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

Julian Beecroft’s trans-Canada blog

Julian Beecroft

The Rockies to Vancouver

Harris’s mountains

In 1924, the same year J.E.H. MacDonald first visited Lake O’Hara, Lawren Harris discovered the Rockies for himself. On this first occasion he travelled with his wife and children aboard the Canadian National train to Jasper, the trans-Canada service nowadays run by VIA Rail. They were accompanied by A.Y. Jackson; the two men had been commissioned by the railway company to paint images of this part of the Rockies and were soon setting off for the backcountry.

Harris’s artistic transformation, which had begun on the North Shore of Lake Superior, continued in the Rockies. Travelling by canoe and on horseback, he and Jackson ranged all over the country within a few days’ journey of Jasper, where that first year Harris made sketches that would quickly become Maligne Lake, Jasper Park, one of his most iconic canvases. Jackson had first visited the region a decade earlier, but he seems to have struggled to make the terrain his own, admitting in his autobiography, A Painter’s Country, that ‘mountains were not my line’. Harris, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of them, seeing in the classic triangular forms – of which there are many examples in the Rockies – symbols that seem to have held some mystical significance for the theosophical beliefs he espoused, just as they do in some of the ancient traditions from which theosophy was fashioned.

He became particularly obsessed by four of the highest peaks in these mountains, all of them in excess of 3000m above sea level: the highest of all, Mount Robson in British Columbia, just a little way west of Jasper; to the south, Mount Temple in Banff National Park, Alberta; and the two peaks that between them are depicted in six separate images in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Mount Lefroy seen from the Highline Trail above Lake Louise, Alberta

The first of these, Mount Lefroy, is also in Banff National Park, just over the high mountain pass that leads from the Lake O’Hara region in neighbouring British Columbia. Harris first painted this singular peak in 1925, using the pared-down, simplified style he had developed during those trips to the North Shore (see blog post dated 11.11.11). In place of the craggy mountain so popular with climbers, Harris gives us in his 1925 sketch, loaned to the exhibition at Dulwich, a smoothed-out sculptural form with a mysterious quasi-halo of cloud hanging directly behind the peak. Then in two subsequent and almost identical sketches, also to be seen at Dulwich, the artist bestows on the snowy side of the mountain a simplified elegance in the form of graceful vertical fluting, a geological feature which is at best an exaggeration of what is there and at any rate is a visual trope he employed in other mountain works, such as the afore-mentioned image of Mount Robson. The almost machined surfaces of Harris’s fluted mountains mirror other visual rationalisations of the time, to be seen in the work of painters such as fellow North American modernists Georgia O’Keefe and Charles Sheeler, as well as the streamlined contours of Art Deco architecture and design.

The large canvas, Mt. Lefroy, from 1930, one of the most important Harris paintings in the Dulwich exhibition, extends this fluting along the whole of the snowy side, in the process erasing the three distinctive horizontal rocky scars that had been prominent in the sketches, while painting the topmost scar in a non-naturalistic mustard yellow; in theosophy, yellow apparently symbolises active intelligence and creativity. And if it seems unjustified to place too much significance on such details, it is worth noting that Harris also includes the halo cloud from the original sketch – omitted in the two intermediate sketches – surrounding this in turn with further reverential rings of stratus cloud, as if to emphasise its numinous quality. It’s quite obvious that he’s driving at some sort of symbolic effect in this painting, perhaps even a message of some kind, though it’s hard to define exactly what that might be. The singularity of the image, on the other hand, like the cross on the altar, demands our attention even if it will not tell us why.

