Charles Plewman Reflects

Charles F. Plewman, “Reflections on the Passing of Tom Thomson”,

Canadian Camping Magazine, Winter 1972

Much has been said about the mystery surrounding the death of Tom Thomson and, as time goes on, the myths increase.

Though I was present and acted as a pallbearer at his funeral, I have refrained up to date from making any statement.

Possibly the time has come now when I should throw more light on the subject.

When I arrived at Mowat Lodge, Algonquin Park, for a two month’s stay in July of 1917, Tom’s body had just been found. My health had broken down and it was originally suggested that I stay at Nomenigan Lodge but Taylor Statten, who was interested in my welfare, arranged for me to go to Mowat Lodge.

Not until I arrived did I discover what a tense atmosphere I was moving into. I was quite unaware that anything out of the ordinary had happened and was consequently surprised to find everybody talking about the fact that they had just found the body of a man called Tom Thomson.

For over a week his upturned canoe had been found and they had searched in vain for the body. Not having found it they had about come to the conclusion that he could not have drowned. Had he done so, they reasoned, the body would have been found by that time.

Contrary to what many people suppose, Tom met his fate soon after he had left Mowat Lodge. By that I mean within an hour, or at the most, within two or three hours and this despite the fact they had been searching for him for 8 days. His body released somehow from its underwater anchorage was found close to the Lodge.

George, Tom’s brother, had been up the week previous to my arrival expecting that after Tom’s absence for more than four or five days he would have turned up dead or alive.

Tom Thomson’s burial was a sad and forlorn affair. The sky was overcast and the rain was falling. It had all the earmarks of a backwoods funeral. As a pallbearer, I along with the rest met outside of Mowat Lodge and lifted the wooden box on to the floor of a horse driven wagon. Then we fell in behind the vehicle as it made its way to the tiny cemetery on the knoll nearby.

The group that huddled around the graveyard was small, something like 12 or 13. No one from his immediate family was present, nor were any of the pals with whom he had painted. As for a minister there was none. The Stattens, whose cabin was nearby were absent, apparently away, and unaware that the funeral was taking place as were, I imagine, his other friends.

Mark Robinson, the Park Ranger, appeared to be in charge. On the surface it looked as if he had not been in touch with the family since locating the body or had received any instructions on what to do with the remains. I have since been told that there was a delay in reaching the family.

The Thomson family at Leith first heard that Tom’s body had been found late Tuesday night of July 17, 1917. His remains had been buried about ten hours before at Canoe Lake. They immediately decided to exhume the body and have it removed to Owen Sound for reburial in the family plot at Leith.

When I arrived back at the Lodge I was still quite oblivious to the fact that we had just buried a man who is now recognized as one of Canada’s foremost artists.

From what I had witnessed that day he might as well have been Algonquin Park’s “Unknown Man”.

Everything that happened on the day of his burial seemed so unimportant and so insignificant that I would have been absolutely flabbergasted had someone been able to tell me how much interest would be displayed in the event 55 years later.

When the body was found Miss Winnie Trainor, Tom’s girl friend from Huntsville, whose parents had a cottage on Canoe Lake in front of the Lodge, appeared on the scene and demanded the right to see the remains, saying that there must have been foul play as she was certain that Tom didn’t drown by accident in a small lake like Canoe Lake. This, Mark Robinson stoutly refused to grant. (The body had been in the lake about eight days and was not very presentable).

After the funeral, Shannon Fraser who operated Mowat Lodge where Tom had stayed, and who was more intimate with Tom than anyone else, confided in me what he felt had actually happened.

This was quite natural as there was considerable speculation as to how a man with Tom’s skill in handling a canoe could drown by accident in such a small lake. In no way did I foresee the interest that is now being shown in the real significance of his passing. Hence, I did not ask for information other than what Shannon offered.

Shannon said that at first he was not at all concerned when Tom failed to return on time. As Tom departed he had said to him what he had said on several previous occasions, namely, “Don’t worry if I am late getting back”.

Tom Thomson, Shannon continued, was engaged to marry Miss Trainor. She was pressing him to go through with the marriage. He intimated that she was coming up to see Tom to have a showdown on the fatal week.

