Thomas John Thomson
Thomas John “Tom” Thomson was born on August 5, 1877 in Claremont, Ontario, the sixth of John and Margaret Thomson’s ten children. He was raised in Leith, Ontario, near Owen Sound, in the municipality of Meaford. Thomson and his siblings enjoyed both drawing and painting, although he did not immediately display any major talents. He was eventually taken out of school for a year because of ill health, including a respiratory problem variously described as “weak lungs” or “inflammatory rheumatism”. This gave him free time to explore the woods near his home and develop an appreciation of nature.
Thomson was also enthusiastic about sports, once breaking his toe while playing football. He was an excellent swimmer and fisherman, inheriting his passion for the latter from his grandfather and father. Like most of those in his community, he regularly attended church. Some stories say that he sketched in the hymn books during services and entertained his sisters with caricatures of their neighbours. His sisters later said that they had fun “guessing who they were”, indicating that he was not necessarily adept at capturing people’s likeness.
In 1901, Thomson enrolled at Canada Business College in Chatham, Ontario. The school advertised instruction in stenography, bookkeeping, business correspondence and “plain and ornamental penmanship”. There, he developed abilities in penmanship and copperplate—necessary skills for a clerk. After graduating at the end of 1901, he travelled briefly to Winnipeg before leaving for Seattle in January 1902, joining his older brother, George Thomson.
Graphic design work
After studying at the business school for six months, Thomson was hired at Maring & Ladd as a pen artist, draftsman and etcher. He mainly produced business cards, brochures and posters, as well as three-colour printing. Having previously learned calligraphy, he specialized in lettering, drawing and painting. While working at Maring & Ladd, he was known to be stubborn; his brother Fraser wrote that, instead of completing his work according to the direction provided, he would use his own design ideas, which angered his boss. Thomson may have also worked as a freelance commercial designer, but there are no extant examples of such work.
He eventually moved on to a local engraving company. Despite a good salary he left by the end of 1904. He quickly returned to Leith, possibly prompted by a rejected marriage proposal after his brief summer romance with Alice Elinor Lambert. Lambert, who never married, later became a writer; in one of her stories, she describes a young girl who refuses an artist’s proposal and later regrets her decision.
Thomson moved to Toronto in the summer of 1905. His first job upon his return to Canada was at the photo-engraving firm Legg Brothers, earning $11 a week. He spent his free time reading poetry and going to concerts, the theatre and sporting events.
In 1908 or 1909, Thomson joined Grip Ltd., a firm in Toronto that specialized in design and lettering work. Grip was the leading graphic-design company in the country and introduced Art Nouveau, metal engraving and the four-colour process to Canada. Albert Robson, then the art director at Grip, recalled that Thomson’s early work at the firm was mostly in lettering and decorative designs for booklets and labels. He wrote that Thomson made friends slowly but eventually found similar interests to his coworkers. Several of the employees at Grip had been members of the Toronto Art Students’ League, a group of newspaper artists, illustrators and commercial artists active between 1886 and 1904. The members sketched in parts of eastern Canada and published an annual calendar with illustrations depicting Canadian history and rural life.
The senior artist at Grip, J. E. H. MacDonald, encouraged his staff to paint outside in their spare time to better hone their skills. It was at Grip that many of the eventual members of the Group of Seven would meet. In December 1910, artist William Smithson Broadhead was hired, joined by Arthur Lismer in February 1911. Robson eventually hired Frederick Varley, followed by Franklin Carmichael in April 1911. Although Thomson was not himself a member, it was at the Arts and Letters Club that MacDonald introduced Thomson to Lawren Harris. The club was considered the “centre of living culture in Toronto”, providing an informal environment for the artistic community. Every member of what would become the original Group of Seven had now met.
In May 1912, aged 34, Thomson first visited Algonquin Park, venturing through the area on a canoe trip with his Grip colleague H. B. (Ben) Jackson.
It was at this time that Thomson acquired his first sketching equipment. He did not yet take painting seriously. According to Jackson, Thomson did not think “his work would ever be taken seriously; in fact, he used to chuckle over the idea”. Instead, they spent most of their time fishing, except for “a few notes, skylines and colour effects”.
During the same trip, Thomson read Izaak Walton’s 1653 fishing guide, The Compleat Angler. Primarily a fisherman’s bible, the book also provided a philosophy of how to live, similar to the one described in Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book, Walden, or Life in the Woods, a reflection on simple living in natural surroundings. His time in Algonquin Park gave him an ideal setting to imitate Walton’s “contemplative” life. Ben Jackson wrote:
In October of 1912, MacDonald introduced Thomson to Dr. James MacCallum. A frequent visitor to the Ontario Society of Artists’ (OSA) exhibitions, MacCallum was admitted to the Arts and Letters Club in January 1912. There, he met artists such as John William Beatty, Arthur Heming, MacDonald and Harris. MacCallum eventually persuaded Thomson to leave his job and start a painting career.
