Coast to Coast with Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven – Northern Ontario (west)

Julian Beecroft’s trans-Canada blog

Julian Beecroft

Northern Ontario (west)

The North Shore of Lake Superior

By September 1921, after several journeys to Algoma over four successive years, Lawren Harris was beginning to tire of its opulence. So, while Arthur Lismer, who was with them that year, returned to Sault Ste Marie and ultimately his teaching job in Toronto, Harris and A.Y. Jackson took the Algoma Central Railway further north to Franz, where the ACR intersects the Canadian Pacific Railway route to the west. They took the CPR train as far as the North Shore of Lake Superior, a starkly beautiful landscape that Harris was immediately struck by, seeing artistic possibilities that seemed directly to address his need to develop in a new direction.

Jackson, writing later in his autobiography A Painter’s Country, describes the North Shore of that period as having been ‘burnt over years before’, as was the case with many of the other landscapes the Group of Seven painted in an era before the effective control of forest fires. Apparently, Jackson was less enamoured of the lake itself than of the country that sweeps into it, which he praises in unambiguous terms: ‘I know of no more impressive scenery in Canada for the landscape painter’, he writes. ‘There is a sublime order to it, the long curves of the beaches, the sweeping ranges of hills, and headlands that push out into the lake.’

Lake Superior with distant Pic Island

Lawren Harris, on the other hand, was transfixed from the start by the vast emptiness of Superior. He refers in his book The Story of the Group of Seven to the ‘singing expansiveness and sublimity’ of its skies, and this phrase hints at the change that overcame his art in this period, as well as the overriding qualities of paintings such as North Shore, Lake Superior, which many regard as his greatest painting, or the similarly named and equally transcendental From the North Shore, Lake Superior, one of the major canvases loaned to the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

In 1922, Harris made a formal commitment to theosophy, a spiritual philosophy first devised in the late 19th century in which he had developed an increasing interest over the previous few years. I don’t profess to understand properly the ideas that underlie the theosophical movement – they could easily be described as esoteric – but in its attempt to provide a system of thought that unified the scientific, philosophical and religious worldviews, it was undoubtedly responding to a spiritual crisis afflicting all modern societies, which it seems to me has continued unabated over the last 90 years and may even have got considerably worse. Certainly, the personal crisis Harris had suffered a few years earlier would appear to have been a catalyst for his spiritual quest, which Superior’s austere beauty seems to have offered him the visual raw material to pursue in paint.

One area in particular, the stretch of shoreline looking west from the fishing village of Port Coldwell, would draw him back over several years, though getting there was far from straightforward. The train coming from the east has to travel down a steep gradient and thus was apparently unable to stop to let passengers disembark. So with customary savoir faire (and more than likely a little sweetener for the driver) Harris arranged for the train to slow down at Port Coldwell so that he and his companions could throw off their gear and then jump after it into the bush. It’s another one of the many tales of derring-do that have nurtured the image of the Group of Seven as the original action painters.

The cemetery at Port Coldwell, Ontario

My uncle Stuart and I arrived at Port Coldwell in rather less dramatic fashion along Highway 17, the Trans-Canada Highway, completed as recently as 1960 a little way south of this point. Parking the car, we crossed the CPR tracks, which these days carry only freight trains – the VIA Rail passenger train travels on another line, further north – and soon came to a small cemetery partway down to the cove. This curiously well-kept burial site contains only a few graves scattered about, the last of them dug many years ago. There is clearly space for many more, though this, I suspect, will go unfilled, as the village whose name is inscribed on the entrance sign has itself long since ceased to exist. At the lakeshore the only evidence of habitation is an almost-disintegrated jetty, or dock, which presumably at one time was a berth for the fishing boats that supplied this small community with its livelihood.

Harris painted one very striking canvas of this fishing village, The Ice House, Coldwell, Lake Superior, but his main interest over several years was the area of sharply rising hills immediately west of Port Coldwell. Nowadays formally incorporated as Neys Provincial Park, this heavily wooded landscape is another that was far more open in the early 1920s, as elsewhere the result of extensive logging and unchecked forest fires. In those days, from almost any point on this wide headland the view to the lake would have yielded to the solemn presence of Pic Island, whose improbable size, so close to the shore, imposes itself on the mind like an unanswered question.

