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