In October 1913, MacCallum introduced Thomson to A. Y. Jackson, later a founder of the Group of Seven. MacCallum recognized Thomson’s and Jackson’s talents and offered to cover their expenses for one year if they committed themselves to painting full time. MacCallum and Jackson both encouraged Thomson to “take up painting seriously, [but] he showed no enthusiasm. The chances of earning a livelihood by it did not appear to him promising. He was sensitive and independent, and feared he might become an object of patronage.” MacCallum wrote that when he first saw Thomson’s sketches, he recognized their “truthfulness, their feeling and their sympathy with the grim fascinating northland … they made me feel that the North had gripped Thomson as it had gripped me since I was eleven when I first sailed and paddled through its silent places.” He described Thomson’s paintings as “dark, muddy in colour, tight and not wanting in technical defects”. After Thomson’s death, MacCallum helped preserve and advocate for his work.
Thomson first exhibited with the OSA in March 1913, selling his painting Northern Lake (1912–13) to the Ontario Government for $250 (equivalent to CAD$5,400 in 2017). The sale afforded him time to paint and sketch through the summer and fall of 1913.
Thomson often experienced self-doubt. A. Y. Jackson recalled that in the fall of 1914, Thomson threw his sketch box into the woods out of frustration, and was “so shy he could hardly be induced to show his sketches”. Harris expressed similar sentiments, writing that Thomson “had no opinion of his own work”, and would even throw burnt matches at his paintings. Several of the canvases he sent to exhibitions remained unsigned. If someone praised one of his sketches, he immediately gave it to them as a gift. A turning point in his career came in 1914, when the National Gallery of Canada, under the directorship of Eric Brown, began to acquire his paintings. Although the money was not enough to live on, the recognition was unheard of for an unknown artist.
For several years he shared a studio and living quarters with fellow artists, initially living in the Studio Building with Jackson in January 1914. Jackson described the Studio Building as “a lively centre for new ideas, experiments, discussions, plans for the future and visions of an art inspired by the Canadian countryside”. It was there that Thomson, “after much self-deprecation, finally submitted to becoming a full-time artist”. They split the rent—$22 a month—on the ground floor while construction on the rest of the building was finished. After Jackson moved out in December to go to Montreal, Carmichael took his place. Thomson and Carmichael shared a studio space through the winter. On March 3, 1914, Thomson was nominated as a member of the OSA by Lismer and T. G. Greene. He was elected on the 17th. He did not participate in any of their activities beyond sending paintings for annual exhibitions. Harris described Thomson’s strange working hours years later:
In late April 1914, Thomson arrived in Algonquin Park, where he was joined by Lismer on May 9. They camped on Molly’s Island in Smoke Lake, travelling to Canoe, Smoke, Ragged, Crown and Wolf Lakes. He spent his spring and summer divided between Georgian Bay and Algonquin Park, visiting James MacCallum by canoe. His travels during this time have proved difficult to discern, with such a large amount of ground covered in such a short time, painting the French River, Byng Inlet, Parry Sound and Go-Home Bay from May 24 through August 10.
With MacCallum’s year of financial support over, Thomson’s financial future became uncertain. He briefly looked into applying for a position as a park ranger, but balked after seeing that it could take months for the application to go through. Instead, he considered working in an engraving shop over the winter. He made little effort to sell his paintings, preferring to give them away, though he brought in some money from the paintings he sold. In mid-November, he donated In Algonquin Park to an exhibition organized to raise money for the Canadian Patriotic Fund. It was sold to Marion Long for $50 (equivalent to CAD$1,100 in 2017).
In the spring of 1915, Thomson returned to Algonquin Park earlier than he had in any previous year and had already painted twenty-eight sketches by April 22. From April through July, he spent much of his time fishing, assisting groups on several different lakes, and sketching when he had time. In July, he was invited to send paintings to the Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition in September. Because he was in Algonquin Park, his friends selected three works to send—two unidentified works from 1914 and the sketch Canadian Wildflowers. From the end of September to mid-October, he spent his time at Mowat, a village on the north end of Canoe Lake. By November, he was at Round Lake with Tom Wattie and Dr. Robert McComb. In late November, he returned to Toronto and moved into a shack behind the Studio Building that Harris and MacCallum fixed up for him, renting it for $1 a month.
In 1915, MacCallum commissioned MacDonald, Lismer and Thomson to paint decorative panels for his cottage on Go-Home Bay. In October of that year, MacDonald went up to take dimensions. Thomson produced four panels which were probably meant to go over the windows. In April 1916, when MacDonald and Lismer went to install them, they found that MacDonald’s measurements were incorrect and the panels did not fit.
In March 1916, Thomson exhibited four canvases with the OSA: In the Northland (at that time titled The Birches), Spring Ice, Moonlight and October (then titled The Hardwoods), all of which were painted over the winter of 1915–16. The reception of Thomson’s paintings at this time was mixed.