Lawren Harris, Mt. Lefroy, 1930. Oil on canvas, 133.5 x 153.5 cm

The hike up to Mount Lefroy from fabled Lake Louise is one of the most popular in the Rockies. The mountain stands apart at the top of the Plain of the Six Glaciers, right on the Continental Divide – the point at which water begins to shed westwards toward the Pacific Ocean – which is also the provincial border with neighbouring British Columbia. I knew from Lisa Christensen’s excellent book, A Hiker’s Guide to the Rocky Mountain Art of Lawren Harris, that the view of Lefroy in these paintings was sketched from a high lookout known as Pope’s Prospect, at the end of a difficult trek along an unmaintained trail rising steeply to several hundred feet above the top of the plain.

In the end, with another Harris image to find before nightfall on my last day in the region, I ran out of time to make the extra hike up to Harris’s lofty vantage point, the view seen in this image. Instead, I contented myself with getting as close as I could to this imposing mountain along the lower trail, from where Lefroy begins to assume the distinctive shape of Harris’s painting, with its characteristic ridge in my photograph sloping downwards from left to right.

Mount Lefroy seen from near the top of the Plain of the Six Glaciers

With a tinge of disappointment, I descended through the valley to Lake Louise and from there drove out along the highway to the Spiral Tunnels Lookout, a little way west of the turnoff for the Lake O’Hara rangers’ bus (see blog post dated 25.11.11). These tunnels represent perhaps the most remarkable feat of engineering associated with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway line from Ontario to the Pacific Ocean. The original route through these mountains had plummeted down a 1 in 23 incline, known as the Big Hill, through a passage across the Continental Divide known as Kicking Horse Pass. This was far too steep for safety, with the result that trains through the pass often careered out of control; so, in 1909, a pair of spiral tunnels, upper and lower, was opened through the neighbouring mountains, enabling a far shallower, and thus controlled, descent. Both ends of the lower tunnel can be seen from the lookout, so the large freight trains that use the line these days, numbering well over a hundred cars each, provide the extraordinary sight of a train coming out of one end of the lower tunnel even as its rear end is still going in the other.

I came to this lookout point on three consecutive days, knowing that this was the only place from which I would be able to get a view, albeit a distant one, of the fourth of Harris’s favourite mountains. Mont des Poilus and its large abutment, Arete Peak, together formed the raw material for one of his most instantly recognisable works, Isolation Peak, also (both canvas and sketch) on loan to the Dulwich exhibition. If an idiosyncratic aura-like effect was a feature of some of his Lake Superior works and in the images of Mount Lefroy, in the sketch for this canvas it becomes an overt presence, with bands of ever-deepening blue radiating away from the mountain as if this was itself the source of the light that illuminates the image.

Lawren Harris, Isolation Peak, c. 1929. Oil on panel, 30 x 37.5 cm

This aura is dispensed with in the canvas, but even here there’s a palpable sense that Harris is ascribing some form of non-material power to this pyramid-shaped mountain. In her book Lisa Christensen goes some way to explaining where the artist’s sense of awe might have stemmed from, with a compelling description of the overnight hike in rainy conditions that she made to the place where Harris made this sketch. ‘As we continued up the valley,’ she writes, ‘the rain grew lighter and finally stopped. Sunshine began to break through the clouds, and as we neared the toe of Glacier des Poilus, the sky began to clear.

‘It was a profound experience for me, to see this massive peak, which I had looked at as a painting for years, under such conditions. The physical strain of the hike, with my mind focused on Harris, recalling his writings as I walked, combined with the expectation of seeing only clouds, and then the sudden elation of the sky clearing, was all quite moving. I felt that Harris’s responses to the mountains were also affected by such experiences.’

I have quoted Christensen’s work at some length as it closely echoes the experience I had throughout this trip across Canada of seeking out the physical sources of the paintings of the Group of Seven. Sadly, in this case, I had no hope of emulating her hike into the backcountry, and even viewing the mountain from the Spiral Tunnels Lookout proved fruitless on the first two days I stopped there, as a combination of fog and dense cloud completely obscured it. Then on my last evening, at the third attempt, the fog had gone and the cloud had cleared sufficiently to reveal all but the tip of this mountain whose very remoteness, it occurred to me, is perhaps its principal source of power.

