Instead of a family tree, the Thomson family could be better represented by The Tangled Garden,
a 1916 painting by Thomson’s friend and contemporary J.E.H. MacDonald. Tom’s paternal grandfather, Thomas “Tam” Thomson, was the offspring of a woman named Christian Davidson, who had been jilted and left pregnant by her lover. Tam had children with three different women, two of whom he might have been married to at the same time. The painter’s paternal great-grandmother had two children out of wedlock until the church forced her lover to marry her—shortly after which he fled Scotland for North America and vanished, never to be seen again by the family. Roots of discontent.
Tam Thomson, described as “a charming talker and devilishly handsome,” emigrated to Canada to seek employment, promising to support the two children—one named Thomas Thomson, Jr.—he was leaving behind with their mothers, Elizabeth Delgarno of Old Deer, whom he might have married but never divorced, and Sarah Allan of nearby Peterhead, who bore him Thomas. According to Angie Littlefield’s self-published The Thomsons of Durham
, Tam came to this country and settled first around Whitby, where he courted and married Elizabeth Brodie, who’d also come to Canada from Scotland. It was in Whitby in 1840 that John Thomson, father of the painter, was born.
Tam Thomson later purchased a farm at nearby Claremont, northwest of Whitby, and the growing family—eventually joined by Tam’s Scottish offspring—settled into a stone house there and prospered. Tam was a grand storyteller—“He was always the hero of his own story,” a cousin said—but his willingness to work hard and the sheer force of his personality soon brought him financial success as well. Very quickly, the Thomsons became a family of substance in the newly settled area. Though he’d lived in abject poverty back in Scotland, Tam Thomson now ran a grand home with servants.
A nearby Scottish family, the Mathesons, had come from the Isle of Skye in 1841 following the failure of the potato crop, first settling on Prince Edward Island. The Mathesons were also considered a family of substance—one relative was John A. Macdonald—and in 1865 John Thomson and Margaret Matheson married. John took over the management of his father’s growing farm operations, and one year after Confederation (a union brought about by their distinguished relative, privately referred to as “the old reprobate” by family members), they had their first child, George.
Elizabeth was born the following year, then Henry, Louise and Minnie—before a third boy arrived on August 5, 1877, and was given his grandfather’s proper name, Thomas John Thomson. When Tom was only two months old, the family moved north and west to a hundredacre farm called Rose Hill outside the village of Leith, near the southern edge of Lake Huron’s massive Georgian Bay. Here, the couple produced four more children: Ralph, James, Margaret and Fraser.
Life at Rose Hill was, by the few accounts available, rather bucolic. The family was well off thanks to a considerable inheritance from Tam, who died March 23, 1875 (Elizabeth had predeceased him by seven months). John Thomson was able to easily afford the $6,600 price tag on the Rose Hill property where he lived the life of a “gentleman farmer.” He became far better known for his fishing than his crop or livestock pursuits. As a great-niece once said of John Thomson, “He might not have been a good farmer, but he liked to watch a sunset.”
When Tom Thomson was five years old, his infant brother, James, died, cause not recorded. The nine remaining children, however, were healthy and thrived, though Tom is said to have suffered from “inflammatory rheumatism” at one point. In a 1931 letter, Thomson’s sister Louise wrote that Tom’s delicate condition led to the local doctor advising their parents to keep him out of school for a year. This, of course, delighted the boy, as it allowed him to spend most of that year outdoors. Louise said he was an amazing walker, once hiking fifteen kilometres through a blizzard to attend a party and another time travelling the thirty kilometres to Meaford on foot “rather than bother with a horse and buggy, though Father begged him to take them.” She said he would walk with a shotgun while wearing a felt hat he would soak with water and shape to a point over a broom handle. He would decorate the hat with wildflowers and squirrel tails. It was a typical rural Ontario life for a boy, not all that different from how I spent my time more than half a century later—minus the silly hat, of course.
Young Tom spent considerable time fishing on nearby Georgian Bay and on the sound heading into the Owen Sound harbour. He became a fine fisherman and quite an accomplished swimmer, which would suggest either that his health had been fine all along or that the outdoors had had its intended effect.
