Coast to Coast with Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven: Northern Ontario (east)

Julian Beecroft’s trans-Canada blog

Julian Beecroft

A Northern Silver Mine

One artist is missing from the famous 1920 photo of the Group of Seven (see blog post dated 02.09.11) taken at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club. I have no idea why Franklin Carmichael wasn’t present on this occasion, but his absence has always seemed to me indicative of his place within the Group. Several years younger than the next most junior member, he was by 1920 a devoted family man and a consummately skilled designer, a profession he continued to practise until the 1930s, long after the Group’s other members had turned to teaching or other work as a way of supplementing the income they earned from their painting. He remained until the end of his life an occasional painter, and did not participate in any of the Group of Seven’s initial forays into Algoma, though he did manage to go to Lake Superior with Lawren Harris on three trips in the later 1920s, completing a number of oil sketches as well as some superb watercolours, a medium in which he excelled.

The Canadian Shield, a vast area of granite with soil unsuitable for agriculture, covers most of Northern Ontario

Carmichael’s early triumphs were all derived from the landscape of his upbringing near Orillia, an hour or so north of Toronto, or, in pictures like October Gold, also in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, around the home he occupied with his wife and child in what was then the village of Lansing but is now part of Toronto’s metropolitan area. (Needless to say, the view of the city’s Don Valley depicted in this delicate, decorative image, with its strong echoes of Tom Thomson, is now quite changed.) But the journey I was making through Ontario with my uncle, Stuart Beecroft, now took us into the north of the province, to those places where, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Carmichael found subjects that would inspire his greatest work.

The geology of Northern Ontario is for the most part based on the Canadian Shield, a vast area of Precambrian granite encircling Hudson Bay and stretching from the Adirondack Mountains in the southeast to Baffin Island in the Arctic north. The soil is shallow and, at latitudes as far north as Northern Ontario, the winters are long and incredibly cold. Agriculture is still difficult to sustain and as a result logging and mining have always been, and remain, the region’s principal industries.

The head frame of the Silver Summit Mine, Cobalt – still standing, but only just

The story of Cobalt is typical of the fluctuating fortunes of communities across this vast region. An unremarkable settlement with a remarkable history, the remnants of which can still be seen as you walk about the place, in 2003 it was named Ontario’s most historic town by a panel of judges appointed by TV Ontario. A century earlier, in 1903, silver was discovered here; according to reports from the time, silver seams were running along the surface of the streets with chunks of the stuff the size of cannon balls lying around waiting to be picked up. Over the next few years, as prospectors rushed to establish claims all over this area, the town grew with a frenzy. A popular saying at the time went, ‘Toronto? Isn’t that the place where you catch the train to Cobalt?’

By the time Carmichael discovered the town, in 1930, the initial bonanza had faded, though silver continued to be extracted here until 1987. His painting A Northern Silver Mineis based on a series of sketches he did of Cobalt and, as such, it represents a composite view of the place, with those characteristic head frames atop the mineshafts in reality far more spread out than in this marvellous image. Breanna Bigelow at Cobalt’s fascinating Mining Museum showed us photos of the 150 such structures that once stood in this area.

The Rights-of-Way Mine, Cobalt

Most of them have collapsed over the past few decades, but a dozen or so remain, haunting the town and surrounding countryside like the ramshackle churches of some long-forgotten sect.

Grace Lake

The process of looking for this painting, a favourite of mine, in fact turned out to be a good warm-up for our next port of call. In 1929, Carmichael decided to visit his brother-in-law in the La Cloche Mountains, an area of striking white quartzite hills along the northern shore of Georgian Bay, nowadays partially included within Killarney Provincial Park. Back then these pine-clad slopes were considerably more exposed, as elsewhere because of extensive logging in the area and far less effective management of forest fires than exists today. Carmichael was immediately smitten and before long had supervised the building of a log cabin on Cranberry Lake, from where he would set out in his canoe to nearby painting locations, and one very special place in particular.

Grace Lake, a short paddle and portage from his cabin, has become one of the most iconic Group of Seven sites. Carmichael depicted this exquisite kettle lake over and over again in pencil, oil and watercolour, most often from a rock overlooking the lake that has become known simply as Carmichael’s rock. Made famous by a mysterious photo of the artist taken at this spot in 1934 by friend and fellow painter Joachim Gauthier, its exact whereabouts are a secret known only to a small group of people, including Jim and Sue Waddington (see blog post dated 30.09.11) and our generous hosts and guides during our time in the area, Jon and Kerry Butler.