Mont des Poilus (centre right) and the adjoining Arete Peak (centre left), seen from the Spiral Tunnels Lookout, British Columbia

This piece of meteorological good fortune brought to an end my expeditions in this part of the Rockies. The following day, I took a Brewster tour bus north to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway, so-named for the series of glaciers nestling amongst the parade of spectacular mountains that tower above the roadway.

From Jasper the VIA Rail train brought me overnight to Vancouver, passing through the western Rockies and a succession of lesser ranges that striate the province of British Columbia all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In doing so I completed the last leg of the train journey I had begun six weeks earlier in Halifax by the Atlantic. But, even having got this far, there were several paintings I had yet to find.

Vancouver and the Coast Mountains

The most significant artist associated with the West Coast is the remarkable Emily Carr, who struck up a friendship with Lawren Harris in the late 1920s that was of benefit, artistically, to them both. The Vancouver Art Gallery has a substantial holding of her work, but in fact I saw extraordinary paintings by Carr in just about every museum I visited across the country. Like Ontario’s David Milne, Carr is a world-class artist whose work deserves to be seen in the UK. However, Frederick Horsman Varley, not Carr, was the reason I had come to Canada’s Pacific Coast.

Downtown Vancouver seen from Queen Elizabeth Park

Nowadays, according to regular surveys, Vancouver is among the most desirable places to live anywhere in the world, but in 1926, when Fred Varley moved out here from Ontario with his family, it was still a relatively small city with virtually no public cultural life. Varley had been offered a teaching post at the newly opened Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts, which he eagerly accepted, his opportunities having dried up in the east. The chance of a fresh start, combined with his natural, misty-eyed optimism, fired the excitable Varley with enthusiasm for the great potential he saw in the west, both for art in the region and for his own work.

Up to this point, Varley’s place in the Group of Seven might have been considered an anomaly. Perhaps the most gifted of all these painters, he had produced one undeniable masterpiece of landscape painting, Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay (see blog post dated 30.09.11), and a few equally good sketches (two of which, like the great canvas, can be seen in the Dulwich exhibition), but otherwise his recognised achievements lay in his war canvases (see blog post dated 16.09.11) and a series of brilliant portraits. Indeed, as a portrait painter he was perhaps as good as anyone in that generation, including his idol Augustus John, as is evident in the wonderfully sensitive images he made of his wife Maud and his son John. Has there ever been a more tender depiction of filial love than this?

Varley came west with John in early September 1926, with his wife and three other children not far behind him. He threw himself into the new job and was by all accounts an inspiring teacher but also a cruel one; it was this unpleasant side to his character that had alienated him from all but a few in Toronto. Nevertheless, his influences ranged widely. In the visual arts, in addition to western examples, he also drew from Japanese and Chinese art and took his students into Chinese, Japanese and aboriginal areas in or just outside the increasingly multicultural city. A capable pianist himself, Varley also introduced his students to classical music by inviting a string quartet to play at the school, and at one point, according to Stormy Weather, Maria Tippett’s excellent biography of the artist, he even managed to persuade Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore to come and lecture.

An alpine pasture in Garibaldi Park, British Columbia

Most significant for his own work, every summer for those first few years in the west Varley took his students on month-long excursions into the mountains – in particular to Garibaldi Park, a couple of hours north of Vancouver, an area of alpine pastures, glaciers and volcanic ridges not far from the village of Whistler, the main venue of last year’s Winter Olympics. It was here that I came to look for his canvas The Cloud, Red Mountain, one of the paintings in the exhibition at Dulwich, on what turned out to be the longest hike of my trip.