He mentioned that Tom was a shy and sensitive person and that he felt he just could not face the music. The impression Shannon left me with was that somehow Tom had come to the conclusion that a settled, married life was not for him, but that he just could not say so to Miss Trainor.

Recalling Tom’s previous statements of not to worry if he didn’t return on time, Shannon said had made him feel that Tom had contemplated doing something on earlier occasions but had not mustered sufficient courage to go through with this intention.

Certainly from my conversations with Shannon there was little doubt in his mind as to what had actually happened. I have learned since that he expressed the same opinion to George Thomson.

During the rest of the summer I spent at the Lodge at no time did Shannon say anything to me about foul play, nor did I hear anything along that line other than the remark Shannon had said that Miss Trainor had made when they found the body.

I did get the impression from someone that Tom Thomson was somewhat of a pacifist and not interested in enlisting in World War One. Incidently, he had given up hunting.

As to the skeleton that was recently unearthed at Canoe Lake and which some people firmly believe was Tom Thomson’s, I am strongly of the opinion that it was that of an Indian. This was the verdict of the experts in this field. Apart from all of this, I am told that an Indian was buried in this cemetery around 1894 and probably other persons too.

Fifty-five years is a long time in which to recall with accuracy what happened at that time, but to the best of my knowledge, I would have to say that we buried Thomson inside the area enclosed by a small fence. The skeleton that was unearthed was found outside, not inside, the railing. In any event it is hard to imagine what ulterior motive would cause the undertaker not to follow the family’s instructions of sending the body to Owen Sound for interment in the family plot at Leith. After all he did make the trip to Canoe Lake for that purpose.

Incidently, Mowat Lodge was full of 8x1/2” x 101/2” sketches that Tom had painted. I could have had them for about a dime a dozen. Actually, at that time the few people who bought his pictures would only pay ten or fifteen dollars for a Tom Thomson original.

If I had gone up the creek I could have salvaged some of the ones that Tom had broken up and thrown away.

For many years I have refrained from making this statement. Meanwhile all kinds of rumours have been circulating regarding the nature of his death and burial. At 82 I now feel that I should say what I know. It is quite possible that I am the only person living who participated in Tom Thomson’s burial in Algonquin Park and to whom, at that time, Shannon Fraser talked about the nature of his passing.

A Matter For The Curious Only

“Tom Thomson family will bar exhumation of body”, Owen Sound Sun-Times, Feb. 8, 1969

A CBC TV producer’s demands that the grave at Leith, where most accept lie the remains of the world famed Canadian artist, Tom Thomson, pioneer of the Group of Seven school of Canadian art, have aroused considerable revulsion in Owen Sound.

Not only do people, many of them long time friends of members of the Thomson family, feel that opening the grave 50 years after the painter’s death would be in very bad taste and would cause surviving members of his direct family great anguish, but they can see no point, even should the unlikely suggestion he was murdered be indicated to be true.

The television film on Tom Thomson, shown Thursday night over CBC, caused great disappointment among local art circles and other interested in the Thomson family. It was quite apparently aimed solely at furthering the suggestion that Mr. Thomson was murdered and increasing the pressure to have the grave opened.

WON’T PERMIT IT

The final decision must rest with the surviving members of the family, two sisters and a nephew. The latter, Geo. Thomson, of the Brantford Art Gallery, stated that his aunts, himself, and other members of the family will not give permission to open the grave neither now nor at any time.

There has never been question in the minds of any members of the family but that Thomson died accidently, as stated officially following the inquest which found death by drowning.

His father, the late Geo Thomson, dean of artists here for many years and widely known for his landscapes, went to the scene immediately on learning that Tom had disappeared and was believed drowned, the son recalls. He spent six days searching for the body. Collecting the artist’s sketches, he returned home and shortly after the family was informed the body had been found.

Geo. Thomson sr. said he had been informed that Tom had suffered a sprained ankle just before his disappearance. He was of the opinion Tom had stepped out of the canoe onto his injured foot, had slipped, hit his head on a rock and rolled unconscious into the water to drown.

Geo. Thomson, asked by a Sun-Times staff members 10 or 12 years ago about the rumor, which had recurred at that time, definitely stated Tom’s body was in the coffin buried at Leith, and that his death was accidental.

