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The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson:
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Who Is Tom Thomson?

Tom Thomson Portrait

Formal portrait of Tom Thomson.

Tom Thomson (1877–1917) was a Canadian artist primarily known for his iconic paintings of the Canadian wilderness, but perhaps best remembered for the curious circumstances attached to his premature death on July 8, 1917 at Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. Thomson directly influenced a small group of Canadian painters that included the likes of A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley and Arthur Lismer, all of whom would come to be members of the storied Group of Seven, sometimes known as the ‘Algonquin School’.

Tom Thomson is often, incorrectly, credited as being a member himself, or even a founding member, of the Group of Seven, but this is not the case—Thomson had died two years before the Group formally established itself in 1919.

Historical Perspective:

‘Thomson was a strange figure in Canadian art—he drifted across the scene for a few years—lived his own life in the woods of Algonquin Park—pitched his tent on new trails—paddled and fished the lakes and streams—and when the mood took him he painted—putting all his experience and simple philosophy into his work. To many artists he was a myth, for he knew few people, but to those of us who have had the rare privilege of taking the trail with him and sharing a tent, or a studio in his brief city sojourns—he was more than an artist of ability,—he was one of those great types that a country produces sparingly and at times when they are needed.

‘Tom Thomson is the manifestation of the Canadian character—thought of in terms of beauty. He reveals to us our own environment, changing the direction of our thoughts and aspirations from material and utilitarian considerations to contemplation of the beauty of Canada. A poet, but his language is not words,—a philosopher, but his philosophy is not to be read in books—a creator, an interpreter—an artist.’

—Arthur Lismer, 1934

Childhood and Early Career

Thomson was born in Claremont, a bit east of Toronto and grew up in Leith, a small village near Owen Sound. He enjoyed a privileged childhood with many opportunities to indulge in music, poetry and drawing. He also embraced a deep and abiding love of nature, cultivated as a result of his connection with renowned naturalist Dr William Brodie, a distant relative, who often accompanied Thomson on hikes through Toronto’s ravines (MacGregor 17). In 1899 Thomson apprenticed at a foundry owned by a family friend in Owen Sound where he was soon fired for what was described as habitual tardiness, but may have been a personality conflict between Thomson and the firm’s foreman (Klages 20). In the same year, Thomson volunteered to fight in Africa in the Second Boer War, but was refused on medical grounds. (Thomson was later refused entry into the Canadian Expeditionary Force for service in the First World War for similar reasons.)

William Cruikshank

William Cruikshank was a Scottish painter who emigrated to Canada, opened a studio in Toronto in 1871 and for 25 years taught at the Central Ontario School of Art, later the Ontario College of Art.

In 1900, Thomson enrolled in a business college in Chatham, but dropped out just months later to join his older brother, George, who managed a similar school in Seattle. There, Thomson met and enjoyed a brief romance with Alice Lambert, a much younger girl who, by some (unsubstantiated) reports, is said to have rejected his proposal of marriage (Klages 21).

In 1904, Tom returned to Canada, possibly heartbroken, settled in Toronto and joined Legg Brothers, a photoengraving firm, as an illustrator (Klages 21). He began to take art classes in the evenings at the Central Ontario School of Art and Design, where he studied drawing (MacGregor 22). He also took free lessons from William Cruikshank, a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, and under Cruikshank’s tutelage produced his first oil painting in 1907 (Klages 21, MacGregor 22).

Finding Inspiration in Algonquin Park

Tom Thomson at Grip

Early in his career, Thomson worked for a commercial design firm in Toronto named Grip. There he met many of the artists who would form the Group of Seven after his death. J.E.H. MacDonald was senior artist at the firm at that time.

In late 1908, early 1909, Thomson left Legg Bros. and moved to Grip Ltd, an artistic design firm where several future members of the Group of Seven were similarly employed. It was on the recommendation of a co-worker, Tom McLean, that Thompson first visited Algonquin Park in the spring of 1912. Captivated by the uniquely Canadian landscape, he returned to the Park in the summer to take photographs and to attempt oil painting en plein air (Klages 23). These early trips inspired him to follow the lead of fellow artists in producing oil sketches of natural scenes on small, rectangular panels that were suitably sized for portability while travelling.

By the fall of that same year, Thomson had left Grip with a number of his colleagues to work at a storied Toronto printing firm, Rous & Mann. Surrounded by supportive friends and colleagues, his artistic skill—and public recognition of his unique talent—grew. He exhibited his first piece, Northern Lake, with the Ontario Society of Artists in 1913, and later sold the painting to the Ontario government (Klages 24).

