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Episode 2: Canada – The Tom Thomson Mystery, Part 1: Birth Chart and Life

  • 1:27:43
  • December 12, 2021
  • Explicit Content

My special guest host dives into the mysterious birth chart of an equally mysterious man – Canada’s most influential artist of the 20th century – Tom Thomson. Brianna tells Tom’s story, and together the two use Tom’s birth chart information to speculate on his incredible life to try and paint a fuller picture of the very interesting man he was.

The Mysterious Story of Tom Thomson

Ready for me to set the scene?

1917: Fine carriages, dry goods, phonographs, and furs are all the rage for the average consumer. People are hosting lawn parties and listening to a bunch of music by artists that these days no one’s ever heard of. Ticket agents are competing with one another to offer the cheapest railway and steamship tickets. The term “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is popularized by marketing campaigns of cereal companies. The Converse All-Star “Chuck Taylor” Basketball Shoe is first produced. WWI is happening. The famous “I Want You” posters featuring Uncle Sam are plastered everywhere. Tom Thomson paints The Jack Pine, one of Canada’s most widely recognized and reproduced artworks.

Tom Thomson The West Wind
Tom Thomson’s The West WindSpring 1916, oil on composite wood-pulp board, 21.4 × 26.8 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

Tom Thomson was the most influential Canadian artist of the early 20th century. Many of his paintings, such as The West Wind (1916–17) and The Jack Pine (1916–17), have become icons of Canadian culture. But on July 8, 1917, at the age of 39, Tom’s body washed ashore in Algonquin Park, and what followed was timeless intrigue about his death, resulting in not 1, but 2 unsolved mysteries.

Early Years and Education

Thomas John Thomson was born August 5, 1877, in Claremont, Ontario (community in the north part of Pickering – Pickering is about an hour’s drive north-east of downtown Toronto). He was of Scottish descent and was the sixth of ten children. Although he was born in the town of Claremont in Pickering Township, Ontario, he grew up on a farm near Leith, outside of Owen Sound. His father was a “farmer”, but the farm wasn’t very successful. He planted flowers and herbs instead of cash crops and he would often abandon his chores to spend time in nature fishing, hunting, and hiking. His father is better considered a naturalist. Naturalism actually runs in Tom’s family. Dr. William Brodie, the cousin to Tom’s grandmother, was one of the finest naturalists, and he was the director of the Biological Department at the R.O.M. (Royal Ontario Museum). In Tom’s early adulthood, he spent a lot of time with “Uncle William”, who was mourning the loss of his only son. His son had died when his canoe overturned on the Assiniboine River. He enjoyed William’s stories of the wild and beautiful Algonquin Park, which William was very passionate about because he helped establish it. William was incredibly important to Tom, and Tom thought of him as a mentor who guided him spiritually, philosophically, and artistically.

A naturalist or naturalism can mean different things depending on the context, but in this case, it refers to any person who studies the natural world. Naturalists make observations of the relationships between organisms and their environments, as well as how those relationships change over time.

Tom was brought up in a down-to-earth and creative family. He learned to play several musical instruments, he sang in the church choir, and he and his siblings spent tons of time drawing and painting. He was an excellent swimmer and had a passion for fishing. His father taught him how to make lures based on the insects fish were eating at that specific time. Tom was withdrawn from high school for one year due to a respiratory problem often described as “weak lungs” or “inflammatory rheumatism”. This year off school afforded him plenty of time to explore the woods near his home, where he developed a deep appreciation for nature. Tom and each of his nine siblings received an inheritance of $2,000 (Today: $85,578.63 CAD) from their paternal grandfather in 1898. A portion of the money went to membership fees for the Ancient Order of Foresters. He used some of the money to start an apprenticeship at an iron foundry in Owen Sound owned by a close friend of his father. He didn’t get along with the foreman and he quit after eight months. 3 years later, he confided in his friend from the foundry, Alan Ross, that quitting was the most regrettable decision of his life, and he often thought of going back into trades. Throughout 1899 and 1900, Tom volunteered to fight in the Second Boer War on three separate occasions but was turned down each time because of his medical conditions. After working in the foundry, Tom used more of his inheritance money to pay for enrollment at the Canada Business College in Chatham, ON in 1901. In Chatham’s 1902 city directory, Canada Business College ran an ad that says, “Your sons and daughters can be prepared more quickly for earning a good living by a course in the Canada Business College, Chatham than in any other way we know of”. After graduating at the end of 1901, he briefly traveled to Winnipeg, but then left Canada for Seattle so he could attend the Acme Business College, a school established by his eldest brother George and one of their cousins, F.R. McLaren. He studied during the day, and at night he worked as a lift operator at the Diller’s Hotel.