Pic Island, Lake Superior, seen through fog

Harris was clearly mesmerised by Pic, painting several versions of it in sketch and canvas, including images in the Dulwich exhibition such as Lake Superior Island, from 1923, as well as the most famous version of it, Pic Island, from the following year. In this canvas, the transition from the decorative spontaneity of the Algoma pictures to the meditative stillness that would characterise the best of his later work seems complete. The earlier image, on the other hand, in the simplified contours of the island depicted offers striking evidence of the urge to summarise, to essentialise, that loomed large among Harris’s artistic priorities from this period onwards.

It became clear after talking to Tammy and John Gillespie at Neys Lunch and Campground that finding the exact spot from where Harris had painted his images of Pic would be a considerable challenge in the time we had available. Aside from anything else, extensive tree growth in the intervening decades made it likely that, even if we could find the spot, the view would be blocked. In the end we opted for a fairly arduous 5km hike up to the gazebo that Ontario Parks built a few years ago at the top of the hill overlooking lake and island. But even knowing what to expect when I reached this lookout had not prepared me for Pic Island’s strange, unearthly beauty.

Pic Island viewed from the gazebo overlooking Neys Provincial Park

At a stroke I understood why, theosophy or not, Harris might have felt compelled to adopt the smooth, simplified style he pursued throughout the rest of his career as a landscape painter. In the hour and a half we spent at the gazebo, both island and lake appeared as smooth to the naked eye as they are in the 1924 painting – like a painted backdrop, a scene in two dimensions, existentially at one remove from the palpable detail of the mainland that rose up to where we stood.

We had arrived in mid-September, when Harris usually came here, a time when the air cools above the lake, causing warmer lake water to be drawn into the atmosphere, where it often forms what are known as lake-effect clouds, low-lying, localised bodies of moisture that can sometimes take on the odd shapes seen in Harris canvases such as From the North Shore, Lake Superior. More pervasively (and meteorologists will correct me if I’m wrong), the large amount of moisture in the air would seem to be the likely cause of the strange appearance of Pic and the water that surrounds it in every piece of footage or photo that we took. But, no matter what the explanation, it cannot diminish what for me was the unforgettable vision of this mystic isle.

Lawren S. Harris, Lake Superior Sketch XLVII, c. 1923. Oil on panel, 30 x 37.5cm

Harris’s images of Pic Island, along with the famous North Shore, Lake Superior, are the first instances of the paintings of landscape features as contemplative objects that would become a major theme in his work over the next decade. This mini genre, which the artist would further develop in his images of mountains in the Rockies in the late 1920s, found its most enigmatic expression in the remarkable Lighthouse, Father Point, from 1930, a painting of the lighthouse at Pointe-au-Père on the south shore of the St Lawrence River in Quebec.

In the years after he had joined the Theosophical Society, Harris was apparently in the habit of sending his friends pamphlets or books on the subject, which were tolerated though perhaps not always read. In the work from this period Harris’s spirituality is a sometimes studied, occasionally overt presence that tends to provoke strong reactions in the viewer. In contrast, in the paintings of Franklin Carmichael, his sketching companion on the later Superior trips, any such force is subsumed into the general atmosphere of the image.

Carmichael was nevertheless greatly influenced by Harris at this point in his development, accepting the gifts of books and in sketches like A Grey Day, loaned to the exhibition at Dulwich, echoing the motifs Harris found in this region, as seen in paintings like Above Lake Superior, a breakthrough work, or studies such as Lake Superior Sketch XXXIX, also loaned to Dulwich.

Lawren S. Harris, Lake Superior Sketch XXXIX, c. 1923. Oil on pulpboard, 30.5 x 38.1cm

If this image is an example of Harris striving for a truth beyond the evidence of the physical world, with the potential artistic pitfalls that entails, then it is also somewhere Carmichael was temperamentally unsuited to follow. The younger man would finally hit his stride as an oil painter with his discovery of the La Cloche Mountains in the late 1920s (see blog post dated 28.10.11), but his best work on the earlier Superior trips was done in watercolour. One picture in particular, Jackfish Village, from 1926, is a masterpiece of the medium made all the more poignant by the story of the place it depicts.