Franklin Carmichael at Grace Lake, 1934. Photo by Joachim Gauthier, courtesy of Kerry & Jon Butler

The Butlers’ home backs onto Frood Lake, another favourite of Carmichael’s, as we shall see, and especially of his good friend A.J. Casson, who in 1926 became the Group’s new seventh member, replacing Frank Johnston who had very publicly decided to go his own way a few years earlier. Frood flows into Cranberry Lake and from there it was an easy hike to pick up the canoe and paddle across Grace. The hike up to the rock was another thing altogether, both incredibly steep and also trackless. Carmichael must have stumbled across it by accident, but even so its obscurity does not make it immune from harm, as the Butlers’ excellent Willisville website makes clear.

Carmichael’s rock overlooking Grace Lake

The painting and sketch I was looking for, both of which have been loaned to the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, are each entitled Grace Lake, but I knew from initial discussions with Jim and Sue that the vista in these images was different from the view of the lake you get from the rock. It seemed to come from a higher vantage point than any available around Grace, one which also afforded a view of the distant Bay of Islands to the south.

Carmichael typically favoured such panoramic outlooks, more so than anyone else in the Group of Seven. This may have been down to individual artistic temperament, but I have often seen parallels with the lofty vistas of Flemish Renaissance masters like Joachim Patinir, whose work Carmichael would surely have encountered while studying in Antwerp immediately before the First World War. Certainly, his smooth style, with its subtle gradations of colour, is closer to those early models of landscape painting in both technique and mood than anyone else in the Group of Seven.

In the end, it was Jim who solved the mystery of this painting’s whereabouts, just as he and Sue have done on so many occasions in the past, particularly in this area. Going back to the sketch, which belongs to the National Gallery of Canada, he found that the pencil drawing on which this was based was in fact a view of Frood Lake from the north, with the Bay of Islands in the background. All we had to do was confirm Jim’s discovery by hiking up an even steeper mountain overlooking Frood and, lo and behold, there it was, looking more or less the same as the sketch, though with two significant differences: Carmichael’s addition of the two small islands, very similar in size and placement to those at Grace; and the size of the hill on the immediate right, which in 1930 would have appeared as it does in the painting, but even ten years later had been drastically reduced by mining in the area.

Frood Lake with a view to the Bay of Islands beyond

It is not clear why Carmichael called the painting Grace Lake, or indeed whether the title was his own or something given to it later by a curator duped into thinking it was Grace, as we were, by the presence of those two islands. Either way, it offered proof to add to the Cobalt findings that Carmichael was not averse to moving things around to get the image he wanted.

The Group of Seven and contemporary Canadian art

The strange photograph of Carmichael on his rock, one of the most famous in Canadian art history, was used by contemporary Scottish painter Peter Doig as the basis for his 1997 print Figure in a Mountain Landscape. Doig spent much of his childhood in Canada and many of his earlier works, such as Canoe Lake or The White Canoe, draw on the iconography of, and the mythology surrounding, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.

He is not alone in this. Reflecting their Olympian status in Canada, a wide range of Canadian artists has appropriated Group of Seven images for their own purposes. The Korean-born artist Jin-me Yoon, for instance, used Lawren Harris’s Maligne Lake as the basis for her 1996 photographic work A Group of Sixty-Seven, in which, in 67 separate photographs, 67 individual members of Vancouver’s Korean community, including the artist herself, stood in front of Harris’s famous painting, apparently demanding to be noticed.

Winnipeg-based painter Keith Berens also pointed me in the direction of two further artists who have in certain pieces or series used specific Group of Seven/Thomson images as the basis for their own work, though their responses could hardly be more different: whereas Luther Pokrant’s paintings Isles of Spruce and Batchewana Rapids seem to be enigmatic, even poetic reinterpretations of the originals (though, admittedly, these are small images to go by), Diana Thorneycroft’s knockabout dioramas, collectively entitled Group of Seven Awkward Moments, use Group of Seven or Thomson paintings as backdrops to various skits on clichés of Canadian life, bizarrely mixing up familiar symbols to create images that are both funny and occasionally unsettling.


