Coast with Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven – meet Julian Beecroft

Over the next three months and seven blog posts, Julian Beecroft will travel across Canada from Atlantic to Pacific coasts. During the course of his extraordinary journey he will introduce you to Tom Thomson, Canadian landscape painter, and the members of the Group of Seven, their paintings and something of their individual characters, as he visits and photographs the sites of paintings loaned to the exhibition coming this autumn to Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Julian Beecroft

Departure

I first became aware of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven back in the early 1990s through the British artist Jacques Nimki, whose own very beautiful work pays close attention to neglected aspects of the natural world. Jacques had discovered a slim volume on the Group and Thomson in a second-hand bookshop in London, which he showed to me with the air of letting me in on a great secret.

I could see the quality at once and mentally stored away a few impressions, but it was not until 2005, while on a visit to family in Toronto, that I first saw the Group and Thomson’s work in the raw at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection just north of the city. The memory of that book had led me to expect something a bit special, but in truth I was simply stunned by what I saw: I couldn’t believe that work this good wasn’t better known outside Canada. The sketches of Tom Thomson in particular possessed an exhilarating vitality, a complete immersion in the unrepeatable moment that to my eyes ranks him alongside the greatest painters of his time.

Tom Thomson, Winter Thaw in the Woods, 1917, Oil on composite woodpulp board, 21.6 x 26.8 cm

Growing acquaintance with these images over the past few years has given me a hankering to see these places for myself. My father was Canadian, so the country has always been an emotional hinterland, something sensed but hardly seen. Then about a year ago I had the idea of travelling across Canada following a route that took in as many as possible of the sites where these images were first envisioned and sketched, and writing about what I found.

The journey I started planning, from east coast to west, would take me several weeks to complete and would also be expensive. When I learned a few months later of the exhibition coming to Dulwich Picture Gallery this autumn, I couldn’t believe the serendipity – the first time any of these pictures have been seen here for years, and the first-ever exhibition in the UK exclusively devoted to the work of Thomson and the Group of Seven. Not only that, but the paintings loaned by so many Canadian institutions would include national treasures such as Thomson’s The West Wind and The Jack Pine. Magic!

Tom Thomson, The Jack Pine, 1916-1917, Oil on canvas, 127.9 x 139.8 cm

I approached Dulwich Picture Gallery with the idea of writing a blog of my journey and was met with immediate enthusiasm for the project. Now, with the help of numerous people there, the goodwill and practical input of a growing number of Canadians (including family members), and the generous support of a number of Canadian sponsors I am setting off on this art-history quest, moving in what is the general direction of travel of much Canadian history as well as, broadly speaking, the physical trajectory of the story of the Group of Seven.

The blog will be posted at fortnightly intervals over the next three months, but my journey will take seven weeks from one side of the country to the other, beginning in Halifax in mid-August and coming to an end in Vancouver in early October. My route will take me through most of Canada’s major cities and, more importantly, all the landscapes in between. As I go, besides telling the story of these painters’ lives and their work, and photographing and videoing the places they immortalised in paint, I hope to reach some understanding of the culture they sprang from, the influences they drew upon and the influence in turn their own iconic images continue to exert on Canadian cultural life.

J.E.H. MacDonald, Beaver Dam, 1919, Oil on board, 21.2 x 26.7 cm

In the years since my McMichael epiphany, I have certainly come to understand how the works of the Group of Seven were, at least to begin with, a conscious assertion of Canadianness at a time, in the aftermath of the First World War, when Canadians’ awareness of their own nationhood was rapidly maturing.

But nationalism alone does not make great art, thank heaven, and these paintings and sketches seem to me not to revel in patriotic sentiment but instead to reveal something essential about the character of the country my father grew up in, a rugged beauty that I had never quite grasped on previous visits to the small part of Southern Ontario that I knew. My reaction must be similar to those of many Canadians in the 1920s and ’30s, who saw in these paintings a vision of the land that was radically different from the more genteel pictures of previous generations.