I knew of the demise of Jackfish before setting off on my journey and was determined to find what remains of this once-thriving community. My uncle and I were able to drive part of the way along the unadopted road that once served the village, at which point we agreed I would go ahead to see whether anything at the site made it worth trekking up there with all our camera gear.

Derelict buildings, Jackfish, Ontario

What I found were a few gutted old shacks, half-swallowed by the bush, and the rusted shell of what looked like an Oldsmobile from the late 1940s. The date is crucial, as until that time Jackfish had been an important coal stop along the CPR line that still runs along the lakeshore. It was also a busy fishing port, landing hauls of lake trout and other fish from what used to be the abundant stocks in the Great Lakes. Then, according to Dennis Fisher, who with his wife Patti owns the Coach House Motel in nearby Terrace Bay, three significant changes in a very short space of time did for Jackfish as they also did for Port Coldwell.

First, in 1948 the railway switched overnight from coal to diesel trains; next the parasitic sea lamprey got into the Great Lakes system, which very quickly killed off all the whitefish in the lakes, including Superior; then finally, in the late 1950s, the Trans-Canada Highway came through the area, slightly north of the village, with the result that travellers no longer had any need to stop at places like Jackfish. The growth of the paper mill at Terrace Bay during the same period, combined with these other factors, gradually beckoned people away from their lakeside homes, so that by 1960 Jackfish had been completely abandoned and the postal service had permanently erased it from their list.

Lake of the Woods

With this haunting tale still fresh in our minds, my uncle and I pushed on the following day for Thunder Bay, where after three weeks of memorable experiences we said goodbye to each other. While he headed home to Toronto as the autumn colour began to blaze, I took a bus to the tiny city of Kenora, a day’s journey across scrubby country of rocks and trees, which at one point, though still in Ontario, crosses into the Central Standard time zone shared with neighbouring Manitoba. The significance of this shift became apparent when I arrived in Kenora, which, as it has been for a century, is still cottage country for the well-to-do of Winnipeg, Manitoba’s provincial capital, just two hours to the west.

Kenora, Ontario, a city of some 15,000 people

In 1921, Frank Johnston accepted an invitation to run the art school in Winnipeg. He was already getting cold feet about his association with the Group of Seven, though the critical lashings their early shows had received had not unduly affected sales of his own work. Only the previous year, the National Gallery of Canada had paid a good sum for his Fire-swept Algoma, a superb painting made all the more distinctive for the muted palette it employs, in sharp contrast to Algoma pictures by other Group of Seven artists.

Johnston was a formidable talent, and many of his paintings are stunning displays of virtuosic skill applied, in one case, to subject matter that couldn’t help being revolutionary at the time. In the last year of the war he had been drafted into the Canadian War Memorials Fund to paint the activities of the Canadian Air Force based at the camps at Borden and Beamsville in Southern Ontario. The pictures he did here, such as the vertiginous Camp Borden, are among the first and surely among the best aerial paintings ever made. His canvas The Fire Ranger, on loan to the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, is another, slightly later painting in this genre, which again demonstrates the artist’s impressive command of the conventional disciplines of landscape painting.

Frank Johnston, The Fire Ranger, 1921. Oil on canvas, 123 x 153.2cm

Johnston loved the wilderness as much as anyone in the Group of Seven and continued to pursue adventurous painting expeditions throughout his life. But artistically he was not a rebel and the paintings he did in Algoma represent the high-water mark of his creative adventure. His primary motivation seems to have been commercial, and to that end, even before the move to Winnipeg, he had begun to sell work that was skilful but mostly conventional – work he knew people would buy – through department stores in the more affluent city of Toronto.

With the move west, Johnston was able to distance himself from the Group, a situation made more concrete a couple of years later when an article appeared in the press in which he was reported to have made scathing remarks about modern painters such as the now notorious Group of Seven. He later wrote in person of his abiding friendship with these former colleagues, but by then an impression had been created of animosity between them, which has coloured the way he has been regarded ever since.