The Second Boer War took place from October 11, 1899 – May 31, 1902. It was a conflict fought between the British Empire and the two Boer Republics (the South African Republic and the Orange Free State), over the Empire’s influence in Southern Africa, and was triggered by the discovery of diamond and gold deposits in the Boer republics. Though the British swiftly occupied the Boer republics, numerous Boers refused to accept defeat and engaged in guerrilla warfare. Eventually, British scorched earth policies brought the remaining Boer guerillas to the negotiating table, ending the war. (Scorched Earth Policy: a military strategy of burning or destroying crops or other resources that might be of use to an invading enemy force).

Early Career

In Seattle, Tom found work, and room and board with Charlie Maring, the proprietor of the commercial art company, Maring & Blake. Tom was employed as a pen artist, draftsman, and etcher and mainly produced business cards, brochures, and posters.

Portrait of a young Tom Thomson. Credit: Library and Archives Canada.
Portrait of a young Tom Thomson. Credit: Library and Archives Canada.

People in Tom’s life said that he looked forward to settling down in Seattle and focusing on advancing his career and hoping one day to be married. It’s speculated that he abruptly quit his job at the Seattle Engraving Company and returned home because of an incident involving his brief summer girlfriend, Alice Elinor Lambert. Tom proposed to Alice, but she laughingly rejected him. Tom was considered highly sensitive, and this hurt him so much that he abandoned his plans to settle down in Seattle and returned home in the fall of 1904.

Fun fact: Alice went on to become a writer, and in her 1934 self-published novel, Woman Are Like That, she describes a young woman who was taken with an artist, but when he proposed she refused him and later regretted it.

In the summer of 1905, Tom moved to Toronto and got a job at the photo-engraving firm Legg Brothers. During this next, brief chapter, Tom kept busy by reading poetry, and going to the theatre, concerts, and sporting events in his free time, but he was described by his friends as “periodically erratic and sensitive, with fits of unreasonable despondency”. It’s reported he drank often, and sometimes he would consume so much that he’d become morose and up and leave his friends for home. He spent some money on art supplies, always with the intention of advancing his skill set, but he spent most of it on expensive clothes, fine dining, and tobacco.

In 1906, he enrolled in night classes at the Ontario College of Art and received his only formal art training from a British artist named William Cruikshank.

In 1909, Tom joined Grip Limited, Canada’s leading graphic design company, known for introducing Art Nouveau, metal engraving, and the four-colour process to Canada. The director at Grip, Albert Robson, recalled that Tom made friends slowly but eventually found similar interests to his coworkers. Some of these coworkers would go on to become members of the Group of Seven. The remaining members of the future Group of Seven hung out at the Arts and Letters Club, a space that provided an informal environment for the artistic community, and it was at this club that the Senior Artist at Grip, J. E. H. MacDonald, introduced Tom to Lawren Harris, the eventual leading member of the Group of Seven. It’s commonly believed that Tom was a part of the Group of Seven, but Tom actually died before the official formation of the group. He did, however, have a significant influence on them. His unique artistic style would eventually be adopted by the Group of Seven and it’s what brought them national prominence.

Although 1909 brought him a good job and great friends, it brought great sadness as well. Uncle William died, and his girlfriend’s brother died so she left Toronto to go take care of her nieces and nephews. Tom deeply mourned both losses, but the death of his mentor was very hard on him.

Painting Career

If you’re familiar with Tom Thomson, you know that Algonquin Park is synonymous with his name. He would live in Toronto during the winter and spend the rest of the year in the Park. Typhoid was rampant in Toronto in May of 1912, so Tom left the city behind to visit Algonquin Park for the first time, accompanied by his Grip colleague Harry Jackson. It was during this first trip that he acquired his first set of sketching equipment. Although he liked sketching and painting, he didn’t take it seriously at this point, often claiming he didn’t think anyone would ever take any of his work seriously. Speaking about this trip with Tom, Harry wrote, “Tom was never understood by lots of people, was very quiet, modest, and a gentle soul. He cared nothing for social life, but with one or two companions on a sketching and fishing trip with his pipe and Hudson Bay tobacco going, he was a delightful companion.”.

