December 21, 1916 Owen Sound

December 21, 1916

I came up to Owen Sound yesterday. I haven’t written for a few days because I was busy working on my canvases and getting ready for the trip. With the season, the trains are busy, the tickets are more expensive and Union Station is a constant crush of trains and people, even worse than usual.

I was considering remaining in Toronto for the holidays. It’s not that I didn’t want to visit my parents in Owen Sound, but I was short of cash. My painting – Hardwoods, I had hoped it would sell in Montreal ($300) but it didn’t. Nothing much sold in that show because of the wartime thrift. People aren’t buying paintings because it’s viewed as being frivolous. It now seems that any spare money that people have is going into war bonds or life insurance. It was a disappointment that a sale didn’t come through as the cash would have kept me going until springtime. I didn’t want to, but I might have to take on commercial work, and that meant going to an office. I couldn’t bear that thought.

Word of my plight must have gotten to Dr. MacCallum. He came by on Tuesday, and started sifting through my sketches and pulled on one out, “I have a buyer in mind for this one, 25 dollars I’ll give you.” He also took a look at my canvases, “The one with the first snow on the cedars, I want that one for my house, I’ll give you an instalment of 50 dollars and we’ll figure out the price later.” His brief visit ended up with 75 dollars in my pocket and my worry about not making it to Owen Sound for the holidays went out the door too. As in other times, The Dr. seemed to have an advanced telegraph for trouble situations, getting us artists out of a bind before it got too bad. He did that for Jackson up in Georgian Bay. He offered his cottage to Jackson in the late fall so he could continue his painting. If he hadn’t done this, Jackson would have gone to the States, and left Canada altogether.

I had to prepare my things for Owen Sound. I was working on a couple of sketches for my parents. I finished them up and mounted them on frames I had made from windowpanes I salvaged from an old storm window I found in the ravine. One pane was broken, but the other five were fine. Judging the quality of the window, it came from one of the well-heeled households. I couldn’t fathom why these houses were still dumping their rubbish in the ravine. It was most likely the doings of the hired help, and despite it being in the ravine there was good chance that pickers from the poorer neighbourhoods would fetch it away sooner or later. I just happened to come across it during the night when I was snow-shoeing. Had I waited until next morning it would have been gone.

I wasn’t worried about the leaving the shack over the holidays. The pickers would take stuff from the neighbourhoods, but there was an unwritten code to leave the residences unmolested. Before I departed I made sure the fire burned out in the stove. I was sure my sketches and canvas were safe not just from fire but from thieves too. Nobody would touch anything anything during the time I was up North, and during the holidays, no one would have the occasion to come in – there was nothing of value to steal, except my sketches, perhaps, for use as firewood. If that was to be the fate of my art, so be it. In the other part of the shack (the unheated part), I had fashioned a root-cellar into the wall where it butted up against the dirt embankment,  I had about 20 lbs of potatoes, numerous turnips and onions. I covered these up using burlap bags to act as insulation. If it didn’t get too cold, they should be fine, as I was going to be gone for almost two weeks.

Although being in the middle of the week, Union Station was still a crush of people and trains. It’s always busy now. The crowds are rife with pickpockets, so I made sure I could feel my wallet in my inside vest pocket as I pushed my way through the throng. I could see long rows of freight trains were being loaded on the westerly platforms. Judging by the boxes and the sentries milling about, it was munitions for shipment to Halifax and then overseas. With all of these shipments, Halifax had become the centre of the munitions universe. Closer to me, the passenger trains were coming in from Buffalo, Montreal and Ottawa. It was not unusual to have three or four trains arriving at once, adding to the constant surge of people. A Grand Trunk train, with an especially black smoke pillar was coming in from Montreal. I could see it was full of returning veterans. My mind slipped away from the present for a brief moment – I’d be taking a Grand Trunk if I was going up to the Park, but today I was taking the CPR  to Owen Sound.

Then the present snapped back. The black soot from the Grand Trunk engine, now in full-stop, was wafting across platform. As I turned around to make my way to my train, a young women came up to me tried to hand me a white feather while acting out a self-important flourish. I stared at her. She was expecting the crowds to part and watch the spectacle of shame bestowed upon me, but that was not to be. Before I could react, the feather was intercepted and snatched away by a soldier who just had stepped off the train. From the look in his eye, I could tell he was a veteran. Vimy, but most likely Somme.

