July Marks the 100th Anniversary of Canadian Artist Tom Thomson's Death
by Ted Currie
As a collector of all things Canadian, sure, I would love to tell you that I have a wonderful selection of art panels painted by Tom Thomson, the legendary and mysterious fellow, who would inspire the eventual creation of the famous Group of Seven artists in the 1920's. He just wasn't around to participate, as he had died from misadventure, several years before the Group was formed. But, as fate would have it, I haven't been able to afford one, let alone a small collection of his work, because that would take millions of dollars. If that is, any of the collectors who own them might decide to put them up for auction.
Suffice that I have viewed many of his exceptional paintings on exhibit at Ontario galleries, over the decades, including in Algonquin Park, the place that inspired the artist during his most prolific period, up to and including the spring of 1917, and the same wilds that would eventually conclude his short life. If of course, you believe that Tom Thomson was the victim of accidental drowning, on July 8, 1917. This is the accepted version as handed down by the Chief Coroner of the day. Or was it the place that harbored his killer? It remains one of Canada's most enduring mysteries, and still gives a storied, haunted aura to beautiful Canoe Lake.
Instead of trying to afford his original work, I began at an early age reading everything I could about the artist, and buying up all the books I could find that presented his biography. The old books weren't as valuable as his paintings of course, but it still made me feel close to the life and times of an artist I very much admired.
Although I would clearly be lying, (and have to live with the writer's shame) if I was to say, it was the quality exhibition of Tom Thomson's art, that first compelled me to delve deeply into his biography, it is very much the case, that I had turned-on to his artwork, at roughly the same time, as the CBC aired its documentary, on what has become known as "The Tom Thomson Mystery." The early 1970's documentary, was based in large part, on Judge William Little's trail-blazing book of the same name, published in and around this time.
I had first noticed Thomson's art work, reprinted in several school textbooks we used at both Lakeshore Public School in Burlington, and later, at Bracebridge Public School, when our family moved north. I was far more interested, in staring at these works by Canadian artists, published in these musty textbooks, than what was going on in the equally musty classrooms. Thomson's exciting paintings, contained in those pages, inspired me to look longingly out the classroom windows with great, unfettered anticipation. When of course, I was supposed to be paying attention to the teacher, conducting the day's lessons at the blackboard. When I'd get notes home from the teacher, complaining that I wasn't paying attention to the lessons being conducted, I guess it was the forewarning of things to come. I blame Thomson and the Group of Seven Artists for diverting my attention. Thus, and I say this with all sincerity, that for this pleasant distraction, from what I hated of classroom study, I therefore owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Quite a few years ago, Canadian Art Historian, David Silcox, also known for his exceptionally well researched and illustrated book, "Tom Thomson, The Silence and The Storm," reminded me, in the throes of my obsessive quest for a Canoe Lake murderer, not to allow the "mystery" surrounding his death, to corrupt appreciation of his art work. It was the first time I'd even thought about the necessity of separating the two situations, of his life and work, and mysterious death, which as a novice to the study of Thomson, I had believed were one and the same.
Of course, seeing that the mystery only had a relevance following his death, it was clear in retrospect, with a tad of sensibility, that his artwork didn't deserve the dark shadowing of what was being alleged, as an unsolved murder. Not making any overture, whatsoever, for all these years, of thinking myself qualified enough, to offer any more than a voyeur's perspective, on Thomson's painting capability, I continue to deny myself any privilege, to delve into this region, clearly the bigger part of the biography of the artist's life. It is sufficient to note, I think, that I continued to be compelled to remain in company of his paintings.
As I can't possibly afford one of his original art panels, I have been able to satisfy my passions, by keeping a small library of his work, in prints, and of course, most of the related books that at some time or other, have made Thomson the theme of their stories. They are never far from my desk at Birch Hollow, and there hasn't been a single month in the past decade, when I haven't made a purposeful foray into the collection, to validate some tidbit of information, or just to refresh my memory. About for example, some painting, or sketch Thomson did, that paralleled some plant or vista I'd witnessed here in South Muskoka. Or for that matter, found on a casual stroll through The Bog, our neighborhood lowland, where wildflowers, leaning birches and venerable old pines, are both enchanting to the voyeur, and visually accessible for the artist and photographer.
