Douglas & McIntyre
Defiant Spirits

Book details:

September 2010
ISBN 978-1-55365-362-2
6" x 9"
504 pages
43 colour illustrations, 50 b&w illustrations
Art / Canadian ART015040
Biography & Autobiography / Artists, Architects, Photographers BIO001000
$36.95 CAD


Douglas & McIntyre

Defiant Spirits

The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven

Excerpt / Additional Content

Chapter 1: A Wild Deserted Spot

In may 1912 two men from Toronto arrived in Algonquin Provincial Park, armed with fishing rods and a letter of introduction to the superintendent. The park, an eight-thousand-square-kilometre fish and game preserve in Northern Ontario, was inaccessible by road, so the men made the 220-kilometre journey north from Toronto on the Grand Trunk Railway. They would have changed trains at Scotia Junction, north of Huntsville, before arriving via a single-track railway line at Canoe Lake.

For the past few years, the Grand Trunk Railway (whose president, Charles Melville Hays, perished on rms Titanic less than a month earlier) had been transporting affluent tourists and overworked city dwellers into the Ontario hinterlands for what a 1910 issue of Rod and Gun in Canada called “a rest cure in a canoe.” Canoes and fishing rods were widely publicized antidotes for modern ills and anxieties at a time when the urban population of Ontario for the first time outnumbered the rural. Promoting itself as the “Highway to Health and Happiness,” the Grand Trunk advertised Algonquin Provincial Park in full-page spreads as one of “the beauty spots of the Dominion” that appealed to sportsmen, nature lovers and artists alike. “This country is increasing in popularity every year,” declared one advertisement, “and has become a favourite tourist resort of Britons and Americans who are flocking to this country for their vacation in increasing numbers.” The company already operated two lakefront hotels: the thirty-five-room Hotel Algonquin at Joe Lake Station and the seventyfive-room Highland Inn on Cache Lake. In 1912 there were plans for two more.

The two visitors who presented their letter of introduction to the park superintendent were typical of those who descended by the trainload on Algonquin Park. Tom Thomson and Harry B. Jackson were city dwellers lured north on a two-week fishing holiday by promises of lakes abundant with black bass and speckled trout. Both were graphic designers who worked at Grip Limited, a commercial art firm in downtown Toronto. Their modest salaries of $30 per week meant they declined the luxuries of the Highland Inn, which boasted hot and Canoe Lake Railway Station cold running water, indoor washrooms, private baths and an elegant dining room. On the advice of one of the rangers, who assured them of “good meals and excellent beds,” they availed themselves instead of the more rustic conveniences of Camp Mowat.

A former barracks for the mill workers of the bankrupt Gilmour Lumber Company, Camp Mowat was on the northwest shore of Canoe Lake, in the semi-derelict village of Mowat. Its air of decrepitude meant that even the Grand Trunk’s most enthusiastic copywriter would have struggled for words. According to one visitor, it was “a wild deserted spot.” The village’s population had shrunk from a high of five hundred at the turn of the century to a little more than one hundred. Camp Mowat itself was a bleak-looking warehouse of a building whose rows of windows faced what the daughter of a park ranger later described as “a treeless, desolate area of thirty acres or more covered with pine slabs and sawdust.”

The area immediately beyond Mowat was barely more inspiring. One Torontonian who owned a cottage on Canoe Lake described the park as “a paradise of virgin wilderness,” but in fact much of the area around Mowat was neither paradisal nor virgin. Hundreds of acres of the surrounding forest were either clear-cut, flooded by dams or swept by fire. With the vast logging operation defunct, Mowat was left with an abandoned mill surrounded by decaying tree stumps and dunes of sawdust. There was also a deserted hospital and a cemetery with two inhabitants.

It was in these unpromising environs that Thomson and Jackson unpacked not only their brand-new fishing gear but also—since they had come to Canoe Lake for something more than black bass—a Kodak camera and their paintbrushes. They were not the first landscapists to paint in the park. A decade earlier three members of the Toronto Art Students’ League had come north, clambered into canoes and, with the help of a guide, paddled the waterways in search of picturesque landscapes. More recently the park was visited by Tom McLean, a friend of Thomson and a fellow employee of Grip Limited. A specialist in scenes of canoes and voyageurs (those staples of Canadian landscape painting), the thirty-one-year-old McLean was a true man of the woods. He had worked in Northern Ontario as a prospector, fire ranger and surveyor, and he was present in 1904 when his friend Neil McKechnie, another Toronto painter with a love of the outdoors, drowned while shooting the rapids on the Mattagami River.

Thomson and Jackson produced a number of oil sketches during their stay. Jackson commemorated their visit with a small portrait of Thomson smoking his pipe and wearing a hat festooned with trout flies, and Thomson painted several landscapes. One of them, Old Lumber Dam, Algonquin Park, showed, in an eerie adumbration of his none-too-distant fate, an overturned canoe. But these were fairly amateur efforts, because in 1912 Thomson was a painter of limited skill and no repute. Two months shy of his thirty-fifth birthday, he was more experienced in angling than in landscape painting, a technique in which he had little formal training. As Jackson later recalled, Thomson “used to chuckle over the idea” that his work would ever be taken seriously.