What Tom Thomson Saw

In the summer of 1914, the aspiring painter paddled to a tiny island on Georgian Bay and discovered the Canada of our imagination
Byng Inlet, Georgian BayPurchased with the assistance of donors and Wintario. McMichael Canadian Art Collection 1977.31Tom Thomson, Byng Inlet, Georgian Bay (1914–1915), oil on canvas, 71.5 x 76.3 centimetres

With stunted vegetation poking through its rough Precambrian ruins, Gereaux Island has a raw, windswept charm that holds up even on a sunny July morning. My journey to the tiny island from the marina at Britt — on the north shore of the Magnetawan River, sixty-five kilometres north of Parry Sound — took only a half-hour by boat. After fifteen minutes, however, the shoreline of suntanning cottagers, gazebos, and gas barbecues gave way to Georgian Bay’s open waters and random, lurking shoals. My first sight of the island was a postcard-perfect, red-shingled lighthouse on its granite roost. Then, as my boat chugged toward the wooden dock, three Pinus strobus in spread-eagled silhouette parallaxed into view: eastern white pines, the lofty kings of the boreal forest, and one of the reasons for my expedition.

Several days earlier, I had visited the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario. Hanging on the walls of the gallery, famous for its Group of Seven collection, are dozens of paintings by Tom Thomson. In his hands, Canada’s northern woods reveal themselves in soft eruptions of colour: rubicund sunsets, splashy wildflowers, fire-swept hills, gusty shorelines. His robust brush strokes and thick spatterings of colour suggest the passion and determination of someone who has discovered his true subject, as well as the urgency of someone who feels he hasn’t much time to capture it — as indeed Thomson did not.

Even in this company, one painting compels attention. Begun in the wartime winter of 1914–15, it features three white pines arched against the sky, all flailing branches and straining trunks. Here, for virtually the first time in his career, Thomson turned the landscape of the Laurentian Shield into his distinctive icons of Canada. Before The West Wind and The Jack Pine, there was Byng Inlet, Georgian Bay. Thomson found at Byng Inlet not just the evocative subject matter he would so richly exploit until his tragic early death in 1917. He also developed his style, a thrilling mix of coruscating colour and energetic brushwork. Showing the audacious but controlled handling of pigment that was to become one of his hallmarks, Byng Inlet, Georgian Bay is a startlingly accomplished piece for someone who only two years earlier was little more than a Sunday-afternoon painter.

Thomson bloomed late. Born in 1877, he was thirty-seven and had achieved little with his brush by the time he painted Byng Inlet. But his shy blossoms, when they began to appear, were profuse and magnificent. In Byng Inlet, the boulders, water, and sky are all done in separate licks of paint, little hyphens of colour that fit together like the platelets of a mosaic, or the warp and weft of a multi-hued textile. This bold style owes little to photographic realism, and much to what the French neo-Impressionist Paul Signac called la touche divisée, the “divided touch.” Signac applied his pigments in separate, unmixed dabs, in the belief that the colours would spark off one another. “Make your colours as bright as possible,” he urged his followers. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Henri Matisse and the Fauves applied his theories with dazzling results (Matisse strove for a certain shade of red he believed could raise the blood pressure). In 1914, however, this colourful and expressive sort of paint slinging was still an almost unheard-of technique in Canada.

Standing in front of the McMichael’s Byng Inlet — something I’ve done many times over the past few years — I often thought that the geographical Byng Inlet should have a distinctive place in the Canadian imagination. Byng Inlet is a landmark not just for Thomson, but for Canadian art as a whole. It was the first time the white pine, sculpted by the prevailing wind into banner tree formation, was used as an artistic emblem (Canadian paintings were usually populated by more sedate-looking oaks and maples). The piece also indicates the existence in Toronto of a vibrant, determined modernism, at odds with the more placid, conventional landscapes by an earlier generation of Canadian painters, such as Homer Watson or Horatio Walker.

But Byng Inlet itself meant nothing to me. My Ontario Back Road Atlas revealed it to be somewhere off Highway 69, midway between Parry Sound and Sudbury, where the Magnetawan River flows into Georgian Bay. A black dot marked a town, likewise called Byng Inlet, on the south side of a swelling in the river. The black dot seemed optimistic, given that Byng Inlet features on two websites, Ontario Abandoned Places and Ontario Ghost Towns.