“Young lady, you don’t know the half of the stupidity of what you’re doing!” The soldier wasn’t looking at me, I don’t think he noticed me. He glared at the feather, tossed it aside, and it floated up to disappear into the cloud of black soot

“You don’t have a bloody clue how pointless it is over there.” He glowered at the girl. I did not exist. He turned to one side, he was missing his left arm. I was expecting a dramatic confrontation to unfold, but the young women, like the white feather disappearing into the cloud of soot, disappeared into the  crowd. I was pushed along by the flow of people coming off the training and I lost sight of the one-armed veteran. In the chaos, I managed to get on my train. I was shaken up, and it wasn’t until the second smoke of my pipe that I began to feel right again. The train had departed, and it wasn’t until we were passing the slaughterhouses and stockyards in the west end that conductor checked our tickets.

The rest of the trip went went without incident. The weather was clear coming out of the City and we managed to climb the curve on Caledon grade without slipping on the rails. Horseshoe Curve, as the grade was called, was a switchback up the steep hills. It had gained a notorious reputation back in 1907 when a train from Owen Sound, going too fast, left the rails at full speed. Seven people were killed, and over a hundred injured. It was the fault of the engineer, after a drunken night in Owen Sound, he fell asleep while on the engine.

Over the high lands the weather started to turn for the worse by Dundalk. The elevation here is nearly the same as the Park. It’s colder here, and with no trees to break the wind, it is a miserable place to be. I had heard that soil is poor and the drainage bad. The surveyor of these parts, a Roman Catholic, would reserve the poorest lands to be named after Protestant Reformers. The township here was called ‘Melancthon’, after Philip Melancthon, who specialized in lost souls plagued with guilt and confusion.  The fate of anyone who tried to farm in Melancthon.

We made it to Owen Sound, and I walked through the town to my parents’ place. They could see I was tired, and after a perfunctory conversation, I retired to the room they kept for me when I visited.  I didn’t know how tired I was until I woke up the next day, and it was well into the afternoon. Back at the farm, I was never allowed to sleep past 7 am, no matter what happened the night before, but this was different, they lived in town now.

I know what’s in store during my stay. Aside from the Christmas celebrations, we’ll be talking about the War and what I’m going to do.

December 16, 1916 Moonlight and the School of Athens

December 16, 1916

The Canadian Magazine, December 1916 Tom Thomson, Moonlight
The Canadian Magazine, December 1916 Tom Thomson, Moonlight

Dr. MacCallum dropped by today. He brought with him a copy of The Canadian Magazine. There was my painting, on page 177, alone on its own page. It was strange and exhilarating to see my canvas on the magazine page and my name among the other writers and artists in the Table of Contents.

Earlier in the fall, while I was up North,  Dr. MacCallum entered ‘Moonlight’ into the Canadian National Exhibition. I also heard that Dr MacCallum convinced Newton McTavish, the editor of The Canadian Magazine, to get someone to come down to take a picture so they could publish it. The Dr. has always been keen to showcase my work wherever the opportunity and I didn’t think any further of it, until today, when he brought me the December issue.

“At least they spelled my name right.” Dr. MacCallum smiled. He knew I was constantly annoyed by the insistence of people spelling my name with a silent “p”.

“Unlike the English, we Scots don’t need to have a silent ‘p’ in our name.”

The Dr. laughed.

After flipping through the other pages, I set the magazine aside and moved over to my easel to show the Dr. what I was working on. A decorative canvas of autumn.  By quickly changing the topic, I didn’t want to let on that I was pleased by the magazine.

“Top notch, Tom. Keep it up!” His attention wasn’t fully on this particular canvas, he was looking at the other ones leaning against the wall. “Mind your stove at night, I don’t want to see these treasures go up in flames.” A reminder of the nightly occurrence of house fires in Toronto. The fires were mostly in shanties similar to the Shack. Unregulated housing was cropping up everywhere throughout the City and burning down just as fast. The City Board of Control, not wanting another Great Fire, was considering a crackdown and serving eviction notices to the shanty-tenants. I’m not sure where they would go, other than a boarding house with jacked-up prices. Either way, the landlords win with the rent.

