Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven are pretty much household names in Canada: Certainly, when visiting Ontario over the past few years, this group of artists – the centre of gravity of which was in Toronto – seems to often crop up in conversation. Much of their art is associated with the type of terrain where Frontier Bushcraft runs canoe expeditions so I was particularly excited to visit this exhibition while it was running.
Tom Thomson died before the Group of Seven was formally formed but his work had great influence on them. He was an artist who gained much inspiration from the Canadian wilderness. Even if you have never seen any of his paintings, names such as ‘The Jack Pine’, ‘The West Wind’, and ‘The Northern River’ are enough to conjure mental images of wild terrain.
Unlike some landscape artists who seldom or never visited the terrain they depicted in their paintings, Tom Thomson immersed himself in the wild. This is readily apparent when viewing his sketches and paintings. His work, particularly his sketches, deftly captures the moods and characteristics of mother nature with which many of us who enjoy outdoor life will be familiar. Depictions of choppy conditions on a lake, clouds scudding across a sky, an approaching snow storm and the particular lighting and colours of the woods in spring all resonated with me.
Tom Thomson moved to Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park in 1914, and for the next few years he was prolific, producing many sketches and paintings of the area, including some of his most famous works. He also worked occasionally as a park ranger and guide. On the morning of July 8th, 1917 Thomson set out on the lake in a canoe and disappeared. His body was found in Canoe Lake 8 days later. He appeared to have drowned.
Even though Thomson was largely self-taught, came to serious painting only in his thirties and his period of output was relatively short, his impact was long lasting and profound. The art of the Group of Seven, a school of Canadian landscape painting, was directly influenced by Thomson. The Group of Seven existed as a formal group from 1920-33 and, like Thomson, took their inspiration and subject matter from the Canadian wilderness. They travelled extensively, through areas such as Algoma and staying in areas such as Georgian Bay to paint for periods of time. This is an area of the Canadian Shield where I have visited, including the French River (which flows into Georgian Bay), and so it was interesting to see how they had captured the spirit of these places. Yet more of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven’s work reminded me of wilderness I have visited in Scandinavia, particularly in some of their winter paintings.
It is rare to see such a collection of the works of these artists in the UK and I’m glad I made the visit. More than any other art exhibition I’ve seen, the work on display has at its heart a representation of raw, unadulterated natural environments. I found I identified strongly with the subject matter, all the more so for having visited some of the magnificent terrain they chose to depict.