Kenora waterfront on Lake of the Woods

The painting that had brought me to Kenora was Johnston’s atmospheric canvas Serenity, Lake of the Woods, also part of the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, on loan from the very good collection of Canadian art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. I knew that every summer during his time in Winnipeg, Johnston had taken a cottage with his family on Lake of the Woods, and the sketch, Serenity (Distant Kenora), Lake of the Woods, also in the Dulwich exhibition, suggested that it would have been in this area. Crucially, there is smoke rising towards the left-hand side of the picture, a detail that proved indispensable in precisely locating the painting site.

I had been told by Braden Murray at the excellent Lake of the Woods Museum that a mill had stood on the lakeshore at Keewatin, one of the communities later incorporated into the city of Kenora, but it was not until I arrived at my lodgings, the beautiful Kendall House B&B run by Craig Bryant and Rob Rheault, that a plan to find the site was drawn up. With an enthusiasm for my project that I found among Canadians right across the country, but in their case went beyond the call, Craig and Rob threw themselves into helping me.

Rob had spent much of his childhood in this area and identified the mill as the flour mill at Keewatin, making the likely site the Dartington Bay Bridge, running not across Lake of the Woods itself but the Winnipeg River that feeds it. It was an easy mistake for Johnston to have made in naming his painting, one I would have made myself but for this expert help.

The scene depicted in Frank Johnston’s Serenity, Lake of the Woods, viewed from the riverbank below the Dartington Bay Bridge, Keewatin

We drove out to the bridge and there it was, close in detail to the painting, aside from the weather that afternoon. Other differences were also apparent: the smokestack was no longer there – the mill burned down decades ago – and several new houses had appeared along the riverbank, while the water level had dropped by a couple of feet since 1922, as I had found was also the case in the Great Lakes. But the broad vista had hardly changed.

This discovery brought to an end my adventures in my father’s home province of Ontario. The following day, I took a bus to Winnipeg and the west, where from the mid-1920s onwards various members of the Group of Seven found landscapes that inspired them to paint some of their greatest images, the creation of which fulfilled, perhaps unwittingly by then, their founding pledge to make a national art for Canada.

What follows is the second of the short films, shot and edited by my uncle Stuart Beecroft, arising from the journey we shared through Ontario. The music, by the contemporary Canadian composer Stephen Chatman, is the final movement of his Lawren S. Harris Suite for piano quintet. Each of the piece’s three movements is inspired by a different Lawren Harris painting, with this one being named for a later abstract work called The Spirit Settling in the Heaven World State. Harris turned to abstract painting in the mid-1930s, having been drawn to it as a result of his theosophical reflections and the working-out of his artistic journey. The music quotes liberally from a choral work by Rossini, his Stabat Mater, which apparently Harris listened to incessantly on his deathbed. The piece is performed by the Borealis String Quartet with the pianist Sara Davis Buechner.

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 25 November.

Book your tickets to see Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
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  1. Hi!

    I enjoyed your film clip and realized how much our Duck Mountains in Manitoba have in common with your forest in Ontario….we do not have the stone gorges but for the rest it is almost like ours…. shows that God’s creation if not touched by man’s construction or destruction is much alike…

    I am a a follower of Tom Thomson & the group of seven….Mary Jane

  2. Julian Beecroft 15 Nov 2011

    Hi Mary Jane. Having seen it, I wish it was my forest in Ontario. The Duck Mountains sound great too.

  3. Barbara Beecroft 17 Nov 2011

    Again congratulations, beautiful writing, photos and video. Thanks so much for this wonderful experience.

    • Julian Beecroft 18 Nov 2011

      Thank you, Barb, for being such a tireless supporter of this blog.

  4. w dallian 9 Mar 2017

    hi Jullian,

    i am curious about Harris’s The Ice House. you mentioned that Harris painted one painting. the one you link to has a brown island with lake ripples that start at the corners of the island. I have seen a second version from an exhibit at the AGO (curated by Steve Martin), that is slightly different (noticably mainly through the lake ripples).
    my question: were there perhaps several versions of Ice House painted by Harris?
    question 2: how much would a framed print be worth? (ballpark) and would it depend on which version you had?

    many thanks!

  5. w dallian 9 Mar 2017

    hi there,

    in your article you mention that Harris painted “one” The Ice House, but i can find at least three versions posted on various art sites. Do you know how many versions were painted, and which was first?
    also, would you have any idea what a print might be worth?

    many thanks


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