Coast to Coast with Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven: Winnipeg to the Rockies

Julian Beecroft’s trans-Canada blog

Julian Beecroft

Winnipeg to the Rockies

Every modern country has its defining photograph, the one image which, more than any other, encapsulates its people’s sense of who they are and what they stand for. For better or worse, Britain’s might be Herbert Mason’s image of St Paul’s Cathedral in the Blitz; while perhaps Joe Rosenthal’s shot of US Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima might best epitomise the sense of mission that has led America to dominate the world over the past one hundred years.

For Canadians, the typically unassuming photograph around which the national myth has grown was taken as long ago as 1885. To an outside observer the scene captured in The Last Spike, in which the Director of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Donald Smith, is seen driving the railway’s last iron peg into its sleeper at Craigellachie in British Columbia, seems like a quiet little ceremony such as was happening all over the world in that period, the great age of the railway. Indeed there’s nothing identifiably Canadian about anyone in the picture, which is not all that surprising when you consider that the nation itself was less than 20 years old, had not then grown to anything like its current territorial profile, and was still a dominion of the British Empire expected to send soldiers to British wars in other parts of the world. No longer a colony, Canada was not yet a nation.

Canada’s vast size can be keenly felt travelling through the Prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta

Of more political urgency, such a small population occupying such a huge landmass, second only in size to Russia, made the very idea of Canada seem implausible and left parts of it, especially British Columbia, vulnerable to overtures from its fast-developing southern neighbour, which had understandable designs on Canada’s vast natural resources and sought a land link from its principal territories in the south to Alaska in the distant northwest. The two fledgling countries had been at war as recently as 1812, and there were still many in the USA who believed that Canada’s destiny lay within the bright vista of American democracy. Ironically enough, these included Walt Whitman – beloved of Group of Seven artists J.E.H. MacDonald and Arthur Lismer – who confidently predicted in his travel journal Specimen Days that it was ‘a certainty of time, sooner or later, that Canada shall form two or three grand States, equal and independent, with the rest of the American Union’.

The building of the CPR’s transcontinental rail route from Ontario through the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast, one of the great feats of 19th century engineering, was therefore more than just a requirement set down by British Columbia as a condition for entry into the new confederation. This so-called ribbon of steel came to represent a projection of national political will, a symbol of the quiet determination to bind the new dominion together, to assert its right to exist, that still stirs the blood of Canadians today.

Such a huge infrastructure project, however, also had to be paid for. This was done partly through encouraging new immigrants to settle the Prairies and the West Coast beyond the Rockies; partly through transport of the abundant resources extracted or produced by those settlers to the east and to resource-hungry Britain; and partly through the encouragement of tourism to the very mountains that had proved such a major engineering challenge in the building of the line.

The Rockies, a significant challenge to the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, quickly became a major tourist destination

The Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Louise, even now two of the grandest hotels in the country, were both built by the CPR to persuade affluent Canadians from the east to visit the Rockies. With this in mind, almost as soon as the line was completed the CPR, recognising the ability of art to convey the spirit of a place, set up the artists’ pass programme, whereby artists were given free passage on the trains on the understanding that the images they created would etch into the minds of the public who saw them the magnificent scenery of these mountains. Early recipients included the best Canadian artists of the two previous generations, plus others such as John Singer Sargent, whose landscape painting is an aspect of his work that is perhaps not so well-known in Britain. The fact that the artists’ pass was still available to J.E.H. MacDonald in September 1924, when he made the first of seven annual visits to Lake O’Hara in the Rockies, suggests that this visionary symbiosis of art and business must have worked.

Later still, in the mid-1950s, the CPR commissioned a number of Canadian artists, including certain surviving members of the Group of Seven – A.Y. Jackson, A.J. Casson and the Quebec painter Edwin Holgate, who joined the Group in 1929 – to paint murals for the 18 dome cars, or Park Cars, of their transcontinental trains. Each mural depicted a scene from one of 18 national or provincial parks that the CPR’s train, known as the Canadian, passed by along the route. The cars have since been decommissioned, and the murals are now in the care of the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art in Kleinburg, Ontario, but the landscapes they depict remain more or less as they were.