Life on Rose Hill was privileged. The Thomson children had their duties, but there was always time for fishing in summer and for skating on the frozen sound in winter. The farm was a social gathering point for neighbours, often filled with music. Tom sang in the church choir, played the violin in the school orchestra and, at local dances, dabbled on the mandolin and cornet. And he read, wrote poetry and liked to draw. Though we know he missed that one year of school, no one has been able to find any mention of what grade he completed.
Young Tom had a genuine love of nature that was significantly influenced by an older cousin of his grandmother, William Brodie, whom the Thomsons would sometimes visit in Toronto. Brodie, a dentist, was also a renowned naturalist—his collected specimens are in the Smithsonian in Washington and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto—who had lost his only son, Willie, in a canoeing accident. William Brodie, Jr., only nineteen, had set out to collect specimens along Manitoba’s Assiniboine River with some other young scientists, including the writer and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, but Willie’s canoe had overturned in the spring current, and his friends had been unable to get a lifeline to him in time.
Tom, with his very evident love of nature, became something of a surrogate son to the elder Brodie, often going on day-long hikes through Toronto’s ravines, with Uncle Willie pointing out the various flora and fauna they found there.
Tom grew into a lithe and handsome young man. One photograph, taken when he was in his late teens, shows a rakish figure staring hard into the camera, an unlighted cigarette carefully set in a corner of his mouth, a rather faint moustache reaching for maturity and both hands shoved deep into his pants pockets in an insouciant pose that belies his rather formal white-tie dress. He was, his niece Jessie Fisk (née Harkness) would later claim, a lady-killer, with thick, black hair that he initially parted in the middle, causing a hank of locks to bracket each side of his forehead and draw attention to his patrician nose. His chin had a small dimple, and, like others in his family, he had a straight right eyebrow and a slightly curved left, giving people the impression he was vitally interested in whatever they were saying. Tall, with dark eyes and fine features, he soon abandoned the weak moustache but took to smoking a pipe, which made him seem more mature. One of his favourite words, apparently, was “shoddy,” which occasionally gave the impression that he was arrogant. At other times he seemed shy, which young women found attractive. Others took his reserve for brooding.
He certainly came early in life to the pleasures of drink. His childhood friend Alan H. Ross wrote a remembrance in which he said: “I have been with him on several occasions when I am now sorry to say that neither of us was very sober, but it is in such times men exchange real confidences and it was on one such occasion that I discovered how deeply sensitive he was and how he resented anything like public ridicule . . . I remember one night in 1901, in Meaford, when he embosomed himself, lamenting his lack of success in life in terms that rather astonished me. I began to think then that he realized his powers and that he also had secret ambitions. But one never knows . . .”
At twenty-one, all the Thomson children inherited $2,000 each from the estate of Tam Thomson—about $40,000 in today’s money. Tom frittered this substantial inheritance away—he had a passion for expensive silk shirts among other things—in very little time, a harbinger of the fact that he would spend the rest of his short life in constantly recurring financial crises. His sister Louise claimed that the directionless young man tried three times to enlist to serve in the South African War, only to be rejected each time on the grounds of his having a badly broken toe from a football game played long before. This information comes from a letter she wrote in 1931 and may or may not be factual. I do not believe it. She might have been trying to come to terms with a deceased family member who had gone from being relatively unknown at the time of his death to being of increasing interest in the emerging world of Canadian art. Such a white lie, if indeed it was—no records were kept concerning those rejected—could have been concocted to smooth over whatever awkwardness the family felt regarding inquiries about Tom’s later failure to enlist in the Great War, as A.Y. Jackson and other art contemporaries had done.
A longtime ranger in Algonquin Park, Bud Callighen, said that Tom had told him in the summer of 1915 that he’d tried three times to enlist but had been turned down. Callighen naturally assumed he meant the war raging in Europe. Callighen also said that Tom blamed fallen arches for his rejection, though others who heard this explanation were quick to point out that Thomson was able to hike for miles through the woods, often carrying a canoe, without apparent suffering or complaint.