Remember old Albert Robson, the director of Grip? Well, he left Grip for a design firm called Rous & Mann in the fall of 1912 and when Tom returned from his trip, he joined Albert as well.

Tom was introduced to James MacCallum through J. E. H. MacDonald. MacCallum would become Tom’s biggest patron, offering endless support and buying many of his works. MacCallum eventually persuaded Tom to leave Rous & Mann and begin his painting career. Approximately a year later, MacCallum introduced Tom to A. Y. Jackson, the eventual founding member of the Group of Seven, and Tom’s artistic mentor. MacCallum recognized their talents and offered to cover their expenses for one year if they committed themselves to painting full time. They accepted the offer, and Tom began traveling with his colleagues, mainly to the wildernesses of Ontario, which was to become a major source of inspiration for him.

Photo of The Group of Seven artists: Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Barker Fairley (not a member), Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald. Image ca. 1920, F 1066, Archives of Ontario, I0010313.
Photo of The Group of Seven artists: Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Barker Fairley (not a member), Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald. Image ca. 1920. Archives of Ontario, I0010313.

Tom experienced self-doubt and could be painfully shy about showing his sketches, he had no opinion of his work, and would even throw burnt matches at his paintings. But a turning point in his career came in 1914 when the National Gallery of Canada began to acquire his paintings. Although the money was not enough to live on, the recognition was unheard of for an unknown artist.

Tom lived in Algonquin Park from spring to autumn, at times serving as a fishing guide to the visitors of Mowat Lodge, located on the north end of Canoe Lake and run by husband and wife, Shannon and Annie Fraser. In the winter, he lived in Toronto where he shared a studio and living quarters in the Studio One Building with A. Y. Jackson starting in January 1914. It was at this time that Tom finally decided to become a full-time artist. He shadowed Jackson, who opened his eyes to sparkling, vibrant colours. He learned that his paintings don’t have to be photographically true, they should convey emotion, which bright and bold colours can do. Jackson taught him how to expertly mix paints and do brushwork. Lawren Harris described Tom’s strange working hours as such, “When he was in Toronto, Tom rarely left the shack in the daytime, and even then, only when it was absolutely necessary. He took his exercise at night. He would put on his snowshoes and tramp the length of the Rosedale ravine and out into the country and return before dawn.”

Tom made his way back up north in April 1914. In July, Word War I began, and Tom’s friends and colleagues said he brooded upon the war often. He didn’t serve, and the reason why is highly debated by the people in his life. Some insist he would have fought, and others are certain he would never have offered his service. One theory is that he was turned down after multiple attempts to enlist, probably because of his poor health record, and another theory is that he was turned down because he had flat feet. Tom’s sister suggested that he was a pacifist, he hated war, and if he was accepted, he would never kill anyone but would rather help in a hospital.

In September, James MacCallum’s year of financial support was over, and Tom’s financial future was uncertain. He briefly considered applying as a park ranger but gave up on that idea when he learned of all the red tape and the fact it can take months to be approved, so he returned to Toronto to spend the winter.

He went back to Algonquin Park in April 1915 with the money he made from selling his paintings over the winter, mainly bought by James MacCallum, and helped with guided fishing tours out on the various lakes for extra cash. In November, he returned to Toronto and moved into a shack behind the Studio Building that Lawren Harris and James MacCallum fixed up for him, renting it for $1 a month ($21.81 CAD). His friends saw Tom being more productive than they’d ever seen. It was during this productive period that he produced his most famous works, The Jack Pine and The West Wind. Patron Saint James MacCallum knew that the war was making it tough for the artists of Studio One to make a living, so he commissioned Tom, A. Y. MacDonald, and Arthur Lismer to paint a mural on some panels for his cottage.

By March of 1916, he had more of his paintings exhibited, but they were received with mixed reviews. Margaret Fairbairn of the Toronto Daily Star wrote, “Mr. Tom Thomson shows a fondness for intense yellows and oranges and strong blue, altogether a fearless use of violent colour which can scarcely be called pleasing.” A more favourable take was written in The Canadian Courier, by painter Estelle Kerr, describing Thomson as “one of the most promising of Canadian painters who follow the impressionist movement and his work reveals himself to be a fine colourist, a clever technician, and a truthful interpreter of the northland in its various aspects”.