Via Rail’s train, the Canadian, travels from Toronto to Vancouver via Jasper in the Rockies

Nowadays the original CPR route that MacDonald used, via Banff and Lake Louise, is reserved for freight alone; the VIA Rail train (also called the Canadian) that carried me west from the city of Winnipeg across the Prairies – the wide-open plains that form Canada’s breadbasket – travels along the more northerly route via Edmonton and Jasper. This line was built by Canadian National Railways in the 1910s as a rival to the CPR line. Passing through scenery no less impressive than that of the original route, it was used by Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson on their own trip to these mountains in the same year MacDonald first arrived at Lake O’Hara.

It is fair to say that in O’Hara MacDonald found his Shangri-La. As with all such lakes, the colour of this blue-green glacial lake changes as you move up or down the spruce-covered slopes of the mountains that surround it, perhaps explaining why MacDonald once described it so variously in a single poetic phrase as ‘emerald and malachite, and jade,/ and rainbow green, and mermaid eyes …’. Such an incomparable setting – O’Hara is known to many as the ‘jewel of the Rockies’ – inspired him to create memorable images such as Lake O’Hara, the classic view of the lake, first painted by Sargent, which still greets visitors to O’Hara as they arrive there on Parks Canada’s rangers’ bus.

J.E.H. MacDonald, Lake O’Hara, 1929. Oil on canvas, 53.6 x 66.5 cm

This canvas also points to changes in MacDonald’s approach to painting in this period. Obviously, the Rockies demanded a different palette from the Technicolor richness of Algoma, but also, at least in some of the canvases that arose from these trips, this one-time commercial artist adopts a significantly simplified approach to design: sometimes, as in this work or the even more radical Rain in the Mountains, he reduces pictorial detail to the kind of spare gestural level typical of the commercial work from this period, the heyday of Art Deco.

By the mid-1920s, MacDonald had swapped his precarious life of the previous decade, as a full-time painter, for the financial security of the teaching post offered him by Arthur Lismer, by then the Principal at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. Thus his September trips to O’Hara, immediately before the start of each new academic year, became doubly precious to him and inspired not only the plethora of sketches done in situ – sometimes as many as four a day – and the paintings that he worked up from them during the rest of the year, but also a fair amount of poetry, some of which was later collected in a volume called West and East. Here, for instance is the final stanza of an untitled free-verse poem from this period, one of many paeans he addressed to the region: ‘I have memories/ of the clearest crystal/ mountain days imaginable/ when we fortunates in the height/ seemed to be sky people/ living in light alone …’.

From poems such as this one and also his journal entries, but especially from his paintings and sketches, it is clear that a joyful lightness of being came over MacDonald at O’Hara. I can well understand his delight in the place, whose combination of mountain air, brilliant light and staggering natural design instilled in me from the moment I arrived at the lakeshore a euphoric disbelief that I could have come to somewhere as beautiful as this.

The classic view of Lake O’Hara, British Columbia

I was not alone in my awe. Everyone I met over the two days I was there seemed just as grateful for their good fortune. Native Albertan Cheryl Purpur, who was hiking with her friend Bernice, told me that O’Hara was her favourite place on earth. She had been badly injured in a terrible car crash five years earlier, which had ended her working life, but the thing that had kept her going, she said, throughout the long period of convalescence and rehabilitation was her vow that someday she would make it back to this mountain paradise.

MacDonald himself was never robust in health, particularly after his stroke in late 1917, but even so he was quite at ease hiking over trails that were far less well established in those days than they are now. His first visit to the region came only 34 years after that of the first European to set eyes on it, Dominion Land Surveyor J.J. McArthur, for whom Lake McArthur, a two-hour hike from O’Hara, is named. Gradually, trails were built, first by O’Hara regulars Tommy and Adeline Link, and later by Assistant Warden Lawrence Grassi, so that hikers today can roam extensively on secure paths that offer breath-taking and constantly changing views of the region.