Tom spent much of the next five years travelling back and forth from Toronto to Algonquin Park, where he busied himself drawing, painting, fishing and meeting the locals, including Algonquin Park Ranger Mark Robinson, Canoe Lake cottagers Martin Bletcher and his sister Louisa and Mowat Lodge proprietors Shannon and Annie Fraser. It was during this time that Tom met Winnifred Trainor, a woman who frequently summered in the Park with her family (McConnell, Canadian Mysteries). Thomson was later rumoured to have been engaged to Ms Trainor, though these accounts were never conclusively proven (Canadian Mysteries).

Artistic Acclaim

In 1914 the National Gallery of Canada began to notice, and to collect Thomson’s paintings, which signaled a turning point in his career. Many of Thomson’s major works, including Northern River, The Jack Pine and The West Wind began as rough sketches before being rendered as large oil paintings at Thomson’s ‘studio’—an old utility shack with a wood-burning stove on the grounds of the Studio Building, an artist’s enclave in Rosedale, Toronto.

Engraving of Tom Thomson's painting Northern River, 1915.

The painting Northern River, 1915, interpreted here as a wood engraving by George A. Walker, was one of Thomson’s early artistic triumphs.

Thomson’s painting bears some stylistic similarities with the work of European post-impressionists such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, whose work he may have known from books or visits to art galleries. Other key influences were the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, styles he would most certainly have known from his work in the commercial graphic arts at Grip and Rous & Mann.

Thomson peaked creatively between 1914 and 1917 with the financial assistance of Toronto physician James MacCallum, whose patronage enabled Thomson’s transition from graphic designer to full-time professional painter. Described as having an ‘idiosyncratic palette’, Thomson’s control of colour was remarkable. He often mixed available pigments to create unusual colours, which made his distinctive palette along with his brushwork instantly recognizable regardless of the subject of his work.

Disappearance and Death

Thomson disappeared during a canoeing trip on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park on July 8, 1917. His body was discovered in the water eight days later and recovered by Park Rangers George Rowe and Mark Dickson. Dr Goldwin Howland of Toronto (Davies) later examined the body at the request of

Thomson drowned

Dr Goldwin Howland and Dr Arthur E. Ranney ruled that Thomson’s death was caused by accidental drowning.

Ranger Mark Robinson, noting a bruise on Thomson’s right temple, ‘evidently caused by falling on a rock’, but ultimately cited drowning as the offcial cause of death (Robinson). The coroner, Dr Arthur E. Ranney of North Bay, confirmed Howland’s conclusion that the drowning had been accidental. Thomson’s body was first interred in Mowat Cemetery near Canoe Lake, but under the apparent direction of his older brother, George, the body was allegedly exhumed two days later, to be re-interred in the family plot beside the Presbyterian Church in Leith on July 21.

To this day, rumours persist that Thomson’s death was no accident. The tell-tale bruising on his temple, the fishing line wrapped around his leg, and reports of altercations between Thomson and Martin Bletcher, led to several of Thomson’s friends and some of the Canoe Lake locals to question the official cause of death. Others, including Mark Robinson and Shannon Fraser, took issue with the circumstances of the burial. They were convinced that the Thomson family buried an empty casket in Leith, and that Thomson’s body remained in its original grave in Algonquin Park. Requests to exhume Thomson’s grave were denied by the family, perpetuating the mystery and providing biographers with ample fodder for speculation (Archives).

For artist and Thomson biographer Harold Town, the brevity of Thomson’s career hinted at an artistic evolution never fully realized. Town cites the painting Unfinished Sketch as ‘the first completely abstract work in Canadian art,’ a painting that, whether or not intended as a purely non-objective work, presages the innovations of Abstract expressionism.

In September 1917, the artists J.E.H. MacDonald and John W. Beatty, assisted by area residents, erected a memorial cairn at Hayhurst Point on Canoe Lake, where Thomson had died. The cost was covered by MacCallum. In the summer of 2004 another historical marker honouring Thomson was moved from its previous location in the centre of Leith to the graveyard in which Thomson is reported to have been buried.