The enigma of Byng Inlet seemed an appropriate match for someone as confusing and contradictory as Thomson. He was a brilliant painter with little formal training. He was a loner who thrived in the atmosphere of a group. He was a self-described “wild man” of the bush who would cast off his mackinaw to don silk shirts and, when in funds, relish the niceties of city life. He was a powerful, courageous man rejected for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (or else he himself refused to enlist: the facts in the case are as contrary and obscure as so much else about his life). And, of course, he was an expert canoeist who, famously and unaccountably, drowned on a calm lake in broad daylight.

Sherrill Grace’s superb study Inventing Tom Thomson shows just how extensively Thomson pervades the Canadian psyche. He has been the subject of poems, films, songs, and even (most prolifically) conspiracy theories and murder-mystery fantasies. Even so, he remains an elusive figure. There is neither a catalogue raisonné of his work, nor a rich cache of letters that — like those of Cézanne or Van Gogh — might have revealed his artistic inspirations or the inner workings of his mind.

Anyone writing about Thomson therefore quickly runs up against his frustrating refusal to come into any kind of sharp biographical focus. I began to wonder if Byng Inlet, the place where he first began spreading his artistic wings, could reveal anything about him. Was there something about this remote northern settlement, apparently unviable and doomed, that caused his talent to begin its sudden, rich germination?

Opportunity came knocking in the form of an invitation from Peter Raymont and his colleagues at White Pine Pictures, whose name seemed happily propitious. They were in the midst of making a film with the working title West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson. Having hired a water taxi, they volunteered to help me ply the waters of Byng Inlet in search of those inspirational pines and Thomson’s lingering ghost.

Thomson loved the woods and waters of Northern Ontario, but Byng Inlet doesn’t seem to have been a considered or deliberate destination — more a chance meeting than a fixed appointment. For someone who grew up on a farm outside the pretty village of Leith, a stone’s throw from Owen Sound, he had strangely little enthusiasm for painting the Georgian Bay waterscape. The bay’s wind-whisked waters and corkscrewing trees inspired such National Gallery stalwarts as A. Y. Jackson’s Terre Sauvage, F. H. Varley’s Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, and Arthur Lismer’s A September Gale, Georgian Bay. But Thomson always preferred Algonquin Park, which he visited for the first time, as far as anyone can tell, in the summer of 1912. The summer of 1914 was the first and only time he is known to have painted along the eastern shore of Georgian Bay — and Byng Inlet, Georgian Bay is the only significant painting of the area he completed.

Thomson arrived on this shore in late May of 1914. What drew him there was an eye specialist: his patron, Dr. James M. MacCallum, an ocular surgeon and a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Toronto. MacCallum didn’t know much about art (A. Y. Jackson claimed his appreciation was limited to finding animal shapes in Thomson’s paintings). But the distinguished oculist certainly knew what he liked, and Thomson’s paintings of the Ontario backcountry reminded him, he claimed, of his childhood on Georgian Bay.

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1 comment(s)

David NewlandOctober 12, 2010 10:39 EST

Fantastic article, rich with thought.

As I type this I can see a version of that iconic painting out of the corner of my eye. It hangs in my office, as the central image of a poster from the inaugural Parry Sound "Festival of the Sound" in 1980.

A couple of quick notes:

1) Byng Inlet is anything but obscure to the many folks who travel Highway 69, which besides being a familiar cottage country highway, is a part of the Circle Tour around Lake Huron, and the gateway to the northern cities of Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and the route along the north shore of Lake Superior.

2) It may seem odd that Thomson, having grown up near Owen Sound, was little compelled to paint a Georgian Bay landscape. But the Owen Sound area and the western shore of Georgian Bay are vastly different from the Parry Sound area and the eastern shore. Limestone vs. granite, open water versus thousands of tiny islands, etc. all conspire to separate them by more than just a huge and dangerous body of water.

All in all a very inspiring article. We can't get enough of people chasing Thomson's ghost around.

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