PUBLIC OPINION

A number of Owen Sound residents, some of whom knew the family for many years, were asked for their opinion of the proposal. These opinions follow:

Mrs. S. H. Pearce: – “I feel the proposal is in very bad taste and cannot see where any good purpose could be served. We have a very fine memorial to Tom Thomson, the artist, in our Tom Thomson Art Gallery. I have a great admiration for his works and the part he has played in Canadian art and view the movement as most unfortunate.”

Mrs. Pearce, former women’s editor of the Sun-Times, was active in establishing the memorial art gallery. She feels strongly about the Thursday night showing of the CBC film on Tom Thomson. “Instead of watching what we thought would be a tribute to the wonderful art of Tom Thomson, we watched a group of ghouls at work.”

Ald. Clifford Waugh, city council representative on the civic gallery committee: – “The legend of Tom Thomson is something the people of this area have cherished for years and the CBC, in their stupidity, have deliberately tried to destroy the image of this revered artist which is causing anguish for the Thomson family.”

Mrs. John Harrison, president, women’s gallery committee: – “I thought the suspense in the film was well maintained but was disappointed more time was not devoted to his life and his paintings shown. It is my feeling it would be a good thing to get the mystery of his death cleared up.”

William Parrott, head of the art department at the O S C V I: – “The dead should be left in peace and no good purpose could come of opening the grave at Leith.”

Mr. Parrott said, “Christians do not feel they need to know beyond doubt where Christ is buried before they can honor him, so why should we feel we need to know the location of Tom Thomson’s grave in order to honor him.”

W. M. Prudham, former principal of the O S C V I: – “It would clarify the situation if the grave at Leith was opened. If it is not done the doubt will always keep coming to the surface from time to time.”

Mrs. John Rowe, member of art gallery committee: – “The McMichael Conservation Gallery officials a Kleinburg are anxious to collect the remains of the famous Group of Seven artists for burial in one plot. I think the idea of digging up graves is horrible. Lives remembered are more positive than bones.”

Mrs. K. C. Quirk, member of the gallery committee: – “Exhumation would be pointless. Let the poor man rest in peace. The wishes of the surviving members of the family should be considered.”

Stan Latham,CFOS radio: – “The resting place for Tom Thomson’s bones is a matter for the curious only. To me, it really does not matter. The real Tom Thomson still lives. It is expressed through his paintings. Let those who would honor and remember him do so in the manner of their choice. I would say we do him dishonor to wrangle over his bones. Let the mystery remain with him and the good earth he loved so well and held as sacred.”

July 8, 1914 Letter of Fred Varley

July 8, Tuesday night,
Go Home P. O., Georgian Bay, Ontario, c/o Dr. MacCallum

Dear Fred,

This is only to be a short note.

I am leaving here about the end of the week and back to the woods for the summer.

Am sorry I did not take your advice and stick to camping. This place is getting too much like north Rosedale to suit me — all birthday cakes and water ice etc. Will be over in Algonquin Park from about a week from today-couldn’t you and Mrs. Varley come up and camp for a month or two. If you could get hold of a small tent about 4’ X 7’ or anything that I could sleep in, your people could use mine which is about 7 X 10 and you would have lots of room. The one cooking outfit and canoe would be okay to get along with.

Have not made any sketches for a few weeks but feel like starting again. How is the weather down your way, suppose it is some warm. It will be alright up in this country so you should smoke up and come. If you write me this week send the letter c/o Mowat-Algonquin Park. Say hello to Mrs. Varley, Mrs. Pinder, Dorothy, John and the fellows in the shop. Say Fred, it will be fine to be camping again-

Tom Thomson

Alex

Alexander Young Jackson or Alex, as I called him. We first met in late November of 1913. He had recently arrived from Montreal and was at Lawren Harris’s studio at Bloor and Yonge. I knew of him, I had seen his work, Edge of the Maple Wood at the OSA Spring Exhibition.

At first, I was self-conscious and felt like a country school boy, because Alex had returned from the European Painting schools. All I had done were sketches and still-shoots (photos) up North. He didn’t think too much of my work. He thought it was a bit dull and muddy. Colours of Dutch landscape painting, but without the Dutch landscape.But he was impressed that I had only taken up painting seriously only the year before and of the passion I had for the North. He said my technique was good and he would only be too happy to show me some of the new colour theories coming out of Europe.