Forest, Algoma, as seen from the Agawa Canyon Tour Train

The work of the Group of Seven was also unsettling for critics and art lovers back in 1920, though given the huge disturbance caused by the First World War, such a reaction is perhaps hard to understand so many years later. To add to the national loss of young lives in the conflict, the death of Tom Thomson was not only a terrible blow for Canadian art, it was a tragedy for his friends. No one now could think of going back to Algonquin Park, Thomson’s country.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, in February 1918 Lawren Harris received a second blow when his brother was killed in action in France. Not surprisingly, he suffered a nervous breakdown and in May set off for the north with his friend Dr James MacCallum. At Sault Ste Marie they boarded a train on the Algoma Central Railway – opened as recently as 1914 to bring logs, iron ore and other minerals to the Great Lakes – travelling north for two hundred miles through what Harris describes in his book The Story of the Group of Seven as ‘a rugged, wild land packed with an amazing variety of subjects … a veritable paradise for the creative adventurer in paint in the Canadian north’.

Lawren Harris, Trees and Pool, c. 1920. Oil on panel, 26.7 x 35.6cm

For the second time that decade, Harris’s wealth came to the aid of Canadian art. He paid the ACR to kit out a boxcar for four people to sleep in comfortably and then in early September he, MacCallum and fellow creative adventurers Frank Johnston and J.E.H. MacDonald travelled up to Agawa Canyon, 112 miles north of Sault Ste Marie. Thus began the first of four annual autumn trips that have come to define the image of the Group of Seven and led to the work with which they are most associated.

As well as the boxcar, the expeditionary party had access to a jigger that two of them could pump along the tracks to good-looking spots, and a canoe for exploring the region’s many solemn lakes and wild rivers. When they had finished in Agawa, the ACR hauled the boxcar 20 miles down the line to Hubert, near the Montreal River falls, then finally, as the fall colour reached its peak, a similar distance further south to Batchawana (these days spelled without the ‘e’).

J.E.H. MacDonald, Autumn Leaves, Batchewana Woods, Algoma, c. 1919. Oil on composite woodboard, 21.6 x 26.7cm

Harris’s description is worth quoting at length for the vivid picture it paints of their adventures:

‘We worked from early morning until dark, in sun, grey weather, or rain. In the evening by lamp or candlelight each showed the others his day’s work. There was a time for criticism, encouragement, and discussion, for accounts of our discoveries about painting, for our thoughts about the character of the country, and our descriptions of effects in nature which differed in each section of the country. We found, for instance, that there was a wild richness and clarity of colour in the Algoma woods which made the colour in southern Ontario seem grey and subdued. We found that there were cloud formations and rhythms peculiar to different parts of the country and to different seasons of the year … And we found that all these differences in character, mood, and spirit were vital to a creative expression in paint which went beyond mere decoration and respectability in art.’

The Algoma Central Railway is still running today, so my uncle and I boarded their Agawa Canyon Tour Train, a day-return trip to the eponymous canyon that winds uphill for most of its duration through a glorious disarray of trees and shrubs, the same amazing variety that Harris, MacDonald and the others discovered almost a century ago. ‘Spectacular’ is a word Canadians use a lot to describe their own landscape, but it was never more justified than here.

Algoma hills as seen from the Agawa Canyon Tour Train

MacDonald in particular did some of his greatest work in Algoma. A.Y. Jackson, who took Dr MacCallum’s place on the 1919 and subsequent trips, writes in his autobiography, A Painter’s Country, that he thought of this region as ‘MacDonald’s country’. He goes on, perhaps a little uncharitably, that MacDonald was ‘a quiet unadventurous person, who could not swim, or paddle, or swing an axe, or find his way in the bush’, but that he was ‘awed and thrilled by Algoma and he got the feel of it in his painting’.

In 1918, MacDonald was recovering from the stroke he had suffered the previous November, and just as with Harris the therapeutic environment of Algoma had a transformative effect on his art. Drawing on the liberating influence of Thomson, and leaving aside the great canvases that resulted from these trips, such as MacDonald’s The Solemn Land, both men did some of the most vivid sketches of their lives in this region.

J.E.H. MacDonald, The Little Falls, 1918. Oil on composite woodboard, 21.6 x 26.7cm

One in particular, The Little Falls, has always impressed me for that quality of intimacy which marks many of MacDonald’s best images. But, as with most of the Algoma pictures, the region’s inaccessibility, other than by train, has made it hard to identify the exact location of this sketch. Jim Waddington believed that he had seen these falls years ago at Agawa Canyon, before he and Sue had begun their decades-long quest. We couldn’t find them in the hour and half the train stopped at the canyon before starting its return journey, but it seems Jim was more or less right, as jedi jeffi makes clear on this web forum (scroll down until you get to the photo). (Note the difference in autumn colour in jedi jeffi’s excellent photos, a mere week after we were there.)