J. E. H. MacDonald, Falls, Montreal River, 1920, Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 153 cm

Tom Thomson and the future members of the Group of Seven reached the firm conviction that the approved painting styles many of them had learnt in European academies in Paris, Berlin and Antwerp could not hope to do justice to the larger scale and rougher character of the Canadian landscape. Instead they combined the modern approach to colour pioneered by the Post-Impressionists with a sense of design that owed much at times to Art Nouveau. Applied to the teeming variety of the Canadian wilderness, the end result is a bold and colourful landscape art that is deliberately both crude and delicate, and wonderfully rich in mood. Above all, the best of these paintings are deeply felt.

J. E. H. MacDonald, Mountain Solitude (Lake Oesa), 1932, Oil on canvas, 50.4 x 66.7 cm

The individual motivations of the Group’s members were as varied as their temperaments, but at least in their public statements they set out a clear and common idea of what they wanted to achieve, which was nothing less than a national art for Canada. As the Group’s prime mover, Lawren Harris, puts it in his book The Story of the Group of Seven, ‘We also came to realize that we in Canada cannot truly understand the great cultures of the past and of other peoples until we ourselves commence our own creative life in the arts.’

The manifesto that accompanied the first Group of Seven show, in 1920, echoed the new independent spirit in the country even as the independence of the paintings themselves challenged conventional tastes in what was then the very conservative city of Toronto. It’s a dichotomy reflected in this talk given many years later by Lawren Harris, recorded by the CBC and archived on their Painters in the Wilderness site, a treasure trove of TV and radio resources on the Group and Thomson.

Members of the Group of Seven at the Arts & Letters Club, Toronto, c. 1920. From left to right: F.H. Varley, A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Barker Fairley (friend of the Group), Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer & J.E.H. MacDonald. Franklin Carmichael, the Group’s seventh member, was not present on this occasion.

In truth, the Group’s association was based as much in ordinary friendship as in shared aesthetics. Most of them had met at the Toronto commercial art firm of Grip Ltd around 1910. As the years went by, Tom Thomson became the hub of this colour wheel of friendships, a largely untrained painter absorbing whatever he could from his more learned colleagues, and they in turn taking inspiration from the all too obvious blossoming of his genius.

Thomson died suddenly in 1917 in Algonquin Park, his adopted home over the previous three years and the scene of his greatest work. The circumstances surrounding his death have never been properly explained and continue to haunt the Canadian imagination to this day, inspiring numerous theories, including murder. Whatever the cause, his loss was a tragedy both for Canada and for 20th-century art. Similarly haunted by their sense of loss, three years later, with the First World War finally at an end, Thomson’s friends came together to form the Group of Seven. Spurred on by his passionate example, over the next decade and more between them the Group’s members would penetrate every region of the country, no matter how remote and apparently inhospitable – from the farming communities of Quebec to the radiant autumn forests of Northern Ontario, to the glacial lakes of the Canadian Rockies, even to the Arctic – in an attempt, to borrow Thomson’s revealing phrase, to ‘lift it out’.

Lawren Harris, Grounded Icebergs (Disco Bay), c. 1931, Oil on canvas, 80.0 x 101.6 cm

The Canadian art historian Lisa Christensen has written that the best way to appreciate these paintings is to get on your hiking boots and go and see the landscapes themselves. Some places are difficult to locate precisely, despite extensive research, while others are too remote to think of visiting in what must inevitably be a time- and cost-limited journey. But I hope that by the end of it anyone following this blog will have a better idea of the scope and the sheer beauty of these painters’ work. Best of all, if I can inspire anyone reading to come and see these paintings for themselves at Dulwich Picture Gallery between 19 October and 8 January, then the blog will have done its job.

Julian’s Beecroft’s trans-Canada blog is exclusively available to DOV readers. Please do not hesitate to leave your comment in the box below. Julian will try to answer any questions during his journey.

