On a late July evening in 1917, A.Y. Jackson was expecting orders to leave the 23rd reserve battalion at Shoreham and return to front-line duty when a sergeant-major visited him. “An officer to see you, Jackson, at my place.”
Adapted and condensed from Jackson’s Wars, a work-in-progress by Douglas Hunter for McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Jackson found waiting Captain Ernest Fosbery, better known to Jackson in civilian life as Ernest Fosbery, the Ottawa portrait artist. Forty-two years of age, Jackson’s fellow associate of the Royal Canadian Academy had been in England since being slightly gassed at the Somme in October 1916 and suffering shrapnel wounds in the back and shoulder that November. His injuries were more than flesh deep; Fosbery had been struggling to recover mentally. Shell shock manifested itself in a host of psychosomatic complaints, nervousness, and loss of sleep. Since being placed on medical leave on 2 February, 1917, Fosbery had been retained in England in a series of one-month respites by his medical board reviews. Most recently, he had been hospitalized in Brighton from 9 May to 11 June, for neurasthenia and purported myalgia, and was back at the Canadian base at Shoreham, where Jackson also happened to be idling, after being wounded by shrapnel at Sanctuary Wood as a private in the 60th Battalion in June 1916.
Jackson reflexively stood to attention and saluted, but Fosbery waved it off. “Forget all that stuff, Jackson. We’re both artists.” Fosbery had come to see him not about returning to Flanders as a soldier, but about joining a new initiative, the Canadian War Memorials Fund.
The CWMF was the brainchild of Sir Max Aitken, Canada’s official representative at the front. In December 1916, Aitken accepted a peerage, as Lord Beaverbrook, and in 1917 published the second volume of Canada in Flanders. He also was appointed Canada’s officer in charge of war records, a visionary effort to preserve the country’s contribution to the fight. Having proclaimed in The Gazette in May 1915 that April’s Second Battle of Ypres, at which Canadian troops were bloodied for the first time, “will shine as brightly as any in the records of the British Army ,” as the head of the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO) in London, he was concerned that the action was not being commemorated in any fashion.
From Beaverbrook’s fixation with Second Ypres arose a much more ambitious scheme: an artistic record of Canada’s entire war effort, recorded by the greatest artists available. Beaverbrook on 16 November, 1916, established a quasi-private charity, the Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF), with two fellow British newspaper magnates, Sir Bertram Lima and Lord Rothermere. The fund would commission “suitable Memorials in the form of Tablets, Oil-Paintings etc., to the Canadian Heroes and Heroines of the War,” and would operate out of the CWRO, at arm’s length from the Canadian government.
The CWMF immediately secured the British portrait artist Richard Jack to produce a major painting of Second Ypres. Little progress otherwise had been made by the CWMF when Ernest Fosbery’s mind turned back to painting in May 1917. Having heard about the CWMF, which he assumed to be an initiative of the Canadian government, he wrote (as he explained to fellow Canadian artist E. Wyly Grier) Sir George Perley, the Canadian High Commissioner in London, on 25 May, “suggesting the possibility of using some of the War Memorials Fund toward having portraits painted of the Canadian generals. I couldn’t, of course, suggest in that letter that I or anyone else was the right person to do them.” Perley passed his letter to Lord Beaverbrook, who replied on 31 May that “the suggestion you make is already being carried out.”
That June, Fosbery attend the “summer” exhibition of the Royal Academy at Burlington House. He was struck—and probably more than a little angered—by a portrait by Richard Jack in gallery III, of Arthur Currie, the Canadian promoted to commander of the Canadian Corps after Vimy Ridge. Assuming the painting had been commissioned as part of the CWMF (it was actually a private commission), Fosbery took a taxi to Perley’s office. Fosbery probably was unable to see the High Commissioner, and instead wrote him on 30 June, to protest the choice of artist. “May I suggest in this connection that it would be a hardship for Canadian artists – who at the best have none too easy a time – if on the rare occasions that official portraits are to be made The Government should overlook the Royal Canadian Academy altogether and place its commissions with other than Canadian artists.”
Fosbery also noted for Perley that at least two RCA associates were serving in the Canadian forces; one of them was A.Y. Jackson. Fosbery had done some homework, and provided Perley with Jackson’s regimental number and his presumed whereabouts in England. It was probably in preparing the letter to Perley that Fosbery visited the Canadian Red Cross office in London, to see if they could help trace Jackson, as Jackson would recount. By happy coincidence, the young woman who fielded his inquiry was Lilias Torrance, the young Montreal art student of William Brymner whose brothers had enlisted with a friend of A.Y. Jackson, artist Randolph Hewton. While Donald Torrance had been killed in April 1916, Lilias and her mother, Alice, were still living in London, as Samuel remained in the field with the 24th battalion; another brother, Stewart, was with an ammunition column.
Lilias Torrance knew exactly who the Jackson was that Fosbery was looking for. Based on outdated information, Fosbery informed Perley that Jackson was at the 3rd Command Depot at Hastings. Jackson in fact had been at Shoreham, where Fosbery was, since 11 May.