The virtual roaming I had done with Google Earth made me confident that the right and central peaks depicted in this unusual composition were the dormant volcano Mount Price and its vent Clinker Peak, both overlooking Garibaldi Lake, so in the company of the very knowledgeable Ryan Angus from Whistler Alpine Guides, I made the 9km hike up to the lake. (It turns out that in Varley’s day Mount Price was known as Red Mountain, though I didn’t discover this until later.) The long trek took us through coastal montane forest of western hemlocks, their branches often ghoulishly draped with Spanish moss, known locally as old man’s beard, past smaller icy lakes whose colour by this time of the year was the most intense turquoise blue I have ever seen, the result of tiny particles of silt, known as rock flour, being washed down from the glaciers over the course of the summer.

We reached the lake and were greeted by the welcome sight of those familiar peaks. In fact, we later worked out that Varley’s image was sketched from the Taylor Meadows, an area of alpine pasture a few hundred feet above the lake, where Varley’s party often camped and from where the odd view in this painting is actually self-selecting, even if today this is largely obscured by tall evergreens. But even at the lakeshore it is clear that the slopes of these mountains are made of the same ruddy volcanic rock depicted in the painting. Moreover, the intensity of their natural colour is further enhanced in Varley’s image by a phenomenon known as alpenglow, an optical effect whereby at certain times of the year red light from the sun just before dawn or just after dusk reflects off particles of snow, water or ice in the atmosphere; because of the angle of the light coming from just below the horizon, the effect can be seen most clearly against mountains. Thus the apparently extreme colour Varley has chosen for his peaks seems to have been closer to what he actually saw than we might suppose.

(Left) F.H. Varley, The Cloud, Red Mountain, 1927/8. Oil on canvas, 87 x 102.2 cm. © Art Gallery of Ontario. (Right) Mount Price (left), Clinker Peak (centre) and an unnamed peak (right) in Garibaldi Park, British Columbia

It may have been such natural extremes of colour or the development of his own theories, in which certain colours represented certain spiritual states, or more likely a combination of both, that led Varley toward the series of extraordinary works – landscapes and portraits – that he painted over the next decade. But there was also another factor. In the late 1920s, Varley’s marriage had deteriorated under the strain of his drinking and serial infidelity, bohemian tendencies that had scandalised conservative Toronto and would remain an indelible part of his character. He began an affair with his student Vera Weatherbie, just 19 at the time with Varley 29 years her senior. A gifted painter in her own right, she became companion, lover and, most importantly, muse to Varley, whose work in the six-year period their relationship lasted achieved a consistent brilliance and sensitivity unmatched at any other time in his career.

Then in 1934, with his marriage at an end, he moved to Lynn Valley, on the north shore of Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, in the shadow of his beloved North Shore Mountains. It was here that I came with Lydia Kern, a second cousin of my wife who emigrated to Vancouver from southern Germany in the late 1960s and, like many Germans, has made her life there.

Lynn Creek rushing through Lynn Canyon, Vancouver

We dropped in to Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre, hoping to get some help with the likely site of Varley’s painting Lynn Valley, also in the Dulwich exhibition. Eleanor Hutton, who works at the Centre, confirmed to me that, as with just about everywhere else the Group of Seven went, the area had been extensively logged when this image was painted, back in the early 1930s, and that, despite the existence of an official Varley Trail in the canyon, extensive regrowth of coastal rainforest since then meant that this view no longer existed.

We also asked her about the exquisite Coast Mountain Form, another small canvas on loan to the Dulwich exhibition. I had been told by a number of people who had lived in Vancouver that the view in this wonderful painting was of The Lions, a pair of mountains that on a good day are clearly visible among Vancouver’s North Shore range. Unfortunately, I had arrived in the city in early October, the start of the rainy season, and the cloud never lifted high enough that I could see these peaks.

It didn’t matter. Eleanor immediately recognised the view: Mounts Harvey and Brunswick with, on the right, the back of The Lions. She hadn’t known of this painting by Varley, she said, but was glad, even moved, to see it, having spent her childhood looking out on the same view from her family’s former property on Bowen Island, in nearby Howe Sound. This painting, she told us, was probably sketched from a place called Eagle Cliff, a short distance from her old home. Such a piece of good fortune was typical of the luck I kept stumbling upon right across the country – yet another of those personal connections that made the trip, indeed the entire project, so immensely rewarding. But I was still not quite done.