“I can’t stay long, I’ve got to go to my portrait sitting.” The members’ portrait for the Arts & Letters Club – that’s what the Dr. was referring to. Joseph-Ernest Sampson, a fine portraitist, had been hard at work, making the club painting.  “Sampson’s got us scheduled in like doctor’s patients. He’s doing individual sittings in his Studio on King Street and he wants to get the thing done in time for the members’ dinner in January.”

I had heard the portrait was turning into a veritable School of Athens. At last count twenty-eight members would be in the painting. I can’t even being to comprehend the jockeying for position. Dr. MacCallum, being the current president, would be the most prominent in the painting, but the concession he made for this prominence was that his portrait would be in profile. The others would be suitably placed standing around the fireplace or sitting at the table.

As the Dr. was leaving, he handed me an invitation, “January 17th, Tom. That’s the unveiling. Members only, but I got you an invitation as a friend of the club. Mark that in your calendar. It’ll be quite the time.”

Later in the evening, before going to bed, I studied the picture while having a good draw on my pipe. I secretly relished the fact that people across the Dominion, the Commonwealth and the USA would be looking at my canvas, Moonlight. But I knew they were missing the real spirit of the canvas. It doesn’t come through in the picture. To me, paintings looked dead in books and magazines, and I wondered how many dead Van Goghs, Monets, and Renoirs I studied in the books and magazines at the library. I never made it to Europe to see the real things, to see if they were alive. Maybe these paintings were really dead. Jackson said to me once, “It’s good to have knowledge of the masters, but don’t let them influence you too much. Put your own life into your paintings. Do your own thing. Don’t worry about the Masters.”

December 15, 1916 Loneliness

December 15, 1916

I don’t get bothered being alone. I prefer it. But sometimes I feel alone. Very alone. The weather turned and the clear night of last night turned into a heavy snow this morning. By the time it was done around noon, over a foot of snow fell and everything in the City had ground to a halt. The tracks and the main roads were mostly passable by late afternoon. Trains aren’t a problem, the wedges were usually in early November. The trains can get through most everything, only the biggest drifts would pose a problem. The biggest danger to trains was not the snow, but meeting other trains stranded or thrown off schedule.

The side streets are a mess. They’ll be that way for a few days. I stepped outside for a few moments this afternoon to assess the aftermath. Rosedale Valley Road is a sea of stranded motor cars and several have skidded off into the ravine off to the side. The horse-buggies and their masters are pulling out the motor car casualties. In winter, the buggies keep a chain or rope handy because more often than not in this weather, they’d be called upon for rescue. As for my contribution to restoring the general order, it was clearing the path to the privy, pulling snow of the roof and clearing out the icicles, some as long as six feet. I don’t like icicles. When I was in school in Leith, one of the village kids, got an icicle in his eye. About a month later, when he got back to school, his pupil was no longer the normal round, but a ragged black diamond and he became a curiosity and a freak to all of us other kids. Now whenever, I see icicles, I get this strange feeling in my eye and an urge to clear them out immediately.

As soon as I got back into the Shack, I felt alone. There’s a feeling of sad vacancy here. My former Studio and Shack-mates are gone: Lismer is in Halifax, Jackson still overseas and Harris just called up to training this summer in Barrie. I miss their camaraderie. We went on trips up North and were together in the winters. I learned a lot by listening, watching, and arguing. Not really arguing – if Jackson made a pointed comment about what I was doing, I’d make it look like I was sulking (in some cases I was) – he’d come over and put his hand on my shoulder and say, “Now there, Tom. You’ve got the raw talent, we just need to work on some of those rough edges you have.” In contrast, Lismer would make a silly drawing of the incident and get me to laugh at myself.

