December 21, 1916 Owen Sound

TT ProfileDecember 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 8,1916 Things to Worry About

December 8, 1916 

UrNBbm4I had another good day of painting. I started a new canvas of a sketch I did in October just after a wet and heavy snow. The snow sticking to the upper branches of birch saplings made quite a nice pattern. This canvas is a bit smaller – about 32 inches square.  Since I’m not venturing out much, I’ll get this one done in a few days.

Jim MacDonald came by just before he went home. He invited me for dinner this Sunday. Jim lives up in Thornhill, it’s easy to get there with the TYRR (Toronto York and Radial Railway). I said I’d come up. I hadn’t seen Thoreau in a while and it would be nice to see him. Jim moved up to Thornhill with his family, but still kept space in the Studio here.  But work is getting pretty meagre, and Dr. MacCallum convinced him to stay in the Studio (at a reduced rent). There’s not much appetite for art during the War so he’s having a tough time making ends meet. He got board money from the Lismers but they’ve moved to Halifax. He tried raising some crops in the summer, but that didn’t bring in much money either.

The last art job Jim got was painting a Mother Goose mural for the toy department at Simpsons. He finished it before the Christmas Parade on Saturday.  For no charge, he’s doing the artwork for the Arts and Letters Club. That’s the deal he made with Dr. MacCallum – free artwork for reduced studio rent.

“Dr MacCallum or Dr Faustus?” We both laughed when the words popped out but we knew this was a joke not to be played with, so we kept on talking about other things. Mrs. MacDonald wants to move back downtown, she doesn’t like it up in Thornhill. Thoreau thinks it’s an adventure, he’s off exploring each day, worrying the Mrs., when he doesn’t come home right away.

Jim look through my canvases, and said they were good pieces, and I should start considering what to put in the Spring Exhibition. The exhibition is in early March and the hanging committee needs to finalize the list of art by the middle of February. I told him, I wasn’t sure I’d submit after the brouhaha  last year, but I’d see how my canvases go before I make a decision.

I sent Jim off around 6.  pm. I was thinking about going to an evening show at the Hippodrome (‘The Scoop’ was playing) but I decided to stay in and read instead. It’s risky going out, because if you’re alone people with start calling after you for your name to sign up. I saw the comic in the paper today – ‘Things to Worry About’ – I don’t need that worry tonight.

I haven’t yet checked for my mail.  I may go up the Studio later tonight.  I’ll have a drink with Bill and Curtis, if they’re still there. They’re always good for a few drinks and stories. I haven’t made my acquaintances with the new women tenants, so this evening may be the occasion to do so.

Tomorrow, I’ll make Thoreau a small gift. I’ll carve a minnow lure from wood. I have my fishing and carving gear with me. They’re always with me.


December 6, 1916 The Truth to Painting

Wednesday, December 6, 1916

UrNBbm4The truth to painting is that it can be thankless, frustrating and downright degrading. On the other hand, it can be illuminating, exuberant and uplifting. But it is never anywhere in between. If it was, painting would be no more meaningful than painting the side of a wall, only to hide the stains of smoke and wood fire.

I have not been well the past two days. I felt miserable and spent most of the day in bed. I had a headache, a toothache, some fever and chills. I wanted to keep painting but I felt so ill that all I could do way lay down. It took all my strength to climb into my bunk that I took a bucket with me so I didn’t have to make the trip to the privy to relieve myself.  Laying there, my mind started wandering to things to worry money. Money – I had enough to get myself by, but not enough if I had to go to the doctor or dentist. My clothes – they are chiefly old things now. Many of my finer clothes I left behind and all I have are shabby clothes that have brought through the bush and back. And dabbing in the paint, it is difficult to keep them decent. My overcoat is still fine, but my daily clothes are wearing themselves to shreds. My boots, it’s the same, they are wearing to shreds. The soles are nearly worn through and I have put newspaper inside to keep the in warmth.

If I could only keep working hard to keep my mind off things. That was not to be for the days I was sick and the thoughts in my mind were like unbroken wild horses. Today, I was feeling better, not well, but better.  During the day I was feeling both sides of the end, but went hard at it and finished my painting of the pointer boats.  At the beginning of the day, I was like an invalid, I dragged myself to the easel, but by day’s end,  I was exuberant, I could feel the red blood flowing again. It  has turned out to be a fine canvas.

My appetite came back. I had bread, baloney and tea to reinvigorate me, but  I needed some fresh brisk air. So after dusk, I walked down Rosedale Ravine to get another view of the Viaduct. Every time I see it, it’s different. The Viaduct is all lit up during the night looking like two mechanical behemoths reaching across the darkness to touch each other.  The men work up there non-stop –  the day crew, the night crew, and the Sunday crew.  It’s a sight to behold, a march of progress. Soon the Danforth will be joined to Bloor making new neighbours. I overheard the other day that the folks in Rosedale are worried about rats coming across the bridge to infest the neighbourhood. Rats are already in Rosedale, I wanted to say. But I decided to say nothing. Rats are everywhere in the city, but the rats in Rosedale have more places to hide.


December 3, 1916 Day of Rest

UrNBbm4December 3, 1916 Sunday

I wrote a letter to Winnie earlier this evening. I had promised to write her as soon as I came back but I got to it just now.

I went to the service at Rosedale Presbyterian Church. Rev. Strachan was preaching, a decent sermon. I stayed in the back pew, and studied the stained glass windows during the service. I do like the worship and music but dislike the war proselytizing.  Joan, Jim MacDonald’s wife, is trying to convince me to become a Christian Scientist. They invited me for Sunday dinner up in Thornhill, but I said next week would be better.

I spent the afternoon reading, made dinner of potatoes and stewed beef. I didn’t work on the easel today but plan to get back at it full force tomorrow. I’ve been thinking about Walden and Solitude. The shack is my solitude.