Coast to Coast with Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven: Southern Ontario – Toronto and Georgian Bay

Julian Beecroft’s trans-Canada blog

Toronto

Toronto one hundred years ago was a thriving commercial city in the midst of the boom Canada had enjoyed since the turn of the century. Attracted by the promise of opportunities in the new country that contrasted with the bleak prospects he faced in his native North of England, Arthur Lismer emigrated there in 1911 and soon found a position in Toronto at the prestigious commercial design firm of Grip Ltd.

There he met J.E.H. MacDonald, by then the firm’s head designer, as well as Tom Thomson, also an accomplished commercial artist if still a novice as a painter, and the ebullient Frank Johnston, who Lismer would later depict with customary good humour in a series of cartoons. Lismer was excited by his adopted country, in particular by the beauty of wilderness areas such as Bon Echo Provincial Park in Southern Ontario, with its ancient native pictographs carved into the massive Mazinaw Rock as well as huge inscriptions from Lismer’s beloved Walt Whitman, whose writings were held dear by several of the future members of the Group of Seven.

Mazinaw Lake, Bon Echo Park, Southern Ontario

What Toronto still lacked in those boom years was a public art gallery; these days, of course, it can boast the world-class Art Gallery of Ontario, designed by Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry and home to a superb collection of paintings by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, many of which have been loaned to the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, as well as several rooms devoted to David Milne, a singular Canadian genius whose work has been a major revelation for me on this trip.

The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, designed by Frank Gehry

One hundred years ago, there was little appetite for the visual arts. Even the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa was a poorly funded body whose budget for new paintings still strongly favoured older, more conservative European work.

Today the NGC is a magnificent institution with a substantial collection of art from all periods, including a significant holding of contemporary work and several rooms given to works by Thomson and the Group of Seven. What impressed me most about these paintings, which include Canadian classics such as MacDonald’s The Tangled Garden and The Solemn Land and Lawren Harris’s North Shore, Lake Superior, as well as several of the masterpieces leant to the show at Dulwich, was both their ambitious scale – many of these paintings are big – and their consistent clarity of design.

The aesthetics of commercial design was something these painters learned from and also something they had to get over, according to Charles Hill, Curator of Canadian Art at the NGC, who met me at the gallery. The sinuous naturalism and simplified colours of Art Nouveau would continue to surface periodically in MacDonald’s work throughout his life, while some of Thomson’s best early canvases are clearly informed by the style. However, the need to earn a living often left little time for painting, with only the most conservative painters guaranteed an income from selling their work. Still, though the climate for young Canadian artists with something new to say was undeniably hard, gradually some of the future members of the Group of Seven felt sufficiently confident to tackle the modern urban themes that other art movements, such as New York’s Ash Can School, were beginning to establish in the public consciousness as valid subjects for serious art.

Lawren Harris had studied in Berlin in the middle years of the previous decade, where his teacher, Franz Skarbina, had also made a name for himself as a painter of grimly realistic urban scenes. Harris returned to Toronto determined to achieve something entirely independent of the European painting styles he had spent so much time learning, but it was not until he saw an exhibition of paintings by J.E.H. MacDonald at Toronto’s recently formed Arts and Letters Club that he realised he was not alone in that ambition.

St George’s Hall, Elm St, Toronto, still home to the Arts and Letters Club

The famous photograph of The Group of Seven, minus Carmichael (see blog post from 02.09.11), was taken at the Arts and Letters Club in 1920, the year the Group formed and the year the Club moved into its permanent home at 14 Elm Street. I was given privileged access to the Arts and Letters Club archives during my visit there, for which I’m greatly indebted to the current president, Margaret McBurney, and my aunt, Jane Beecroft, who has long campaigned for Toronto’s heritage. The Club’s current members still sit and talk around the same solid oak tables seen in the photo.

