A lone canoeist who paddled up the lake, is never seen alive again. His death would be one of speculation and mystery. He is a part of Canadian folk lore and the mystery has endured for one century.
I am very honoured to introduce to you, Thomas John Thomson. An artist with great talent. His style of painting would influence a group of painters. Although not a member, he is associated closely to the Group of Seven.
Thomas John Thomson was born in Claremont, Ontario on August 5th, 1877. His father John was a farmer in the area. His mother was Margaret Mathewson. (Sometimes spelled Matheson). Thomas, who went by the name of Tom, was the 6th child born to the couple. Two months after his birth, the family would move to Rose Hill, a farm near the town of Leith, Ontario. Tom would have the typical Victorian upbringing. With the exception of a year of illness, he was a normal child. He was quite interested in art and poetry. The entire family was creative and musical.
In the year 1898, his grandfather would leave him an inheritance of $2,000. The following year, Tom would apprentice with William Kennedy and Sons in nearby Owen Sound as a machinist. His employment would last 8 months.
In 1900, Tom would move to Chatham, Ontario to attend business college. The next year would see Tom moving to Seattle, Washington. His older brother, George, was out there already. He would attend Acme Business School which was owned by George and others. It would be here that Tom would become proficient in lettering and design. Tom worked as an elevator boy at the Diller Hotel. In 1902, he would begin working for Maring and Ladd, an engraving company. By 1904, he was working for the Seattle Engraving Company.
Tom would begin to court a lady by the name of Alice Lambert. The brief romance ended when Tom proposed to Alice. She did not accept his proposal. Tom moved back to Owen Sound. Tom then decided to make the move to Toronto and began working in the art department for Legg Brothers. He would board at 34 Elm Street.
In 1906, he began to take art lesson at night school. Tom began to experiment in oil paint. Most of the sketches that he had done prior were ink, watercolours or chalk.
In 1907, Tom moved down the street to 54 Elm Street.
A pivotal moment in Tom’s art career happened when he was hired by Albert Robson to work for Grip Limited, a prominent Toronto photo-engraving firm. Here he would be inspired from J.E.H. MacDonald, the head designer at the firm. It would be at Grip Limited that he would meet several artists. Some of whom liked to go out of town to paint. During one of these getaways, Tom would sketch Lake Scugog.
In 1909, Tom was living at 99 Gerald Street East.
In 1912, Tom took a trip to Algonquin Park to sketch the landscape. He was accompanied by Ben Jackson, a fellow artist. This began a passion for the North for Tom. He would regularly travel to the park, working as a guide. This was also the time that Tom met art enthusiast Dr. James MacCallum.
Thomson’s first major canvas was “A Northern Lake” and it was shown at the Ontario’s Society for Artists exhibition in 1913. The Government of Ontario would purchase the painting for a large sum of $250. Dr. MacCallum would make Tom a proposition. He would support Thomson for one year on the condition that Tom create canvases during that time. Tom gladly accepted. He quit his job and headed to Ontario’s North.
That year, Tom would sketch and paint. While staying in Algonquin Park, he would home-base in Mowat Lodge on Canoe Lake. Tom again became an active guide for the park. If Tom was not painting in his spare time, he was fishing. For the next 5 years, he would spend as much time as possible in Algonquin.
When Thomson could no longer stay at Algonquin Park due to winter, he would stay in Toronto. He was listed as being a boarder at 54 Alexander Street in 1912. Later that year, he was listed as living at 119 Summerhill Avenue. In 1913, he resided at 66 Wellesley Street East.
The year 1914 saw Thomson becoming a member of the Ontario’s Society for Artists. This club held gatherings for many artists and creative individuals. It also gave artists the chance to meet other artists.
War had broken out in Europe and many of Tom’s fellow artists enlisted. Tom tried to enlist in November of 1914 but was denied due to fallen arches. It was a huge disappointment to Thomson to be unable to serve although he detested the war. Tom would spend that year in the North sketching during the Spring and Fall. He worked as guide and fire ranger in the summer. During that winter, Thomson would return back to Toronto and paint in his little shack at 25 Severn Street. This was located beside the Ontario’s Society for Artists building.
In November of 1915 Tom visited his sister and her husband in Owen Sound. Upon his return in December of 1915, the Arts and Letters Club held a one-man exhibition of Thomson’s sketches and paintings. “Northern River” went to the National Gallery for $500. Two other paintings were acquired by the gallery, “Moonlight” and “Spring Ice” for $450.
The year 1916 Tom spent as much time painting as he could. Many say that his greatest paintings were done from 1916 to early 1917. It was during that winter period Tom would reside in the little shack and he would paint his most noted work, “The Jack Pine”.
On April 28, 1917, Thomson bought his guide license for the year.
July 8th 1917 started off as a warm day with a fine mist in the air. Tom collected his canoe and loaded it with fishing equipment and supplies. Thomson was seen paddling away on Canoe Lake at approximately 12:30 that afternoon. He was on his way to Mowat Lodge. His plan was to spend the afternoon fishing. The next morning, Tom’s canoe was found overturned. A search began for Tom.
At 9 am on July 16th, Thomson’s body was found floating in the water. Not knowing what to do, they left his body in the water until the coroner could be called in. Tom’s body was badly decomposing. The Coroner came up and examined the body. He found a gash above Tom’s left eye but no other trauma was found. Fishing line was wrapped around his feet. The Coroner concluded that Thomson died from accidental drowning. Since Tom’s body was in bad shape, he was hastily buried near Mowat Lodge. A small ceremony was performed as he was interred.
The next day, his brother George arrived from Connecticut. He came with a coffin to collect Tom. Thomson was exhumed. On the 19th Thomson was placed on a train to travel back to Owen Sound. There was a small private family funeral for Tom on July 21st 1917 and he was re-buried in the family plot at Leith United Church . Two months later in September, Fellow artists James E. H. MacDonald and John W. Beatty erected a cairn for Thomson. It was created by them, with help from local residents, on the north end of Canoe Lake.
Question arose about his death immediately. How could an expert woodsman and canoeist drown? People had many theories as to what had happened. Some saw it as an accident. Others wondered if he had committed suicide. Some went as far to say that Tom was murdered. Some say he is still buried at Mowat Lake and was never taken back to Leith.
One hundred years later, the speculation continues. Thomson has become a legend in Canadian history. Popular culture has immortalized Thomson in song and on film. Tributes are left on his headstone regularly. His artistic style influenced many of his Canadian painting friends. These artists would form the Group of Seven in 1920.
A self-taught artist, an avid woodsman, and an expert swimmer would die on Canoe Lake. One may never know exactly how he died. A true mystery, Canadian style.