I owe much to Alex as his persistence to help me was greater than my stubbornness. If it wasn’t for him I would still be drifting between commercial art firms and living out my days in rooming houses. Dr. MacCallum had repeatedly offered me a year’s stipend to focus on my art and I repeatedly refused.  But with Alex’s jibbing, I eventually accepted his offer. Soon Alex and I were sharing space in the Studio on Severn Street. We were both tight on money, but with the guaranteed stipend  from Dr. MacCallum,  we were doing exactly what we wanted and in a place where we exactly wanted to be.

1916 – Tom Thomson meets Orville Wright

Late Summer, 1916

It was the pail of blueberries in the bow of the canoe that caught my attention. I was surprised to see freshly-picked blueberries, I thought the season was over. In the boat there was a man accompanying the blueberries in the boat. He was a slender, balding, a few years older than me, forty-five, maybe fifty. He was wearing a blue one-piece bathing trunk. He didn’t look too confident in his style of paddling and the canoe looked precarious.

Calling over in a friendly tone, I greeted him, “You should go a bit lower in the canoe, you don’t want those blueberries dumped in the Bay.”

“I’ve had worse things happen to me.”

“I thought the berry season was over”

“That’s what I was told too. But the berries grow later on the Islands.”

I could tell from his accent he was an American. I could also tell that his uneven paddling was not from inexperience, it looked like he was limited because of an injury. If he was an American, he certainly was not a returned War veteran.

“You’d better get those blueberries back safely, they’d make a pretty good pie, maybe too.

The man smiled, “It’s not getting back safely, it’s the pie I’m worried about.” He had a wry sense of humour,“My name’s Orville”

“Mine’s Tom. Pleasure to meet you”

“What brings you to these parts?”

I knew he could tell from my accent that I was an Ontario boy. I sounded like the Georgian Bay locals. The clothes I was wearing weren’t the clothes of vacationing tourists, nor were they the clothes of locals, they were bush clothes. I had on a wool shirt, mackinaw pants. I was wearing a crushed felt hat, not the common straw hat found everywhere this time of year, and I was smoking a lumbermen’s pipe.

“I just finished work in a cottage near Go Home Bay. Installing some panels.”

“Carpenter?”

“No. Artist.”

I could tell from his eyes that I piqued his interest and he wasn’t going to let me go without an explanation. I regretted my answer. . I should have said yes. That answer would have satisfied his curiosity, and once our pleasantries were exchanges, we would go our respective ways.

“Odd to find an artist out here. You look more like a lumberman. You’ve got your gear with you. Are you travelling?”

Yes, I was travelling. My destination was Midland.

“Midland, by nightfall, I hope.”

I had started out early in the morning.  I wanted time to sketch the Giant’s Tomb along the way. But when I got underway, the day was getting late, and it was looking like I have to camp on an island for the night. That didn’t worry me, I could camp anywhere, island, river or bush.

“With this wind, you won’t make it by nightfall.” He was right.

“That’s okay, I’ll camp on an island somewhere.” That was the beauty of Georgian Bay, there were thousands, if not tens of thousands of islands here. Each was like its own different world.

“You can stay the night on my island. That’s my island over there. I just bought it.” Orville pointed to one of rocky islands in the distance. I could see a larger house, and three smaller buildings, likely cottages or sheds.

“Much obliged, but I’ll be on my way.”

“I insist that you stay the night. The place is as empty as can be. It’s just me and a broken-down pump.”

I accepted the invitation, and we paddled to the island. We pulled the boats onto the shore, and Orville helped me to bring my gear to the main house.

“You’ll have to excuse the mess, I got possession two weeks ago. I’m still unpacking.”