Harris and MacDonald struck up a great friendship and, as well as painting a number of Toronto’s own gritty urban subjects, made several trips to places in the northern part of Southern Ontario and the Laurentian Mountains in Southern Quebec, where MacDonald sketched the study for Laurentian Hillside, October, a breakthrough work for the artist. Crucially for what they would later go on to achieve, in 1913 the two painters took a trip to the US city of Buffalo, just across the border at Niagara Falls, to see an exhibition of Scandinavian art including images by Harald Sohlberg and Gustaf Fjaestad. These painters’ decorative snowscapes were a revelation, reminding the young Canadians of their own landscape and suggesting a way forward that seemed to owe very little to mainstream European traditions.

Franklin Carmichael, Autumn Hillside, 1920, Oil on canvas, 76 x 91.4 cm. This early work by Franklin Carmichael supposedly depicts a scene near the town of Bolton, an hour or so north of Toronto, where the artist lived for a time in 1916.

Harris quickly realised that the new art movement needed a hub of activity. The heir to the massive Massey-Harris fortune, he not only had no need to earn a living, but was able to contribute substantial resources at significant moments toward the success of the new art movement. In 1913, sensing such a moment, he and Dr James MacCallum, the new movement’s first patron, advanced funds toward the construction of what would be called, with typical modernist functionality, The Studio Building.

Toronto is home to half of my extended family, and this project is in part an ancestral journey through a land where the Beecrofts have lived since the mid-19th century. With the help of another beloved aunt, the composer Norma Beecroft, and, in particular, David Silcox, President of Sotheby’s Canada and a renowned authority on Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, I was shown around the Studio Building by current resident Abe Avraamides. Now a private home, albeit one with national significance, its three floors once housed six studios between them, each capaciously proportioned with broad, high windows, as video clip 18 on the CBC’s Painters in the Wilderness site makes clear.

The Studio Building, Severn St, Toronto

Of the later members of the Group of Seven, only MacDonald, in addition to Harris himself, could afford to take sole possession of a studio in the new building, while Thomson and Jackson shared a studio between them. Jackson went off to war soon afterwards and Thomson, unable to afford the rent, moved into a shack behind the building. This dwelling, which is to Canadians what Dove Cottage is to the English, now sits in the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, north of Toronto.

Tom Thomson’s shack at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario

It was at the McMichael that I finally met Jim and Sue Waddington, with whom I’d been exchanging emails for months before setting off on this journey. Jim and Sue have been seeking out Group of Seven painting sites for some 30 years and, by their own admission, have had a lot of fun in doing so. They now give talks all over the country and have helped enormously with some of the places I’m trying to find. Last year the McMichael staged an exhibition of their photographs displayed alongside the paintings whose views they record. The Footprints site that accompanied the show is probably the best resource on the Group of Seven anywhere on the web.

Georgian Bay

Dr James MacCallum was a leading ophthalmologist and a professor at the University of Toronto. Never an artist himself, he came to his love of painting through his passion for the Canadian wilderness.

His cottage on an island at the southern end of Georgian Bay became a haven to which most of the artists from the new movement were gradually invited to come and paint for extended periods during the summer months. Between 1912 and 1916, first MacDonald, then Lismer, Jackson, Thomson and Varley would all spend time there. It is perhaps remarkable that such a small geographical area would inspire so many of these painters’ early masterpieces, several of which, such as Varley’s Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, Lismer’s September Gale, and Jackson’s Night, Pine Island and March Storm, Georgian Bay, are featured in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Frederick Horsman Varley, Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, 1921, Oil on canvas, 132.6 x 162.8 cm

For the next few weeks, as far as Thunder Bay on the west side of Lake Superior, I will be travelling with another Canadian relative, my uncle, the film-maker Stuart Beecroft, who, in addition to driving the two of us into some of Ontario’s more far-flung wilderness areas, will be shooting and editing two short films for the blog, the first of which will feature in the next post. My uncle and I were invited out to the islands in the southern part of Georgian Bay by George and Kittie Fells, who have spent many summers in their cottage in this otherworldly landscape. In fact, the wind that is such a constant hazard on Georgian Bay made the water too rough on the day we had planned to go even for the Fells’s motorboat to venture out. Lismer, his wife and young child encountered similar conditions the first time they tried to come out to MacCallum’s island and were forced to spend a night on another, more sheltered island before they could reach the MacCallum place.