Thomson’s Legacy

Engraving based on a detail from Thomson's painting Black Spruce in Autumn

Based on a detail from a Thomson painting called Black Spruce in Autumn, 1916. The prospect of a distant ‘Far Shore’ is one vista that occurs frequently in Thomson’s work and provides the title for Joyce Wieland’s film.

Tom Thomson’s mysterious death has, ever since, captured the imagination of creative artists, who have used their own art forms as well as existing letters, interviews and newspaper reports, to put forth their own interpretations of events. During the 1970s, Canadian experimental filmmaker Joyce Wieland based a movie (The Far Shore, 1976) on the life and death of Tom Thomson. His death is also referenced in The Tragically Hip’s recording of the song ‘Three Pistols’.

Since his death, Thomson’s work has grown exponentially in value and popularity. In 2002, the National Gallery of Canada staged a major retrospective of his work, according Thomson the same level of recognition that had been lavished on Picasso, Renoir and the Group of Seven in previous years. On 3 May 1990 Canada Post issued ‘The West Wind, Tom Thomson, 1917’ in the Masterpieces of Canadian art series. The 50 cent stamps are perforated 13 x 13.5 and were printed by Ashton-Potter Limited in Toronto.

Sources

  • Archives of Ontario, rg 4-32 ’Attorney General Central Registry Criminal and Civil Files’, File #2225, Blodwen Davies, ‘Application for the exhumation of the body of one Thos. Thomson drowned in Canoe Lake in 1917,’ July 27, 1931.
  • Davies, Blodwen. Application for the exhumation of the body of one Thos. Thomson drowned in Canoe Lake in 1917, July 27, 1931. From ‘Death on a Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy’ on canadianmysteries.ca
  • Klages, Gregory. The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction. Dundurn, 2016.
  • MacGregor, Roy. Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2010.
  • McConnell, C.S. ‘Tom Thomson.’ Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017.
  • Robinson, Mark. Daily journal, July 16-18, 1917. From ‘Death on a Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy ’ on canadianmysteries.ca

Further Reading:

To enhance your understanding of this module, review Appendix A: Glossary of People and Places and Appendix B: Chronology of Events.

Exercises

Using the reference information contained in Who Is Tom Thomson, Glossary of People & Places and Chronology of Events, let’s try to establish a timeline for the book.

night classes

Question 1

After his return to Canada from Seattle Tom enrolled in night classes.

At what school?

In what year?

working at Grip

Question 2

Albert Robson hired Tom to work at a graphic design firm called Grip Ltd.

In what city?

In what year?

train

Question 3

Tom Thomson first visited Algonquin Park with his friend Ben Jackson in the spring of what year?

What was the name of the railway that offered passage to Algonquin Park at that time?

What was the route, from Toronto?

soldiers

Question 4

Tom Thomson tried (unsuccessfully) to enlist in the military when World War One started.

What month, in what year, did the War start?

Winnifred Trainor

Question 5

Winnifred Trainor, of Huntsville, summered at a family cottage on Canoe Lake, just a bit south of Mowat Lodge.

Tom stopped in Huntsville for a few days on his way back to Toronto, in November of what year?

utility shack

Question 6

To save on rent Tom moved his studio to a utility shack behind the Studio Building on Severn Street in Toronto.

This took place in the late fall of what year?

ranger cabin

Question 7

Edward Godin’s ranger cabin at Achray on Grand Lake.

Tom painted the sign that reads ‘Out-Side-In’ and summered with Godin in Algonquin Park in what year?

boat on Canoe Lake

Question 8

One theory suggests that Tom may have been murdered and his body dumped into Canoe Lake.

On what day?

In the summer of what year?

body in water

Question 9

Tom’s body was recovered from Canoe Lake.

How many days later?

On what day?

train at station

Question 10

This could be the train that took Tom’s body from Canoe Lake to Owen Sound for reburial at Leith.

Or, is that Winnifred Trainor, lurking in the shadows on the left, on her way to Scotia Junction?

What do you think?

train at station

Bonus Question

What was the name of the film Joyce Wieland made about Tom Thomson that was released in 1976?

Materials

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Printable document of "Who Is Tom Thomson"
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printable timeline exercise download

Printable Timeline Exercise
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timeline exercise answer key download

Timeline Exercise Answer Key
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This Study Guide is available as a free download in Pdf format to anyone interested in using it as an aid to teaching George A. Walker's The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson (2012). The Guide may not be copied and offered for sale by any third party. This Study Guide is produced with the support of the Ontario Media Development Corporation and the Ontario Ministry of Education.

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.