His next entry,Halifax to Montreal via Charlevoix County’ will be available on 16 September.

Julian Beecroft’s trans-Canadian advertures are generously supported by the following institutions:


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20 Comments

  1. Deb Kernohan 3 Sep 2011

    Fabulous! Looking forward to your next post! Enjoy the journey!

  2. Barbara Beecroft 5 Sep 2011

    What stunning paintings – enjoy this journey of discovery and be safe.

  3. Fiona Roberts 6 Sep 2011

    Really interesting. Lovely paintings. Can’t wait to read more of your blog.

  4. Ian Dejardin 7 Sep 2011

    Your story of how you ‘discovered’ the Group of 7 mirrors my experience exactly – I opened a book in the Royal Academy library in the late 1980s and was completely blown away. The exhibition here at Dulwich has grown out of that moment, over more than 20 years. Happy hiking!

    • Julian Beecroft 9 Sep 2011

      Thank you, Ian. The gallery has been right behind the blog from day one, so congratulations and thanks to your excellent staff. British art lovers are so fortunate that you have been able to mount such a major exhibition of these painters’ work. It’s going to be the best thing in London this autumn.

  5. If you have not already done so, you should contact the Jim and Sue Waddington. They have researched Group of Seven painting sites for decades and have even had their own exhibition at the McMichael Gallery displaying their finds.

    • Julian Beecroft 8 Sep 2011

      Jim and Sue Waddington have been enormously helpful as I have been researching this journey over the past few months. As you say, their more than 30 years of research was recognised in a show at the McMichael last summer. I’ll be writing about the Waddingtons and the McMichael in the post after next (published 30th September).

  6. Maggie Smith 8 Sep 2011

    Canada is close to my heart too as I have many family members there.

    I discovered the Canadian Seven at an exhibition when the Ontario Art Gallery was first opened many years ago and have enjoyed their work ever since. They are so perfected exhibited in the McMichael Art Gallery set as it is amidst miles of raw forest. When I first saw the painting of Pic Mountain by Lawren Harris, from two rooms away, I was moved to tears. I felt moved to my soul by the beauty and spiritual energy in it.

    Enjoy your wonderful journey and I look forward to reading all about it – what a wonderful idea.

    Thank you to Dulwich Gallery for valuing these amazing people and their paintings.

    Maggie

  7. Barbara Beecroft 14 Sep 2011

    Looking forward to your further adventures and discoveries.

    I would imagine the further north you go the colour will be as it was for the ‘Group’ to paint. Enjoy

  8. Jeff Scott 21 Sep 2011

    Enjoy your trip across Canada. If you intend to be in Alberta, you might want to give thought to travelling to Lethbridge. Alberta (south of Calgary). Starting in 1937, A. Y. Jackson (whose brother, Ernest Jackson lived in Lethbridge for many years) began to create paintings of the Southern Alberta landscape. A November 13,1937 article from the Lethbridge Herald titled “Distinguished Canadian Painter, Alexander Young Jackson, Gets South Alta. Scenes on Canvas” begins as follows: “During the past month a distinguished guest has been within our gates. With the countryside full of activity in an effort to garner the last fruits of the season before freeze up, perhaps, only a few noted his presence. Those who did, no doubt had their curiosity aroused at the sight of a sturdily built man of medium height with genial smile and a touch of white hair showing beneath an expressive fedora hat; a figure standing bolt upright by the side of a road, the edge of a coulee, the outskirts of a little village close up to a group of elavators, the corner of either a beet field or pasture of a typical Alberta farm, …”.

    • Julian Beecroft 24 Sep 2011

      My original plans for this journey would have added a couple of weeks onto the current schedule so as to take in places such as Cape Breton, the Gaspe peninsula and more places across the prairies, including Lethbridge, all regions where the members of the Group of Seven did significant work. This is without mentioning the far north. To really do the job properly would take several months and very deep pockets. In the end I had to go with the streamlined option, but what this highlights is both the size of the country and the scale of the Group of Seven’s achievement in not only getting so much of it down on canvas, but doing it so consistently well.

