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


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.”


“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.

Late Summer of 1916

The late summer and early fall was a glorious time. I spent a lot of time canoeing with Ed Godin, “Ned” as I often would call him. We discussed many things ranging from the War and where to find the best pipe tobacco.  Even though we were alone for weeks and remote within the Park,  the shadow of the War still loomed large. But despite the shadows I did some of my brightest and best boards of my career.

Like many others early in the war, it was not hard to get wrapped up in the enthusiasm to enlist. Indeed, I had attempted to enlist in the Boer War but was rejected on account of a medical condition I had in my youth. Early in the War, the Canadian Expeditionary Force was choosey.  They had their pick of eager recruits. But as the War dragged on, they became less choosy in the quality of their recruits. At the beginning of the War, I had little enthusiasm. Three years later my sparse enthusiasm had turned to downright disillusionment and disdain. In the City, It seemed whenever the topic came up, the question of “one’s duty to the War” was the answer. I was bothered that everyone was looking at me whether I would join up and I soon tired of the incessant War talk. Even in the Park, each time a train passed by, mostly filled with grain, but occasionally filled with troops, it was a cue to start talking about the War and “one’s duty”. The trip with Ed was a blessed escape. We could share our thoughts without putting on the airs of doing “one’s duty”

More recently, there was talk of conscription and I decided that the best way for me serve, if it came to that, would be in some capacity as a Fire or Park Ranger. Mark Robinson had shipped overseas in 1915 and there was no telling whether he would return. Soldiers going overseas were leaving vacancies at home.

During August and September we travelled by canoe down the Petawawa River and to Lake Travers. After sketching very little during the summer, I sketched a lot during this trip. Mostly in the early morning when the light was good and before we would begin to break camp. The evenings had good light too, but often I was too tired by the end of the day.  Up North, the fall colours would start subtly but earnestly. The leaves of summer were still green but lacked the vitality of the earlier months. As the leaves began to turn, the light of the early morning or early evening offered a new menu of colours each day. The sun becoming lower in the sky brought different angles of light bringing, as I would say to Ed, two magic moments each day: one in the morning and one in the evening. I tried to work our daily routine around these ‘magic moments’. Ed would smile when I was preoccupied with getting out my sketch box to catch the magic moment and he would tell me we had the whole night to set up camp and the whole day to get going.

Aside from the trees, the rocks were marvelous. 300 feet of sheer cliff face towering above the river. It made a man feel small and vulnerable, especially if he was in a canoe. But despite our remoteness, we would see the occasional military patrol or guards by the railway trestles. We had heard from other folks in the park that a prison camp was nearby and if you encountered someone who couldn’t speak English you were to shoot them.

J.W. (Bill) Beatty

J.W. (Bill) Beatty is another Studio Building occupant and a good friend of mine. He’s good chums with Lawren Harris and Jim MacDonald, and we all share the interest of the North. Bill is an avid outdoorsman and was quite an adventurer before he settled down as an artist in the Studio Building. A house painter, a regimental bugler, and a fireman were his preceding careers. He’s  known for his bravado and stunts – like sliding upside down on a firepole – with a man on his back.

Like many of the artists (and unlike me) he studied in Europe. After coming back in 1909 he made trips with Lawren in the Haliburton Highlands. Before they moved to the Studio Building, Bill shared a studio with Jim MacDonald on Adelaide Street and that’s where I first met Dr. MacCallum. After my return from the Mississagi, I brought along some of my sketches to show Jim and Bill. They were in rough shape, because our canoe dumped and I had to fish them out of the water. Much to my surprise, Dr. MacCallum took an interest to my boards saying that I had captured the grim fascination of the North. I didn’t think they were any good, but the Dr. saw something in them.

Alex Jackson didn’t like Bill. They travelled together to the Rockies in the summer of 1914. When we were together in Algonquin Park in the fall of 1914, Alex confided in me that he found Bill to be a conventional and uninspired sort of chap. “He couldn’t keep up with me walking up a hill!” Alex told me. Alex also told me that he was disgusted with Bill’s fascination with erotic nymphs painted by the French painter, Bouguereau. I didn’t reply to that revelation made by Alex, because I didn’t mind the nymphs myself. Bill showed his pictures to me numerous times.


Frank Carmichael and a few words about Arthur Heming

Frank Carmichael was a godsend for paying a share of the rent. I was nearly at the end of my tether.

After we returned from Algonquin in late autumn 1914, Jackson was restless and ill at ease. The War was in full swing and it was weighing on his mind In the Park, we saw the first troops trains pass through, and when we returned to Toronto, the platforms at Union Station were nearly impassable from soldiers embracing their loved ones before being shipped out for training an overseas. Alex was very troubled; his year’s patronage with Dr. MacCallum was nearly up (and so was mine). He wanted to return to Montreal. He felt the Studio Building with its fancy kitchens and bathrooms was an extravagance in the face of the sacrifices necessary for War. He left for Montreal. He soon enlisted in the 60th Battalion, trained at Valcartier and shipped overseas. That was the last I saw of him.