In 1916, Thomson left for Algonquin Park earlier than any previous year, evidenced by the many snow studies he produced at this time. In April or early May, MacCallum, Harris and his cousin Chester Harris joined Thomson at Cauchon Lake for a canoe trip. After MacCallum and Chester left, Harris and Thomson paddled together to Aura Lee Lake. Thomson produced many sketches which varied in composition, although they all had vivid colour and thickly-applied paint. MacCallum was present when he painted his Sketch for “The Jack Pine”, writing that the tree fell over onto Thomson before the sketch was completed. He added that Harris thought the tree killed Thomson, “but he sprang up and continued painting”.
At the end of May, Thomson took a job as a fire ranger stationed at Achray on Grand Lake with Ed Godin. He followed the Booth Lumber Company’s log drive down the Petawawa River to the north end of the park. He found that fire ranging and painting did not mix well together, writing, “[I] have done very little sketching this summer as the two jobs don’t fit in… When we are travelling two go together, one for canoe and the other the pack. And there’s no place for a sketch outfit when your [sic] fire ranging. We are not fired yet but I am hoping to get put off right away.”” He likely returned to Toronto in late October or early November.
Over the following winter, encouragement from Harris, MacDonald and MacCallum saw Thomson move into the most productive portion of his career, with Thomson writing in a letter that he “got quite a lot done”. Despite this, he did not submit any paintings to the OSA exhibition in the spring of 1917. It was during this time that he produced many of his most famous works, including The Jack Pine and The West Wind.
Thomson returned to Canoe Lake at the beginning of April, arriving early enough to paint the remaining snow and the ice breaking up on the surrounding lakes. He had little money but wrote that he could manage for about a year. On April 28, 1917, he received a guide’s licence. Unlike previous years, he remained at Mowat with Lieutenant Crombine and his wife, Daphne. Thomson invited Daphne Crombie to select something from his spring sketches as a gift, and she selected Path Behind Mowat Lodge.
On July 8, 1917, Thomson disappeared during a canoeing trip on Canoe Lake. His upturned canoe was spotted later in the afternoon, and his body was discovered in the lake eight days later. It was noted that he had a four-inch cut on his right temple and had bled from his right ear. The cause of death was officially determined to be “accidental drowning”. The day after the body was discovered, it was interred in Mowat Cemetery near Canoe Lake. Under the direction of Thomson’s older brother George, the body was exhumed two days later, and re-interred on July 21 in the family plot beside the Leith Presbyterian Church in what is now the Municipality of Meaford.
In September 1917, J. E. H. MacDonald and John William Beatty erected a memorial cairn at Hayhurst Point on Canoe Lake, to honour Thomson where he died.
There has been much speculation about the circumstances of Thomson’s death, including that he was murdered or committed suicide. Though these ideas lack substance, they have continued to persist in the popular culture. Andrew Hunter has pointed to Park ranger Mark Robinson as being largely responsible for the suggestion that there was more to his death than accidental drowning. Hunter expands on this thought, writing, “…I am convinced that people’s desire to believe the Thomson murder mystery/soap opera is rooted in the firmly fixed idea that he was an expert woodsman, intimate with nature. Such figures aren’t supposed to die by ‘accident.’ If they do, it is like Grey Owl’s being exposed as an Englishman.”
Since his death, Thomson’s work has grown in value and popularity. Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer wrote that he “is the manifestation of the Canadian character”. Another contemporaneous Canadian painter, David Milne, wrote to National Gallery of Canada Director H. O. McCurry in 1930, “Your Canadian art apparently, for now at least, went down in Canoe Lake. Tom Thomson still stands as the Canadian painter, harsh, brilliant, brittle, uncouth, not only most Canadian but most creative. How the few things of his stick in one’s mind.” For Canadian artists Roy Kiyooka and Dennis Lee, he is a “haunting presence” and “embodies the Canadian artistic identity”.
As of 2015, the highest price achieved by a Thomson sketch was Early Spring, Canoe Lake, which sold in 2009 for CAD$2,749,500. Few major canvases remain in private collections, making the record unlikely to be broken. One example of the demand his work has achieved is the previously lost Sketch for Lake in Algonquin Park. Discovered in an Edmonton basement in 2018, it sold for nearly half a million dollars at a Toronto auction. The increased value of his work has led to the discovery of numerous forgeries on the market.
In 1967, the Tom Thomson Art Gallery opened in Owen Sound. In 1968, Thomson’s shack from behind the Studio Building was moved to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg. Many of his works are also on display at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario. His influence can be seen in the work of later Canadian artists. In 2004, another historical marker honouring Thomson was moved from its previous location nearer the centre of Leith to the graveyard in which he is now buried. The grave site has become popular spot for visitors to the area with many fans of his work leaving pennies or art supplies behind as tribute.