Thomson used part of his inheritance to purchase an apprenticeship so he could train as a machinist at family friend William Kennedy’s foundry in Owen Sound, which manufactured ship propellers for the thriving Great Lakes shipbuilding industry. It seemed a responsible thing for the twenty-two-year-old to do, but it didn’t last. The job quickly bored him, and the shop manager, a Mr. Munro, soured on his young charge, thinking him lazy and lacking commitment. Less than a year later, Tom had either quit or been fired.
He then enrolled in the Canadian Business College at Chatham, which his older brothers, George and Henry, had attended. But it, too, bored him. “I don’t think Tom’s stay in Chatham did him much good,” Alan Ross claimed. “He seemed to me at the time to be drifting. He was clever enough at his studies but he lacked the faculty of concentration.”
In 1901 Tom quit business college and struck out for Winnipeg, where he stayed a short while—no one seems to know in what capacity—and then moved on to Seattle, Washington, where his ambitious and enterprising older brother George and their cousin F.R. McLaren had started up the Acme Business College, clearly modelled on the Chatham school. Tom, now twenty-four and still directionless, took a room with a Mr. and Mrs. Shaw on Twenty-first Street and found work as an elevator lift boy at the Diller Hotel.
George’s easy success in Seattle became a bit of a clarion call to the Thomsons of Rose Hill farm. Two other Thomson brothers, Ralph and Henry, soon joined George and Tom, but no brother was as closely tied to Tom as the eldest of the Thomson boys. George, in fact, appears to have been somewhat of an alter ego to Tom: driven, where Tom was distracted; successful, where Tom wandered; frugal and soon relatively wealthy, where Tom was spendthrift and often barely aware of the existence of money.
But George, too, harboured artistic dreams. He eventually sold his stake in the Seattle school and moved to New York to study painting, later settling into a bookkeeping job in New Haven, Connecticut, and restricting his art to a weekend hobby. In the mid-1920s, George would return to Owen Sound to teach art and to paint the familiar landscapes. He had an admirable art career, but would never attain Tom’s level of success. Knowing the dynamics of brotherhood, it’s likely that Tom grated on George, and perhaps George grated equally on Tom. Yet it was George, ever the responsible one, who would hurry to Canoe Lake in July 1917, when word went out that Tom was missing.
Tom spent three years on the West Coast. Alan Ross, who visited him there, said he was popular and happy. “I never knew anyone who made friends more easily,” Ross said. It seems the shyness of his youth had lifted. “He was one of the most companionable men it has been my fortune to hold friendship with,” Ross wrote, “and there are scores of others, I venture to say, who will tell you the same thing.”
Tom studied penmanship at his brother’s college and finally seemed to accept that he could have a career in engraving. He liked commercial art and soon tried his hand at his own creations with pen-and-pencil drawings and watercolours. He was hired on by C.C. Maring, who had previously been an instructor at the Chatham business school, but Tom soon switched to the Seattle Engraving Company, which offered a better salary. It seemed he had found his calling.
He also fell in love in Seattle.
It would be more unusual if he had not fallen for someone in those years in which he was passing through his mid-twenties. Brother George later claimed that Tom became smitten with a Seattle woman who never appeared quite as smitten in return, but it is unlikely that Tom would have confided much in his stern and serious older brother. All the same, according to George, a shy Tom had edged up to a marriage proposal only to have the object of his affections laugh at the suggestion, causing the young man to flee in humiliation in 1905, never to return to the West Coast.
The facts were later fleshed out to some extent by Canadian art historian Joan Murray, who identified the woman as Alice Elinor Lambert. Murray thought that Lambert was about fifteen years old at the time and considered the relationship harmless, mere puppy love. But Lambert would have been nineteen when Tom supposedly fled Seattle, so the affair might have been much deeper than Murray has conjectured.
Alice was seven years younger than Tom, a common enough gap in those days between a man and woman who were romantically involved. She’d been sent by her missionary parents to board with the Shaws, where Tom was already rooming. Alice went on to become a published author, and there may be much to be read into her 1934 novel, Women Are Like That
. The main character is Miss Juliet Delaney, and at one point Juliet is reminded of the one true love of her life.