When Jackson cleared out, I couldn’t afford the rent my self.  Over 20 dollars a month I would have driven myself into abject penury well before the snow disappearing the next spring. Fortunately, Frank Carmichael appeared, having returned from Europe, and more recently from Orillia. He had decided to return to Toronto, and he replaced Alex as my studio mate.

Frank and I had a blaze of time together. We’d get together with Bill Beatty and Arthur Heming our other Studio comrades and we would gab like geese for hours. Frank was younger than me by thirteen years, but that didn’t seem to make much of a difference because he had the same Scottish Presbyterian background and he was a musician too. He played the violin, cello, bassoon and piano too. He played chess, but wasn’t so good because I’d beat him every time. Most importantly, why we got along was that he liked his solitude too. Equally so, when we weren’t gabbing like geese, we could spend hours in the studio together, not saying as much as a word to each other.

Frank had been to Europe and had seen the modern art shows. Japanese woodblock prints were another interest of his. We tried a few of our own, made from leftover pine planks we picked up from construction sites. Our studio space was in utter disarray. Cluttered with half-finished easels, half-used tubes of paints, open bottles of turpentine, and an ever-growing array of unwashed cookware. Bill Beatty didn’t mind the mayhem, he’d come over for dinner often, but I believe that Arthur Heming began to take a disliking to me because our mess. Arthur was a fastidious dandy, so much so, he said that he had no room for a women in his life, as they would mess things up for him. Well that got Bill, Frank and I talking and we never let up on him since. He seemed to have room for men in his studio – we saw a few go in late at night and leave early in the morning. Arhur had that superior smugness about him – we let him have his smugness and never let on we knew his secret. Arthur was a good chess player, I had to give him that. He’d come by and watch our games. I could never beat him. At the club, he studied games from Wilhelm Steinitz and Emmanuel Lasker, the world champion.  We’d go to boxing matches, too, with Dr MacCallum. We’d enjoy watching the men fighting, but we knew that Arthur had his additional secret thrill of watching fighting men.


A Recollection of Frank Johnston

Frank Johnston is a burly sort of fellow. Athletic and a practical joker too.  I met Frank at Cruikshank’s art classes and not long after he started to work with us at Grip under Albert Robson in 1910.

At Grip, we were all fascinated by the Art Nouveau movement and Frank was no exception.  He left Toronto for Philadelphia  to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, but came back to Toronto in 1915. We saw each other once again at the Arts and Letters Club. Frank told me about his experience with the Ash Can school of painters and how he was impressed with the Armory Show back in 1913.

Frank and I would go on painting trips on the outskirts of the the city. We learned from each other. My first outdoor oil sketch was painted while I was with Frank.

Frank had a studio place above the Arts and Letters Club. He didn’t want the space at the Studio Building, but he was a frequent enough visitor. When I moved into the Shack, he’d come by for a few drinks and spend time looking at my efforts and giving me advice. He had gotten some first-rate training in Philadelphia and he was keen to share new ideas with me. Arthur Lismer, amused at the frequency of his visited, pencilled a serie of cartoons, “Frank Johnson in T.T.’s Shack”. Frank was good friends with Arthur Heming, another artist in the Studio Building, but Arthur and I never saw eye-to-eye so you’d never see the three of us together.

It was Frank that I learned the ideas of Seurat and Pointillism. Alex had made me aware of Seurat, but Frank had an intriguing way of explaining the concepts.  I was working on Northern River when Frank had just returned.  We talked about mysticism, symbolism and poetry amongst our smoking and whisky. We must have done something right because the National Gallery bought Northern River for $500.00


TTLastSpring Campfire Reading in Algonquin – Saturday September 27, 2014

Hello everyone,

wpid-wp-5322.jpgI have been tempted to step out of the Twittersphere to do campfire readings from my journal.

This will be happening on Saturday, September 27th, 2014 at Canisbay Lake Campground in Algonquin Park.

Here are the salient details:

  • I plan to appear at sunset (7:02pm EDT) at the My Wild Canada Campout
  • I will do selected readings from the Journal of My Last Spring. I plan to have some new (i.e., previously unrevealed ) material.
  • I will entertain questions about my life, the mystery, and speculate on what will be in store for next year.
  • Finally, to close out the event (about an hour’s length), I will propose a toast – “Pour One for Tom.” You guessed it – that first shot of whisky will be poured into the ground in his honour to reflect on what we have lost in him, but also on what we have gained from him.

After these formal proceedings, we will finish the bottle of whisky (as Tom would do), and I will disappear back into the darkness, as if I was never there.

If you want to know who I am, you will be disappointed as the organizers don’t even know my identity. Be content that this is being done in the spirit and memory of Tom Thomson.

If you want more details on the campout, please contact the My Wild Canada folks.

I’ll see you in Algonquin on September 27th!