Canada’s most influential artist, Pickering’s most famous son


Published August 5, 2023 at 9:00 am

The birthplace of the most influential Canadian artist of the 20th century was an old farmhouse on RR# 5 just outside of Claremont in what was then Pickering Township.

Today there is little to mark the occasion of the birth of Tom Thomson – born on this day in 1877 – save for a cul-de-sac with about 20 upscale homes on the west side of the hamlet, not far from that farmhouse, and a commemorative canoe at the south-west corner Central Street and Old Brock Road in Claremont.

Tom Thomson birth home in Claremont

His death, however, is another story entirely. Thomson disappeared in Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park on July 8, 1917 – a month before his 40th birthday – the victim of an accidental drowning, suicide or murder (angry rivals, jealous lovers and pregnant women all factor in), depending which conspiracy theory you choose to believe. His death is the subject of numerous books – fiction and non-fiction – (Ottawa journalist Roy McGregor wrote one of each), documentaries (the CBC produced Was Tom Thomson Murdered? in 1969) and at least three websites devoted to what may or may not have happened. There are even songs about Thomson, with the Tragically Hip singing about his ghost (and misspelling his last name) in Three Pistols, from their 1991 Road Apples album:

Well Tom Thompson came paddling past
I’m pretty sure it was him
And he spoke so softly in accordance
With the growing of the dim

The Jack Pine, painted between 1916 and 1917

Thomson’s overturned canoe was found shortly after his disappearance, containing (in true Canadian pioneer fashion) a rubber sheet, some jam and plenty of maple syrup, and the official cause of death is accidental drowning. But more than a century has past since his death and there are legions of people who are still refusing to believe he drowned and are clinging to one of the many myths surrounding his disappearance.

McGregor firmly believes Thomson was murdered and quickly buried at Canoe Lake while a variety of officials conspired over the years to hush up what really happened.

“He is somewhere in the tangle of raspberry canes, dead spruce, rotting leaves and pine needles,” he writes in his book, Northern Lights. “Somewhere beneath the saplings fighting for light and the lovely yellow wildflowers that grow all along the trail up to his grave and have found the space and determination to bloom amid the choke and tumble of the fallen leaves and branches that make penetration of the actual gravesite all but impossible.”

Thomson’s family, however, has always insisted his body came home on the train from Algonquin Park and that he was buried at Leith. There are, in fact, grave markers in Leith as well as at Canoe Lake.

Thomson and Arthur Lismer on Smoke Lake

His birthplace is not in doubt, though exactly how long Thomson lived in Pickering is up for debate.

We know he didn’t stay long. His parents packed up the family and all their belongings and travelled north to another farm in Leith, just outside of Owen Sound shortly after Tom’s birth.

Various stories placing him at anywhere from one month old to three months of age at the time. The lack of an exact date is because there is a dearth of information on the internet – not surprisingly – on exactly how long it would take a wagon with mom, dad and six children (one still a babe in arms) to travel the hundred miles or so from the hamlet of Claremont in Pickering’s northern reaches to the southern shores of Georgian Bay in the year 1877.

Two months is the most-cited time, with his father John plunking down $6,600 on October 23, 1917 for 100 acres with a house and barn on Concession A in Leith.

The West Wind, painted in 1917

Suffice it to say the legendary landscape painter and inspiration to the Group of Seven did not live his formative years in Pickering; that would be in Leith, where the artist grew up and developed his love of the outdoors and of the rugged Canadian Shield that would forever be the focus of his art.

What is also not in question is the impact Tom Thomson had on the world of art in Canada.

His love of the Ontario landscape and the beauty of Algonquin Park attracted other like-minded artists who ventured into canoes to explore the park with Thomson and create some of the most iconic pieces of art in this country’s history.

A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer were two of those artists who briefly collaborated with Thomson and they, along with others Thomson met while at Grip Ltd., a commercial art firm in Toronto, would form the backbone of the Group of Seven, the most influential artist collective the nation has ever seen.

Thomson was not exactly an art prodigy. Both he and his father were not much for farming either and preferred hunting, fishing and the natural world and it wasn’t until Tom joined his brothers at a graphic arts company in Seattle that he began to practice his skills. By 1908 he was working at Grip, a well-known commercial art firm in Toronto which had a design team headed up by J.E. MacDonald and included several other artists who would eventually become the Group of Seven.

(The group adopted its name on the occasion of a group exhibition held in 1920, three years after Thomson’s death. The original members included MacDonald, Lawren Harris, F.H. Varley, Franklin Carmichael, Frank Johnston, Lismer and Jackson.)

In his short career, Thomson produced about 50 paintings and more than 400 sketches but his fame as the most enduringly popular Canadian painter of the early 20th century would only happen long after his death.

Both The West Wind (Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto) and Jack Pine (National Gallery in Ottawa) were painted between 1916 and 1917. Many of his other works – all painted between 1912 and 1917 – are housed in the McMichael Collection in Kleinburg.

“Tom created a distinct approach to portraying rugged Canadian landscapes, and truly represented the best of Canadian Culture,” declared the City of Pickering in its description of the canoe art piece in Claremont. “Pickering is privileged to share a small portion of his story.”

Tom Thomson, born on this day, 146 years ago, in Claremont, Ontario.

Tom Thomson (second from left) and his brothers in Seattle in 1902

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