Taking Mr. Silcox's advice, I have become far more aware of my own corruption, of placing too much emphasis on the mystery of Tom Thomson's death, and where he is buried, in either Leith, Ontario, in the family plot, or still in the Algonquin soil, in the Canoe Lake Cemetery. I am now fully aware of the separation, and even this week, I have spent the past five evenings, looking through David Silcox and Harold Town's book, "Silence and the Storm." Amongst numerous other quality texts, offering full color panels, of his most memorable, and of course, nationally iconic paintings; of which most Canadians can easily identify. I have invested my time wisely in this regard.
As well as being consumed by the written story of Thomson's life and times, I have paddled many miles by water route, in Algonquin Park, in spring, summer and the autumn seasons, and there have been many times, when I've stopped, balancing with paddle across the gunnels, being gently rocked and haunted by the knowledge Thomson had once painted the same length, width and depth of panorama. Gradually revealing itself from behind the shroud of evergreens and rock, bestowing in subtle melancholy, the intimate, chilled feeling in my bones, that I had seen it before. Published, I recall, in one of the books from my archives. Many times, since I began researching the biography of Tom Thomson, I have experienced the strange sensation, that comes from traversing Canoe Lake, the body of water that took his life. When suddenly, as if having been rocked by the wake of his ghost canoe, appreciating fully, at that precise moment, I had been following the same route, stroke for stroke, Thomson paddled, when he was living and working in the hamlet of Mowat, on Canoe Lake. This had been his paradise, and he shared it with us, and of this we must be entirely grateful, because it is an unending gift to Canada and Canadians. In the past fifty years, of the 100 years Tom Thomson has been deceased, his name and art work have been attached to many diverse commercial promotions, targeting advertisements, and products, including postage stamps, and yes, even family games for the cottage. When I began this short series of columns back in February of this year, recalling somewhat fondly, my years as a collector and antique dealer, I was, at the time, immersed in a passionate mission of acquisition, to accumulate Thomson-related articles (merchandise), and what are best labelled "souvenirs;" and of course representation of those large commercial reproductions of his work, visible today in the marketplace. Exploiting his art and in some cases, the mystery of his death for profit. We've had a bit of a head start, on this project, as we have been collecting Thomson memorabilia for decades, but we expect the collecting odyssey ahead will be quite entertaining and revealing, about what Thomson's art and name represent in the commercial "for profit" sense. Methinks, the artist may not have approved, of some modern uses of his life's work. I suppose this would be the case for many celebrities, who have had their names and reputations hijacked for capital gain.
The idea for us, Thomson keeners, also as a project to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary of Confederation, was to hunt and gather as many of these tastefully appointed Thomson-adorned pieces, for an in-store display, at our Gravenhurst antique shop, to mark the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death, July 8th, 1917. It will be offered for viewing with best intentions, and it most definitely will show, (and I know this well in advance), how we (Canadians with profit in mind) have, without shame, taken ownership of his accomplishments, and in some cases his tragedy, in the mission to promote a plethora of products. In order to secure that all important margin of profit. I have never once written any column or feature series on Tom Thomson since the late 1990's for profit, and my small archives collection is for sharing only, and will be passed to family members when I depart this mortal coil.
So what do we owe Thomson for these intrusions on his biography? In a monetary overview, what is he owed, for the widespread use of his name and art work, for corporate, business and private profit? Would it be in the billions of dollars? Possibly the trillions! Well for one thing, to place above all else, as Mr. Silcox pointed out to me, we should make more effort to celebrate his art, for what it has meant to Canadians for all these years; and how our national identity, owes its cultural enhancement to his courageous mission to give the fledgling country something exceptional to hold close to our hearts. Above what had been hopelessly mired in a conservative quagmire of romantic obsession, the infatuation with art that inspired pervasive melancholy, and hopelessly sentimental pastoral scenes, and landscapes, that appeared as if historic relics, only moments after the artist finished the final brush stroke. Tom Thomson gave us reason to see nature, as a powerful, enthralling and exciting force, of which we were its mesmerized, silent, and humbled witnesses.
I will probably never own an original Tom Thomson art panel. I will cherish however, all the other relics I have collected over the decades, and read and re-read the story of his remarkable life, and feel as I have for just as long, that Tom Thomson gave Canada an exciting new image and focus of nationalism, enriched from its pioneer modesty. I have been a benefactor for all these years and have no plan to abandon what gives me such grand pleasure and, still, that wonderful sense of liberation, as if invited to trail along behind Thomson's canoe.
We recognize the 100th anniversary of Tom Thomson's death. We celebrate the 150th year of nationhood.