I’ve been back about a month now and you’d think by now, I’d have settled on a style of painting things. But with every canvas, I seem to be back to starting point of uncertainty. I prefer sketching out-of-doors than in a studio. With sketching, uncertainty takes a back seat to the immediacy of the moment. Painting in the Studio was fine when I first shared it with Jackson. It was novel and I was too busy learning from Jackson. But to have that space to myself, it would have felt too pretentious. I know that Bill Beatty is in his element in the Studio. Bill and I are different on that part. He thinks he’s an artist-rebel, but deep down I know he has worked too hard to become part of the establishment. I don’t want to be part of the establishment. I’m not an ‘artist-rebel’, I just don’t like going along with the pack and I don’t like making a lot of noise about it.  Maybe the cost of not being part of the establishment is to be lonely – but free. A fair price for now, I’d say.



Have Your Say on What I Should Write

December 15, 1916

The next few months in my journal are a blank canvas so to speak. I have a solid plan on what I will be painting before going up North, but my journal less so.

As I write, each day brings its surprises and unexpected aspects of my time in Toronto. I want this to be interesting to you. Over the next few months, I’d like to give you an opportunity to let me know what you’re interested in. It’s your chance to be a part of history watch it reveal the way you want.

Below, is a poll where you can choose your top three choices. Over the winter you can come back as many times as you wish to vote on your top three. If there is something I have left out that you are interested, please let me know and I will add it to the poll.

Affectionately Yours,


P.S. It’s warmer today. I should be able to get some good painting done.

December 14, 1916 Hanging Committee

December 14, 1916

1915 OSA Exhibition Hanging Committee
1915 OSA Exhibition Hanging Committee

I went over to the Studio Building earlier this evening to pick up my mail. There I saw Bill Beatty, He had just gotten back from a dinner the Arts & Letters club. Judging by the shape he was in, he should have stayed there for the night (they have 6 bunks there for the taking) but he got a motor car ride with one of the Rosedale club members.

“We bloody well had a hard time keeping on the road! If only those street trolleys could keep a straight line!”

I reminded him that the trolleys do keep a straight line. I suggested that the issue was with the motor car operator, not the trolley. Motor car accidents, once a rare and dramatic occasion of no serious consequence, were becoming more common and with graver consequences. Rail crossings had become especially lethal. A family was mostly wiped out near Chatham earlier in the month, crossing the tracks. The father thought he could beat the train. He was the only survivor. He lost his wife and two daughters. Closer to home, a veteran, after returning  unscathed from the War, lost his leg by colliding his car with a TG&B grain freight coming down from Owen Sound. Bill’s loud voice snapped me out of these thoughts.

“We’ve have officially formed the Hanging Committee!” He exclaimed.

I smiled. The “hanging committee” is the selection jury for the upcoming OSA Spring Exhibition, and they decide which pieces to “hang” on the wall. I always found the term macabre, and it no longer made sense, because the ‘hanging committee’  was now accepting sculptures into the exhibition. If they were true to their charge, they’d be hanging the sculptures for display to the public. That would certainly give the critics something to start at.

“The executive council moved that the committee be Miss Mary Wrinch, Wyly Grier, and Robert Holmes.  But Jim and I are going to keep a close tab on their selection. Fred Varley said he’d too.”

Bill was fading fast.

“Better make it a night, Bill – while the night is still a good night.”

Bill looked up at me, his face cast into a gruff grin. When sober, Bill is jovial, but liquor had a tendency to make his words fail and give license to his fists to settle any off-remark. Sensing that our exchange of words had run its course, I bid him good night and went back outside.

It was bitter cold outside, and, entering into the Shack, the inside not much warmer. Last night the mercury hovered near the 0F mark. During the day it didn’t get much higher than 5F. This morning, up waking up, I had to break a thin layer of ice in the water pitcher. The frost on the windows had become a solid sheen. It took a good hour with a strong fire in the stove to get the place back to a reasonable comfort. With the cold stay, I was expecting the same routine tomorrow. As I walked back I looked up at the night sky. Unlike a few nights ago, the sky was clear (no fog) and the stars were bright twinkling dots through the bare tree branches. I’ve notice when it’s clear night, the sound seems to travel farther better. Tonight I could hear the trains down by Front St. Union Station. It’s a constant blow of whistles, bustle and clanging. I could hear the screeches and thuds from the shunting of the tracks and the bumping together of the freight cars. The noise goes on all night now because the munitions factories are going round the clock and the production has to be shipped out to Halifax. Planes and motor cars are going out too. And, of course, the boys from out West. They get a day’s leave in the City as most have never seen a big City before. They pouring out of Union, they get preyed on by the pickpockets and tarts and then they’re back on the train going to Halifax.