In April of 1916, Tom went back to Algonquin Park and worked as a fire ranger, but he didn’t like it because ranging and painting didn’t mix as he was too busy patrolling to spend any time painting. He met a woman named Winnifred (Winnie) Trainor at Canoe Lake, where her family had a cottage, and they began dating. Winnie lived primarily in Huntsville and spent her time volunteering with her mother for the Women’s Temperance Union through their church where they knitted socks for soldiers and raised money for troops. In October, the fire-ranging gig ended, and Tom made some extra cash by hauling stones to make a fireplace for one of the locals.

When he returned to Toronto for the winter, he found everything to be in a dismal state. His friends and colleagues were split up because of the war – some were enlisted, while others moved on to find work because they were close to bankruptcy. On top of this, most of them had become bitter toward one another (claiming one person’s success truly belonged to another, trying to bring each other down and diminish their talents, stuff like that).

Tom returned to Canoe Lake at the beginning of April 1917. He had little money but wrote that he could manage for about a year. With few tourists and even fewer people to guide, he spent time at Mowat Lodge with the only other guests Lieutenant Crombie and his wife, Daphne. The Crombie’s arrived at the lodge in the winter of 1916, where Lieutenant Crombie was hoping to recover from tuberculosis. Daphne Crombie made friends with Tom when he arrived in the spring, and she would often sit and talk to him while he painted. Tom kept busy hunting a trout that frequented a dam with his friend and local Park Ranger Mark Robinson. He also dug 2 gardens, one at the lodge for the Fraser’s and one for Winnie’s family.

Tom Thomson’s Death

On July 8, 1917, Tom embarked from Canoe Lake in a canoe loaded with equipment and supplies and disappeared. His upturned canoe was found at 3 pm that afternoon. His spare paddle was strapped awkwardly into portaging position, allegedly not at all the way Tom would have had it, and his favourite paddle was missing and couldn’t be located, despite repeated searching of the shoreline. His body was discovered in the lake eight days after his canoe, with a fishing line wrapped around his legs. He had a bruise and a four-inch cut on his right temple and had bled from his right ear. The cause of death was officially ruled to be “accidental drowning”, though the inquest that reached that conclusion was criticized as being rushed. A police investigation was never conducted, there was no autopsy, no doctor professionally examined Tom’s body, and the “accidental drowning” verdict was accepted during an informal inquest, that locals sat in on.

Canoe Lake, 1914 sketch by Tom Thomson. Tom Thomson Art Gallery, Owen Sound
Canoe Lake, 1914 sketch by Tom Thomson. Tom Thomson Art Gallery, Owen Sound

The day after Tom’s body was discovered, it was interred in the tiny Mowat Cemetery. Under the direction of Tom’s older brother George, the body was exhumed by Undertaker F.W. Churchill. Mark Robinson, an Algonquin Park ranger and good friend of Tom’s, tasked four men to help Churchill with the job. They opened the grave and the body was badly decomposed but still recognizable as Tom. The remains were transferred into a metal box and sealed. The empty coffin and rough box were put back and the grave was filled in. The metal box with the body was placed in a coffin and Tom’s brother George accompanied the coffin on the train where it was being taken to the new undertaker in Owen Sound. The Owen Sound undertaker had delivered the coffin containing the body of Tom to the Thomson home. Tom’s father called his friend and neighbour John McKeen to come over. John Thomson wanted the undertaker to open the coffin but didn’t want to do it alone. The coffin was opened in the presence of both men, who readily identified the remains. Tom’s father was relieved that he no longer had doubts as to the whereabouts of his son.

The undertaker from Owen Sound re-interred Tom on July 21, 1917, in the family plot beside the Leith Presbyterian Church.

Since no police investigation was conducted, people began speculating on what really happened to Tom. It seemed inconceivable to the people in his life and the locals of Canoe Lake that a proficient canoeist and excellent swimmer could accidentally drown. Rumours began swirling – was he murdered? Was it a suicide? On top of speculating how Tom really died, locals heard rumours that one of their own had murdered Tom…

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