“For one disturbing year,” Lambert writes of her heroine, “she had been desperately in love with a tall, dark boy named Tom, a commercial artist, who in the summer used to take her on streetcar rides to Alki Point and in the wintertime to the dusty dimness of the public library, where he would pore over prints and reproductions of the masters. When finally, darkly morose and determined to succeed, Tom had gone east, the girl, unversed as she was in the art of pursuit and capture, had let him go, powerless to hold him back . . . Tom had been tall and slender, with thin, nervous hands and flashing eyes. Instinctively, since his death, Juliet had avoided men of similar build and appearance.”
If this is an accurate reflection of whatever it was that Tom and Alice had felt for each other, it contradicts the family story. This “Tom” seems driven and depressed over his art and willing to sacrifice romance for a chance to prove himself back east. Alice might also have been the first woman hurt by his reluctance to settle down, the wanderlust and fierce independence that would mark his life and might even have contributed to his death.
Alice lived to the age of ninety-five before passing away in Marysville, Washington, in 1981. She had led a convoluted life, marrying a man with whom she had two daughters, then leaving him and moving across the country, briefly writing a newspaper advice column and reconnecting with her husband before separating again and returning to Seattle, where, so long ago, she had met the real “Tom.” In her later years, Lambert wrote to Joan Murray describing the end of the romance, from her point of view, and suggesting that perhaps Thomson considered her too young.
“Tom packed up,” Alice wrote, “and . . . went east to save me. I used to long to write him, or find him, but a miserable experience prevented me—I married a man with whom I had no communication whatsoever. But I never put Tom out of my heart. We were two star-crossed young and innocent people who never should have parted.”
In Toronto Tom took a room on Elm Street and threw himself into what he then thought would be his life career: commercial art. In June he joined Legg Brothers Photoengraving Company as a senior artist and engraver at the satisfactory salary of eleven dollars per week. He signed up for night classes at the School of Art and Design, where he studied drawing, and also took free lessons from William Cruikshank, an oldstyle artist who served as mentor to several young painters in the city. It was during this time that Thomson painted Team of Horses
, but the less said of it the better.
By 1908 Thomson was working at Grip Ltd., the Toronto commercial art firm that would become the artistic percolator for Thomson and, in later years, the Group of Seven, who, curiously, eventually numbered ten. Original members J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Franz (“Frank”) Johnston and Franklin Carmichael all worked with Thomson at Grip. It was a time of great growth and vitality in Toronto, with much construction in the downtown core and the young city spreading quickly thanks to easy transportation provided by its streetcar lines. The young artists felt they were part of something new and important, socializing together at clubs and taverns and often spending weekends together painting in the nearby countryside. They fed off one another, encouraged one another and quietly competed with one another. In 1920, three years after Thomson’s death, MacDonald, Lismer, Varley and Carmichael were still linked artistically and socially and formed their legendary art group by adding Franz Johnston, Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson. When Johnston later resigned, A.J. Casson was added, and later, the group became more national when Montreal’s Edwin Holgate and Winnipeg’s L.L. Fitzgerald joined, not long before the group disbanded in 1933.
The most influential force at Grip never did become a member of the Group of Seven. The director of the engraving division, Albert Henry Robson, called his department a “university” for graphic arts. He created such an atmosphere of creativity that when he moved on to another firm, Rous and Mann Ltd., in the fall of 1912, several Grip employees, including Thomson, soon followed. Robson hired creative men and gave them structure—formal dress, be at your desk for the full workday—but also allowed them to have fun and encouraged them to be competitive in their work and painting.
Thomson was well liked by his colleagues but exhibited the contradictory personality traits that seem to have marked his entire life: considered shy and quiet but also one to play practical jokes on his friends from time to time—and a wit who entertained his fellow workers by mimicking managers and customers and whipping off comic caricatures in an instant.
The young artist also had a life beyond the workplace. During this time he became fast friends with John McRuer, who was then studying medicine at the University of Toronto. McRuer eventually moved north to take up private practice in Huntsville, but in early 1909, when McRuer married Edythe Bullock, the Huntsville Forester
reported that the “groom was assisted by Mr. Tom Thomson of Toronto . . . .”