I try to stay here, away from everything, but it’s more and more difficult. My painting is going well, three canvases about finished. Now that the Hanging Committee is officially formed, I am sure someone on their behalf will be visiting me. The Montreal Show will close by the end of the week. I haven’t received any word yet if my canvas has sold. This canvas didn’t sell in the fall exhibition at the CNE. If it doesn’t sell in Montreal, that’ll be a strong sign.

St Peter and the Railroad Man

December 14, 1916

Thinking about a poem I learned from a railroad man last summer.

A railroad man stood at the Pearly Gate
And his face was scarred and old.
He stood before the Man of Fate for admission to his fold.
“What have you done,” St. Peter asked “to gain admission here?
“I’ve been an engineer for many and many a year.”
The Pearly Gates swallowed open wide and St. Peter touched the bell,
“Come right in and choose your harp, you’ve had enough of hell.”


December 12, 1916 The Ward and the Hospital

December 12, 1916

I was getting low on paint supplies so I went to to the art shop on King Street. It’s a couple miles walk and I went south along Church Street. After picking up my paints and supplies I decided to walk through St John’s Ward then over to Spadina passing by the Military Hospital. I must confess that what drew me on this return route was the spectre of curiosity and intrigue. The Ward is teeming with new immigrants: Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, and Chinese.  Unlike the other neighbourhoods in Toronto, there is no semblance of silence, reserve and order. Nothing like that exists here and the streets are abuzz with chaos activity.

Before the War, I would come down here with Lawren Harris. He was seized with the conditions of Ward. I can see why. It’s positively decrepit here. Broken steps, newspapers flying about, half-cocked doors not shut, and gaping window panes bereft of glass. The buildings, if I could call them that,  are little more than broken bits of beaverboard hammered together with bent and rusty nails. Lawren couldn’t understand why there had to be such poor conditions. He wanted to change that.

Even more unsettling than the decrepit buildings were the abandoned children wandering about. I’m sure they weren’t abandoned by their parents, but they had to work all hours, and leave them to their own to gather up into ragtag gangs. It’s these gangs of children, staring at us, as if we were aliens that made me uncomfortable. We were aliens.

But being an alien didn’t bother Lawren. He would just get out his gear and sketch. It did make a queer site for the kids, and a crowd would gather. Lawren was quite happy to the amuse the kids at his expense. He said condition didn’t have to be that way, it could be better.  The hardships of the War  were being compounded by the profiteering. He had come down often times to sketch, I came with him once, but I didn’t like it. Not only did I not like the subject to sketch, I didn’t like being stared at. I understood what Lawren was feeling and what he wanted to do right, but I didn’t have the same feeling. I just wanted to get out of there, back to the Studio, or into the woods where human injustice was something beyond the horizon.

I continued to walk through St John’s Ward (I didn’t stop) and over to the Military Hospital on Spadina. After Somme, the veterans were coming back at a high rate. Upon return, they had to be checked out first at the hospital, before they were discharged. You could see the crowds of uniformed men milling about in a daze. The injured ones (with missing limbs or blinded) were whisked inside the hospital or whisked away in cars and carriages, but it was the able-bodied ones that were left milling about in the front grounds. No one was quite sure what to do with these men after their discharge except to point them to the employment office that opened for the munitions factories.

It was an unsettling sight, and I kept my pace to get back to the Shack. Each day, I felt, the world, especially in the City, was becoming a more desperate place. This War has defied everyone’s predictions but the cruelty and injustice left in its wake is now something can be predicted.

“Keep your mind off it, just focus on your canvases”, that’s what Dr. MacCallum keeps saying to me. Jim MacDonald is saying the same thing to me too. I know this is good advice, but I can’t help but think there is another reason, that is not to my benefit. I don’t like these thoughts, but I can’t help it.