More to come…

Women Should Be Women

In the autumn of 1915 I had moved into the Shack. Arthur Lismer was looking for a studio so he shared space with me during the day. The installation of the window in the east wall made a world of difference and it became a light and cheery place to paint and live. I had made a bunk on the upper level with a ladder accessing it from the ground floor. Lismer rarely stayed late in the evenings as he had family duties to attend to, so the arrangement worked out for both of us. We’d work together during the day and at the end he would go home, except for those evenings when the old Grip crowd would decide to visit. Beatty would come over too.  It was a grand arrangement until the women painters decided to come too We’d make it pretty clear that they weren’t welcome but ____ was insistent on coming. ____ was a popular woman artist, she had her own studio that was the regular haunt of army officers enthralled by a woman in an art studio and looking to marry someone before going overseas. I’m sure she had her fair share of marriage proposals, all of which she refused, because, according to Lismer, she had her eye on me.

I managed to avoid her, until Lismer invited her over for lunch. Lismer made the announcement one day, indicating that the invitation was for the day next. I made no comment, save for a brief outburst that we were running low on turpentine. On the appointed day, she appeared for lunch. Lismer was surprised that I remained in the Shack and had not disappeared into the ether. “I have a lot to do today,” was my reply.

I already had mulligan stew simmering on the stove when she arrived. ____ tried to be as evocatively feminine as possible, but I decided to play the game that she wanted to be one of the men so I treated her as such. ____ knew of my reputation as a woodsman so I decided to play it up for the the occasion. With a dirty ladle, I sloshed the stew into a tin bowl and pushed it in front of her as if I was serving a ranger that unexpectedly dropped into camp. ___ was initially shocked by my brusque treatment, but the she decided to play the game back. She knew the womanly weapons of winning of a man were obsolete with me. I continued to talk to her as if she was a lumberjack and she played the part right back. ___ slurped her stew, threw her spoon on the table when finished, and picked her teeth with a sliver of wood she pulled from a piece of firewood nearby. I tried to play the part as if she was a man, but a twinkle in my eye must have given away how much fun I was having.  What was to be a brief lunch turned out to be an afternoon of effusive conversation. Lismer was somewhat dumbfounded by the unexpected camaraderie. By the time the afternoon was out, we were talking like best of friends. Lismer went to the door when she left (since he made the invitation, she was his guest). When he returned he asked me what I thought of her.  My reply to Lismer, “____, she’s a fine woman. If she stays away from me, she’ll stay that way”

 

Me and Arthur Lismer

Arthur Lismer first visited me in Algonquin Park in May of 1914. I met Arthur at the Canoe Lake Station. It was about ten o’clock in the evening when the train rolled into the station. After nine stuffy hours in the train, Arthur revelled in the fresh and cold air, invigorating his body and forgetting about the city left behind.

It was a cold spring night, the frogs were piping as we drove through the bush to the Fraser’s at Mowat Lodge. The glorious moon was coming over the spruce tops shedding a yellow and mysterious light on everything. The air was tang and I could see that Arthur was anticipating every bump – he did not know what to expect – this was an alien land to him.The days I had together with Arthur were simply grand. I had the pleasure of introducing Arthur to the North Country. I could see it in his eyes. Arthur was eager to learn and in the days we were together I introduced him to the trails, paddling, how to make camp and most importantly how to fish. He was enthralled to see the North in its rugged beauty and design. We portaged, sketched and moved over what Arthur kept calling the magic land.

We went from one lake to another and I showed Arthur the trails I had made in the previous year. He couldn’t see them but I could. A matter of perception I reckon. Despite it being mid-May there was still snow in the woods – deep in the woods. In the late spring, I liked to hunt for snow, like it was wild animal. It was a reward for me when I could find the last vestige of snow of winter, especially when the leaves were beginning to come out.

I showed Arthur that every day in spring was an urgency for colour. What seemed like dead birches one day, would burst into a vibrant yellow-green overnight. We watched the wildlife take on a new sense of urgency, or rather a new vigour for life. We saw the beaver, the cries of the Canada geese still heading northward. Arthur loved it and he was thrilled to part of my spring.

It was cold in the evenings, and the temperature about midnight to early in the morning was below the freezing point. Any water left in the camp pails was frozen hard. But the sun came up and everything responded to its glow and warmth.

We revelled in what Arthur called the glamorous North. He never experienced anything like it. It was a wonderful time, when everything was on the very edge of rebirth with a peculiar intensity that can’t be described but it can be painted.