Tom was also a good friend of the McCarnen sisters, Elizabeth and Margaret. They had made their way to the city from the village of Phelpston, also near Georgian Bay, though closer to Collingwood than Owen Sound, and they at first kept house for a John Long, who lived on Jarvis Street. “Maggie” was ten years older than Tom and “Lizzie” six, and it seems Tom was somewhat infatuated with the younger sister. Maggie moved on to make a living as a seamstress (among other things, she made uniforms for the nurses at the nearby Wellesley Hospital), while Lizzie continued to find work as a domestic.
The attraction may have been as much about Tom’s homesickness for his big family and the Georgian Bay area as about Lizzie’s personal charms. A hint of this is found in a letter his younger sister, Margaret, wrote after his death: “I often think now that he was many times lonely when all by himself and none of us did anything when he was away to cheer him up . . . His life meant so much to us here at home. He was alone and no one else was taking his affections and he always enjoyed his visits so much.”
Tom obviously liked Lizzie well enough to give her a sketch; tellingly, it was of the countryside both had left for the city. Called Scene near Owen Sound
, it hangs today in the Tom Thomson Memorial Gallery in Owen Sound. Lizzie’s heirs say that the relationship was platonic, which is the way Lizzie would have wanted it, and that she found him rather “unkempt,” though she clearly cared for the young artist. While Maggie later married John King, Lizzie never did marry. She and Tom lost touch sometime after 1907, when she returned to Phelpston to raise her two nieces, May and Rita McCarnen, following the death of her brother Bernard. According to family, she hung Tom’s sketch over the beds of the two girls she raised, and Tom continued to send postcards he’d drawn. Lizzie kept those cards with all her letters in a purple satin bag that was locked in a cupboard—but, unfortunately, no one knows what became of them following her death in 1957 at eighty-six.
One Grip employee, S.H.F. Kemp, later recalled that Tom liked to paint all right but made “no noise” about his work: “He attached no particular value to it.” MacDonald, the senior designer, and the British-trained Lismer, Varley and Carmichael were all much more serious about landscape painting, but they were not particularly adventurous in their search for subject matter. They stuck to the valleys of the Don and Humber rivers that book-ended the growing city of Toronto and sometimes ventured out toward Lake Scugog to the northeast. There they found landscapes of soft English beauty—bucolic and pastoral—nothing like the brilliant fall colours, granite outcroppings and tangled bush where Thomson would find his calling.
Thomson’s great discovery of “The North Country”—perceived as such by Torontonians of the time, as it was reachable only by settlement road, lake steamer and, in some instances, rail—began in May 1912. More of the area was actually in central Ontario than northern Ontario, covering Muskoka, Parry Sound, Georgian Bay, Algonquin Park and, to a lesser degree, the North Bay–Temagami area, known today as the “Near North.” The find occurred somewhat by happenstance: Tom and another Grip employee, Ben Jackson, wanted to go farther afield than the Lake Scugog area and chose to head for Algonquin Park, since it would fit in nicely with a visit to Tom’s doctor friend, John McRuer, and his wife, Edythe, in Huntsville.
In May 1912 Thomson and Jackson stayed at the Dominion Hotel, down by the bridge over the Muskoka River, and did some sketching around the town. Jim McRuer, John’s younger brother, who would go on to serve as Ontario’s chief justice, was articling with a local lawyer at the time, and he visited Thomson at the hotel. He was shown the paintings and told to “Pick any two you like,” which the young law graduate did. (Many years later, those sketches would be donated to the McMichael gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario.)
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that some undeveloped film from this trip was discovered by the Thomson family in Owen Sound. The film eventually made its way to the National Gallery in Ottawa, which developed the ancient negatives and declared the subjects “unidentified individuals.” But when Chief Justice James McRuer saw the photos in 1970, he recognized his late brother, who had died of tuberculosis a few months after Tom, in the fall of 1917. He said the photos had been taken during a day trip that spring of 1912. They’d gone by train to Scotia Junction, twenty-five kilometres north of Huntsville, where they’d picnicked and then wandered about the tiny village and surrounding countryside while Tom took photographs.
The parties split at Scotia Junction, the McRuers taking the train back to Huntsville, while Thomson and Jackson transferred to the line heading east into Algonquin Park. They would have stopped for water at the Brule depot, where my grandparents were then living, and disembarked at the Canoe Lake station. Ranger Mark Robinson, who met most trains at Canoe Lake, wrote in his daily journal for May 18, 1912, “Met MacLaren Party and T. Thompson Party at evening train.” Thomson and Jackson camped and paddled about the various lakes—Canoe, Tea, Smoke, Ragged—and explored the Oxtongue River east from Tea Lake.