      Your comment also highlights one of the themes running through the trip so far, which is just how many people seem to have known Jackson personally. Indeed, two people I’ve met so far were distant cousins of his. Jackson went just about everywhere in his painting expeditions, including Southern Alberta. To call him a people person would be an understatement. He was a rare individual.

  9. Mark Paros 25 Sep 2011

    It is wonderful that you have covered much territory already in your quest, which is so ambitious.I hope you get many deserved joys on your journey.Keep it up!

  10. Barb Grisdale 26 Sep 2011

    First off, congratulations on your quest. Hope you have a super trip. As a Canadian living in England, I am surprised and delighted that the Group of Seven is making its way here and will be pleased to join English friends who have not heard of them or seen their work. If I am not mistaken, Georgian Bay in northern Ontario was a real inspiration for Thomson, if not the others too. Certainly, their work reflects the diversity of the Canadian landscape. Bon voyage!

    • Julian Beecroft 28 Sep 2011

      You are right that Georgian Bay was a fertile area for many of the future Group of Seven (though they were yet to assume that name when they first painted there). Thomson also went to Georgian Bay and did some fine work, I think, but did not enjoy the sociable atmosphere that existed among the well-to-do families that had summer cottages there. This is one of the stories that reinforce his image as a romantic loner.

      As I think you know, and as I hope to make others understand in the next blog post, published Friday 30th September, Georgian Bay is a magical environment of rocky, pine-strewn, wind-blown islands. It’s not hard to be inspired by such a place. I was.

  11. Gillian Thomas 5 Oct 2011

    I just talked to you about an hour ago at Jericho Beach where you were tracking a Lauren Harris painting.
    I talked to you while you were in your car and had a wonderful conversation. Anyway, another Canadian painter I mentioned is Ted Harrison (born and raised in England) – pictures of people and places of the North.
    Nice to meet you –
    how do I access your blog?
    cheers,
    Gill Thomas

    • Julian Beecroft 6 Oct 2011

      Hi Gill. You were incredibly helpful yesterday at Jericho Beach, for which many thanks. Actually, the painting I was looking for was by F.H. Varley, but I won’t say any more so as not to give too much away. Thanks for the info on Ted Harrison.

      As for the blog, well, I’d say you found it. Scroll up from these comments and you’ll find links to the other two published posts. There are five more to come.

  12. Hello. I work for Oxford University Press, in Toronto. We are interested in using your photo of The View at Grand Lake, Algonquin Park, in our book. If you could contact me, I would be happy to provide you with our publication details.
    Many thanks,
    Sandy

    • Shapa Begum 24 Apr 2013

      Hi Sandy,

      My colleague from Dulwich Picture Gallery will be in touch regarding your query. Many thanks

  13. Ray Fortner 7 Dec 2013

    Hi Julian …..I ran into your blog while searching on the internet for history relating to Port Coldwell. Let me say that the information and stories you have posted particularly of the North of Superior area are just great and close to my heart at this particular time. I’ll tell you why ……I am a photographer (in my retiring years)and am presently preparing a Coffee Table book on the North Shore of Superior. In seeking out information for narratives to accompany my photos, I often go to the internet. I wish to ask if you would permit me to take some excerpts from your blog for my book? I would be pleased to credit you with any of the excerpts used.

    Any help you can provide me would be greatly appreciated!

    Thank you.

    Ray Fortner
    Kenora, Ontario

    • Julian Beecroft 9 Dec 2013

      Hi Ray

      Thanks for your post and your kind remarks about the blog. I would be happy for you to use parts of the blog directly as long as they are clearly differentiated from your own text, either by indentation (if a long quote) or quote marks, and then clearly indicated as being my work. Thank you for asking permission. I hope your book progresses well. Kenora is a lovely place. You’re lucky to live there.

      Kind regards,

      Julian

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