Lake O’Hara, viewed from the trail going up to Lake Oesa

A number of MacDonald’s sketches and canvases of the Rockies feature in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. All of these views are accessible to a reasonably fit hiker, so for once the only limits on what I could find were time and the weather. With two day hikes available to me, on my first morning at O’Hara I decided to head from the lakeshore up to Lake Oesa, the subject of one of MacDonald’s last major canvases, Mountain Solitude (Lake Oesa), from the summer of 1932 (see blog post from 02.09.11); this is based on a sketch, Snow at Lake Oesa, from two years earlier. Both sketch and canvas have been loaned to the Dulwich exhibition.

J.E.H. MacDonald, Snow at Lake Oesa, c. 1930. Oil on board, 21.6 x 26.7 cm

By 1930 MacDonald had become a fixture at O’Hara, staying every year at the recently built Lake O’Hara Lodge – it is still there today – where he met fellow guests such as the Links and also Peter and Catharine Whyte, younger artists who became his sketching companions in the last couple of visits he made to the region. In Banff, an hour’s drive south of O’Hara, the Whytes would eventually open the excellent Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, which as well as their own paintings holds a number of images by both MacDonald and Lawren Harris, but whose name accurately reflects the museum’s broader mission as an institution dedicated to all aspects of Rocky Mountain culture.

The 1930 trip would also be MacDonald’s last journey west, as his doctor had advised him that any further strenuous travel would imperil his health. Despite the warning signs, he allowed himself to be persuaded to take on the job vacated by Arthur Lismer as Principal of Ontario College of Art, with the perhaps inevitable consequence that in late 1931 he suffered a mild stroke. After being bedridden for several weeks, he departed with his wife for Barbados, where he convalesced from mid-winter until early spring, even completing a few sketches of the island. But, almost as soon as he returned to Toronto, he resumed his duties at the college, presumably because he felt well enough to do so. If that was the case, it was a fatal miscalculation. On 22 November, he suffered a further, massive stroke and four days later he was dead.

On my way up to Lake Oesa it began to snow, as it frequently does in the mountains at any time of year but particularly in late September. I continued to climb, often in the company of other hikers who, hearing of O’Hara’s beauty, had come from all over the world to see it. Soon I had ascended beyond the forests of dark spruce to slopes lit up by stands of larches which glow a golden yellow at this time of year. At one point I came upon an image I recognised immediately as Victoria Falls, the subject of MacDonald’s sketch Waterfall near Lake O’Hara, also in the exhibition at Dulwich.

(Left) J.E.H. MacDonald, Waterfall near Lake O’Hara, 1929. Oil on composite woodboard, 21.5 x 26.7 cm. (Right) Victoria Falls, above Lake O’Hara

By the time I reached Oesa, well above the timberline, the weather that would make photography increasingly difficult over the next couple of days had cast a thick pall of cloud over the mountain peaks maintaining their vigil just a few hundred feet above me. Gradually, the troupes of hikers that had tramped up the mountain with me peeled away until I was quite alone at the lakeshore. I became absorbed in trying to set up exactly in the viewfinder MacDonald’s very partial view of Lake Oesa, which he seems to have selected especially to convey that quality of intimacy which for me pervades many of his best pictures but which is quite different from the bleak emptiness of that lonely spot.

This painting by MacDonald, of all of those I had been looking for across this vast land, is perhaps the image I had most wanted to find, though until I found it I wouldn’t have been able to say why. But in such a solitary place a new understanding dawned as to why I was making this long journey through my father’s country in the company of these great painters. I continued to photograph, with the snow now falling steadily but gently as it does in MacDonald’s painting, and softly as it does, too, in the great story by James Joyce whose last lines now came to mind, with ‘the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, on all the living and the dead’.

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 9 December.

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  1. Bruce Herrington 5 Dec 2011

    Great messagec about some great art. Was just talking with Stu and he told me about some of your trip, sounded fantastic. Bruce

    • Julian Beecroft 6 Dec 2011

      Thanks Bruce. Yes, my uncle and I had a great time, going to all kinds of places we would never have thought of visiting if it weren’t for the Group of Seven.


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