We had been warned that trying to drive into Algoma in anything less than a 4×4 was risky at best, but my uncle thought his Volvo estate was up to the challenge, so the following day we plunged into Batchawana along the Mile 38 Road. I had a vague notion, based on virtual wanderings using Google Earth, that Jackson’s First Snow, Algoma, also in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, was a view of a hillside close to Batchawana train stop, but the fact that we got close enough to test this idea was a bit of a miracle.

After two hours and thirty miles that pushed the car’s suspension to the absolute limit, we arrived at Batchawana to be greeted by the flat silence of the bush, broken only by the occasional crack of a distant shotgun. The hill opposite did indeed look like the one in the Jackson picture, even if the vantage point was quite obviously both higher up and much further back, a good hike from where we were. In the end, though, our perseverance was rewarded with a piece of footage that sums up our time in this wild land.

The next day, assuming the road couldn’t possibly be any worse than the previous one, we attempted a similar drive along the Mile 67 Road to the Montreal River Dam (alas, the thundering falls of MacDonald’s painting – see blog post dated 02.09.11 – are no more). We assumed wrong and had soon turned back, defeated by the inhospitable nature of the country, yet exhilarated in spite of that.

Bush and mountains, Algoma

Similarly enthused, Harris and the others knew that the sketches they brought back from Algoma that first year were a new departure in Canadian art – bolder, simpler, rougher, more colourful and more spontaneous in technique than anything any of them had previously attempted. Fired by a belief in what they were doing that sprang directly from knowing these new methods were above all truthful to their experience of Algoma, they began exhibiting these sketches and the canvases that arose from them. The critics were mostly sceptical at best, very few people came to see the paintings, and almost no one bought them, but, aside from Frank Johnston (whom I will discuss in the next blog post), the new group was undeterred. As Fred B. Housser, a friend of Lawren Harris, wrote in his 1926 encomium A Canadian Art Movement, the first book on these painters, ‘The men themselves believed that in Northern Ontario they had found a country which expressed a dominating note in Canadian environment and the spirit of the country.’

Before long, Harris’s search for that spirit would continue even further north, along the North Shore of Lake Superior, though already, so soon after the Group had been formed, the nature of his own quest seemed less bound up with any national artistic mission than with his own spiritual progress.

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 will be available on 11 November.

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  1. I’ve been to Carmichael’s Rock, and it is a magical place. Jim Waddington has suggested that when sitting on the rock it somehow compels the seated to turn slightly to the right and gaze off into the same direction as the painter does in the photo. Grace Lake is an amazing, must-see place.

    I’m really enjoying this series and can’t wait for the next installment.

    • Julian Beecroft 29 Oct 2011

      Thanks, Preston. Yes, Grace Lake is really beautiful.

  2. Thanks for the pics, the train video, and your great writing. We’re looking forward to your next posting.

  3. Leanne W 3 Nov 2011

    Hi Julian,

    We’ve been enjoying your blog and although you’ve already been through Toronto and Georgian Bay we’d like to extend an invitation to the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound. Tom’s family grew up just outside of Owen Sound. We have an extensive collection of his work, archival items and work by the Group of Seven. Please stop by and say hello!

    • Julian Beecroft 4 Nov 2011

      Thanks Leanne. Next time I’m in Toronto I’ll make the trip up to Owen Sound.

  4. Marg C 6 Nov 2011

    Wonderful posting. I live in the Algoma area do work in the back country. The Volvo and your bravery at driving the Mile 38 and Mile 67 roads – my hat is off to you and your uncle! This is a wonderful country to enjoy – with care. I shared your post with others via FB.

  5. keith berens 6 Nov 2011

    Hi Julian
    well the day approaches for my journey I will be in UK Nov 16th and stay till the 22 then off to Paris for a couple of days. I will be back in the UK afternoon of 25 Nov. Maybe we could get together sometime on the 26 or what is best for you. A couple days in Hastings would fit my schedule if you are up to it then lets do it. Maybe we could meet at the Dulwich gallery or something does that work for you or is it better for me just to head to Hastings on my own?

    • Julian Beecroft 7 Nov 2011

      Hi Keith. I’ll send you an email and we’ll organise it that way. Thanks.

  6. Julian Beecroft 6 Nov 2011

    Thanks Marg. It was certainly a challenge getting in to Batchawana, but so worth it.


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