F.H. Varley, West Coast Sunset, Vancouver, c. 1926. Oil on wood, 30.4 x 38.1 cm

With a matter of hours left before I flew home, Lydia and I tried to find one final Varley image, whose almost psychological use of colour is about as close to Expressionism as any of the Group of Seven ever came, anticipating the artist’s later masterpiece Night Ferry, Vancouver. In 1926, the year of West Coast Sunset, Vancouver, loaned to the Dulwich exhibition, Varley and his family had not been long in their rented house at the eastern end of Vancouver’s Jericho Beach, on the south side of Burrard Inlet, from where one of the artist’s most unusual landscapes was later painted. So, under clouds darkening by the minute, that was where we headed.

Once there, we gradually deduced, with the patient help of various passers-by, especially local resident Gill Thomas, that the vantage point in Varley’s painting was likely to have been a hillside above the Spanish Bank, a further strand just a little way west of Jericho Beach, with Bowen Island clearly visible in the distance. Now a prime piece of real estate in a city that has become the most expensive in Canada to live in, the hillside has since been extensively developed and in any case these days is dense with trees.

Not for the first time, but now for the last, I had to content myself with an approximation, a view of a beach that may or may not be the same as in Varley’s painting. But, whether it was or not, the waves that lapped against the shore had travelled thousands of miles across the Pacific to get there. It also didn’t matter that there wasn’t a sunset. I didn’t need an epiphany – I’d had a few of those already – and I didn’t need a setting sun to tell me that the whole of the country, the continent, thousands of miles from east to west, now lay behind me.

A beach at the Spanish Bank, Vancouver, with Bowen Island in the distance; possibly the site depicted in F.H. Varley’s West Coast Sunset, Vancouver

With the death of J.E.H. MacDonald in November 1932, just months after admitting their last member (the Winnipeg artist LeMoine Fitzgerald), the remaining founders of the Group of Seven also decided that their original mission had been accomplished. The work they had made over the previous dozen years and more, including Tom Thomson’s a little further back, had become the national style, just as they had intended – the aesthetic template from which every Canadian schoolchild in future generations would come to know their country. Early the following year, the Group was officially dissolved. Its surviving members would go on to form new alliances and do new work in some cases far removed from the ethos that governed the aesthetic aims they had all signed up to back in 1920. These further adventures, and the Group’s legacy, will be the subject of my next and final blog post.

What follows is a third short film, edited by my uncle Stuart Beecroft, using footage that I shot during my time in the Rockies and the Coast Mountains of British Columbia. The literally uplifting music, by the contemporary Canadian composer Stephen Chatman, is the first movement of his wonderful 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 called simply Isolation Peak. 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, final entry will be available on 4 January 2012.

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

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

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  1. Barbara Beecroft 13 Dec 2011

    Hi Julian
    I will truly miss your blog – what wonderful reading, photos and video’s – congratulations on an amazingly successful Canadian adventure.

  2. Julian Beecroft 13 Dec 2011

    Thanks Barb. In fact there’s one more blog to go, though because of the holiday period this won’t now be published until 3rd January.

  3. Excellent series Julian. We look forward to the next and hopefully not last. Happy holidays. Jon & Kerry!

  4. Julian Beecroft 21 Dec 2011

    Thanks Jon. We couldn’t have had better guides to La Cloche than you and Kerry. Seasons greetings to you both.

  5. Fiona Roberts 28 Dec 2011

    Have so enjoyed the blog so far. Really fascinating. Would so love to see all this info, plus maps and pictures, presented in book form. Look forward to the final installment.

    • Julian Beecroft 30 Dec 2011

      Thanks Fiona for this and also your earlier comments. Interesting suggestion about a book. Final blog posted on 4th January.


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