We also tried again the following day, when the wind had eased, and eventually found the site of Varley’s Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, also in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, though not until it had dawned on us that the water level in the bay, as elsewhere in the Great Lakes, had dropped by several feet since this painting was done. Thus the wide channel of Varley’s image is considerably narrower today, and the white pine in the picture, though still standing (a remarkable feat in this hostile environment), is now wizened by age and weather and has a younger tree for close company.

A mile or so further out into the bay lie the Pine Islands, painted by both Jackson and Thomson, which both men reached by canoe where in less than ideal weather even going by motorboat can be a hazardous enterprise. Landing on South Pine Island, we quickly found the sites of two images loaned to the Dulwich exhibition: Thomson’s Pine Island, looking almost exactly like the sketch; and Jackson’s canvas Night, Pine Island (depicting the same trees as in Thomson’s picture, but across an inlet), a magical painting in which the artist has clearly compressed the natural dimensions of the island to fit neatly within the frame. Intriguingly, Jackson has also altered the direction of the wind-sculpting of the trees in his picture, as if the prevailing wind were from the east, not the west.

The view used as the basis for Night, Pine Island. My photo is deliberately underexposed to emulate the dark blue night sky in Jackson’s image.

Such changes may illustrate nothing more than the difference between a sketch done in situ and a more considered studio work, or they may point to a fundamental difference in working methods between the two artists, as I hope to discover in exploring Algonquin Park, the area most associated with Tom Thomson, and the subject of my next blog post.

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 entryAlgonquin Park’ will be available on 14 October.

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20 Comments

  1. Barbara Beecroft 3 Oct 2011

    Enjoyed part 3 immensely – writing and photography fabulous.
    Thinking of you and your adventures!

    Barb

  2. Jane Eccles 4 Oct 2011

    Good morning Julian. Norma informed me of your blog last night. What a trip and informative. Beautiful as the day that the Group looked at these places. Regards Jane Eccles

  3. David Margetson 4 Oct 2011

    Hi Julian,
    I finally found your blog. I have enjoyed reading it and viewing your photos of places. I am going to keep on reading for sure.

    • Julian Beecroft 7 Oct 2011

      Hi David. It was great to meet you last month. The blog including Cobalt will be published in three weeks’ time. What a fantastic place!

  4. Pat Bingley 24 Oct 2011

    Hi Julian,
    I do hope you managed to go through Sackville, New Brunswick where Lawren Harris Jr. lived for years. Many of Sr.’s pictures are at the University in that town.
    The Pine Islands are a favourite for my family to take a quick run out to on relatively calm days from our cottage on Georgian Bay.
    Have fun on your trip.

  5. Julian Beecroft 25 Oct 2011

    I did pass through Sackville on the VIA Rail train, I think. I didn’t know about the connection with Lawren Harris, but I’m not surprised. Just about everywhere in Canada has some sort Group of Seven story to tell. They’re just part of the basic cultural glue of the country, aren’t they?

  6. Winnie T 3 Nov 2011

    Great articles; hope you’re enjoying your Canadian tour. Don’t forget the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound (where Tom grew up), on the shores of Georgian Bay. They house the third largest collection of Thomsons and a substantial body by the Group of Seven. http://www.tomthomson.org

    • Julian Beecroft 4 Nov 2011

      Hi Winnie. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have time to get to the Thomson Art Gallery. But there are so many great collections of Canadian art within half a day’s drive of Toronto. Aside from those I did get to (which also included the excellent Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa), I can also think of the galleries in Windsor, London, Hamilton, Unionville and Kingston. Even a week in the area just spent going to galleries wouldn’t be enough to see it all.