Tom carried new paints and brushes on the excursion but did more fishing than sketching. Ben Jackson’s most vivid memories of the trip were Tom’s ability to cook over an open fire and how he made fresh biscuits to go with their feeds of trout. When it rained, Jackson said, Tom was content to stay in camp, smoke his pipe and read Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler.
“Tom,” Jackson wrote in a 1930s letter, “was never understood by lots of people, was very quiet, modest & . . . a friend of mine spoke of him as a gentle soul.” In Jackson’s opinion, Tom “cared nothing for social life”—again the contradictory readings of Tom’s complex personality—and was happiest with his pipe, his fishing pole or his sketching. “If a party or the boys got a little loud or rough,” Jackson added, “Tom would get his sketching kit & wander off alone, at times he liked to be that way, wanted to be by himself [and] commune with nature.”
Later that same year, Thomson arranged for a second break from work and headed off with another Grip employee, William Broadhead, for the North Country beyond Algonquin. For all of August and much of September 1912, they travelled by canoe, beginning at Biscotasing, near Sudbury, then paddling up the Spanish River and working their way through a series of lakes and portages. They eventually reached the Mississagi Forest Reserve and the Aubinadong River. If Jackson found Thomson quiet, a bit of a loner and with no liking for the social life, Broadhead seems to have found him gregarious and open. They are said to have met a summer fire ranger named Archie Belaney on the way, never for a moment imagining that the tall man with the British accent would one day transform himself into Grey Owl, the most famous “Indian” Europe would ever know. They amused themselves with stories of other camping parties they encountered—particularly a group of Brits who were headed into the wilds with vast supplies that included carpet slippers and table napkins—and began to think of themselves as accomplished outdoorsmen.
But they were still novice canoeists. They dumped their cedar-strip canoe on Green Lake, blaming a sudden squall that caught them off guard and swamped them, and dumped it again trying to shoot some small rapids on the Aubinadong. Thomson was despondent because most of the photos he’d taken during his two trips north went overboard and were lost in the waters.
The two men started back for Toronto on the steamer Midland
, which they caught at Bruce Mines, and disembarked at Owen Sound to visit Thomson’s family. In a later reminiscence, Thomson’s sister Louise Henry said that the two young men seemed quite full of themselves after their trip. “My husband asked Tom if he was not afraid to be so much alone in the woods with so many wild animals roaming about,” Louise wrote in a letter dated March 11, 1931. “‘Why,’ he said ‘the animals are our friends. I’ve picked raspberries on one side of a log, while a big black bear picked berries on the other side.’ He also told him of one time he was tramping through the woods when he heard some animal coming towards him through the undergrowth and to his surprise it was a large timber wolf, one of the largest he had ever seen, its head, neck and breast were jet black and the body the usual grey color. He said it was the most beautiful animal he had ever seen. The wolf came so close to him he could almost have touched him with his hand . . . .”
“Local Man’s Experiences in Northern Wilds,” a long feature that appeared on the second page of the Owen Sound Sun
on September 27th, described Thomson and Broadhead as “bronzed and weather beaten from exposure . . .” and reported, “The young artists think it is a grand country, and are only waiting until next year when the call of the wild will take them back . . . .”
Once he and Broadhead returned to Toronto, Thomson wrote his friend John McRuer, apologizing for not calling in at Huntsville as planned on their way back to Toronto. His spirits were high, and he spoke, in the language of the day, of having had “a peach of a time.”
Thomson had caught the bug of the North. He soon showed up at work carrying a new paddle, which he immediately tested out by filling one of the photoengraver tanks with water, then placing the tank beside his chair so he could sit down and practise paddling.
“At each stroke he gave a real canoeman’s twist,” recalled J.E.H. MacDonald, “and his eye had a quiet gleam, as if he saw the hills and shores of Canoe Lake.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Northern Light by Roy MacGregor. Copyright © 2010 by Roy MacGregor. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.