  7. Hello Julian. Incredible serendipity. I read a CTC article and it sent me to London and then to your blog and I recognized the last name and wondered: any relation to my long ago best friend DOUG, son of Eric, in London Ontario. (I also know Norma from my music composition career.) After reading the article I realized yes, it is the same family. I am involved in cultural tourism in my area (The A.Y. Jackson Trail and the gourp of seven painting sites at Bon Echo and the Madawaska River.) I will be following your blog and hope our paths will cross sometime. I currently operate a B&B in Calabogie as well as persuing my music career. Anyone who wants to come to this area to explore lots of A.Y. Jackson sites and other painters come on over.

    • Julian Beecroft 9 Nov 2011

      Thanks for your message, Byron. I’ve already mentioned Norma on the blog, but Doug was also an incredibly useful source of information, especially where the Rockies were concerned. This whole project has been very much a family affair. How could it not be!

  8. Kittie-Marie Fells 18 Nov 2011

    Hello Julian: sorry to be so long in contacting you. Your pictures of the south pine etc. are great – that was a good day – Thank you for your messages!! …that day seems far off in Nov.

  9. Kittie-Marie Fells 18 Nov 2011

    Hello Julian: thank you for your wonderful letters to us. We loved having you. That day looking at the pine tree and the pine island was memorable for us too. Your uncle says there is a photo of our cottage somewhere but I can’t find it.
    Your photos are wondrous…..cheers Kittie

    • Julian Beecroft 22 Nov 2011

      Hi Kittie. Thanks for your comments. That day on Georgian Bay was among the most memorable of my trip. Thanks again.

  10. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151455713875249&set=a.76647910248.140485.585565248&type=3&theater

    my Nana (Joan Robinson) owned Pine Island for most of her life and left it, upon her death, in 1982 to the National Trust, I believe…to forever be used as a place for picnics, painting, fishing, kite flying, etc…

    thanks for posting…

    • Julian Beecroft 27 Mar 2012

      Hi Lisa

      I just saw your comment. It’s nice that people are still reading my blog long after the exhibition has finished.

      I was fascinated to read of your connection to Pine Island and, in fact, having seen your photo of the place I was given to wondering whether, in picking South Pine as the likely spot for Jackson and Thomson’s works, I was in the wrong spot. This was the only one of the Pine Islands I had time to explore, more’s the pity. It seemed like a piece of great good fortune that the lagoon I did find fitted Jackson’s canvas so well, if not exactly. It sounds like you have a bit more information on the artist’s connection with the place. Unfortunately, I’m not a Facebooker, so if you see this comment and could enlighten me, I’d be very grateful.

      Thanks so much for both your comments.

  11. my great grandfather, Percy Robinson, an amateur painter, also painted with members of the Group of Seven (Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson) during summers at Go Home Bay…Charles Hill wrote about him in his book…”The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation.” Percy Robinson was also known for his Ink drawings and poem…called “The Georgian Bay”…not well known but thought I’d share some history with you…

    Great photos and blog…thanks so much…!!!

  12. lisa 6 Apr 2012

    Hi Julian,

    it was indeed South-East Pine Island that my Nana owned…I’ve never been to the other Pine Island that is further out in the Bay…so you were in fact in the right place…I have some history of my Great Grandfather’s experiences up there and signed copies of some of A.Y.’s and Harris’ art books but I never knew them…so what I know has been passed down via family trees, historical books my Grandfather, Gilbert wrote and through my Mother’s memories…I find it all so fascinating but difficult to absorb and remember all the information in my head…I just love the art work…and the emotion that it wells up inside me…the history part is great…but I’m probably more interested in how the images make me feel and why I love Go Home Bay so much…

    again, it was a pleasure reading your article…thank you for sharing…Lisa

    • Julian Beecroft 11 Apr 2012

      Thanks so much Lisa. It’s great to hear about your personal connections to the Group and good to know that I guessed right after all!

  13. Andy Cruse 22 Aug 2012

    Hi Jules!
    Great to hear about your adventure; it looks pretty spectacular! I was browsing google for some old friends and found you! It would be good to hear from you so please get in touch!!
    Cheers
    Andy

  14. Julian Beecroft 29 Aug 2012

    Well, I never. Hello Andy, you rock god. Not sure how we make contact, as I don’t do social networking, but I’m really glad to hear from you.
    Cheers, Julian

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