Fosbery secured an interview with Lord Beaverbrook. As he recounted to Grier: “I suggested the possibility of getting Jackson & others to paint in France. Lord Beaverbrook knows nothing about art & frankly admits that he doesn’t, and when I next saw him he had called in Paul Konody the writer [and art critic] as advisor. I saw Konody and pointed out to him the claims of Canadian painters, which he seemed to recognize.”
Fosbery in Jackson’s telling remarked to Beaverbrook that the project didn’t seem to have any Canadian artists. Beaverbrook replied that he didn’t know any. After Fosbery named a few that he thought were in the service, including Jackson, Beaverbrook said that if he could find them, they would be interviewed.
When Fosbery located Jackson on his own base (and in his own reserve regiment), at Shoreham, and informed Jackson of Beaverbrook’s war-art program, he found a willing recruit. Jackson was not keen to return to the front, and otherwise had been rejected for officer’s training. A few days after they met, at some point in late July, Jackson received orders to report to London, to be interviewed by Beaverbrook.
At the Shoreham train station, Jackson bought a copy of Canada in Flanders; it would have been the second volume, published in 1917, which included an intensely detailed account of the actions at Sanctuary Wood, in which Jackson had been wounded. While the prose was not cutting, Beaverbrook’s account was not especially kind to the 60th’s performance.
In the London office, Jackson was sized up by a tiny man with an unusually large head and an intense stare. Thirty-nine years old, comfortably wealthy, politically powerful, Beaverbrook was accustomed to making quick evaluations and snap decisions.
“So you are an artist. Are you a good artist?”
Jackson replied that it was not for him to say.
“Have you any of your work with you?”
No, he did not. Jackson explained he had been in the infantry for two years and could not carry it with him.
“Can you find any of your work?”
Jackson knew it would take weeks to arrange for some of his paintings to be shipped from Canada. He suggested instead he might be able to find some examples in The Studio.
“The Studio? What’s that?”
Jackson explained it was an art magazine. Beaverbrook told him to find some copies and bring them to his rooms at the Hyde Park Hotel at seven that evening.
“So you’re in the 60th battalion,” Beaverbrook remarked in parting. “Your colonel doesn’t like me.”
Jackson said that was no concern of his.
“Have you read my book?”
Yes, sir, he had. Jackson never said if Beaverbrook asked him what he thought of it.
Jackson headed straight to the offices of The Studio, where a clerk helped him to locate two issues, at least one of which was the August 1915 number, in which Harold Mortimer-Lamb had praised him as “the leader of the new Canadian school.” Beaverbrook was impressed; Jackson did not confess that the effusive articles were written by a critic friend in Montreal.
Having stayed in London for a few days with the Torrances, Jackson went back to Shoreham, to await the outcome of the interview. Several items of mail were waiting for him on his return on 4 August. One of the letters, from an unknown correspondent, carried shocking news. Tom Thomson was dead.
After his death, Tom Thomson’s fellow Toronto-based artists were wont to portray him as an outdoorsman of unusual ability. In truth, other working artists were probably his match. E. Wyly Grier and Franklin Brownell, for example, took Eric Brown of the National Gallery and his wife Maud on a sketching trip in Algonquin Park in 1915. They canoed and camped from 19 July until around 8 August, with Grier and Brownell catching enough bass and trout by trolling and fly-casting to supply them with at least one daily meal. Still, no other artist than Thomson made such a deep commitment to being within Ontario’s north much as possible, and his skills as an angler, a woodsman, and a canoeist, became a deserved part of Thomson’s lore and essential attraction. That attraction was aided immensely by Thomson lack of airs: in a field overrun with rampant egos, Thomson never expected to be treated as a superior landscape painter because of his immersion in the northland from 1912 onwards. The raw authenticity of his vision (however much Thomson was influenced by Art Nouveau and artworks he came across in the pages of The Studio) nevertheless was irresistible.
For E. Wyly Grier, Tom Thomson and J.E.H. MacDonald (who died in 1932) would be linked in memory as two great talents, gone too soon. “Tom Thomson appeared over the horizon early in the century,” Grier would reflect during the Second World War, “and captivated alike the ‘advanced’ painters and the conservatives like myself. His landscapes of northern Ontario were naturalistic, and undated by sophisticated stylization. He came from a rural area, and was promptly annexed and sponsored by the ‘advanced’ group, but showed a sense of beauty more keen and wider in its inclusions than in the group itself—with the exception of J.E.H. MacDonald…Of these two artists it may be said that their noteworthy achievements and premature deaths leave one with a sad sense that Canada has been robbed of two men of genius, who, if they had reached a ripe maturity, would have placed Canadian art on a more elevated and a more universally acknowledged plan than it now occupies.”
Jackson would tell Harold Mortimer-Lamb in October 1917 that he first met Thomson in November 1913. Thomson had been up north in Algonquin Park, working as a guide “and amusing himself by sketching.” Jackson had just moved to Toronto and was living and working in Lawren Harris’s studio, near the corner of Yonge and Bloor. “Harris ran into [Thomson] somewhere and brought him round to the studio.” When Jackson revisited his first encounter with Thomson for Eric Brown in 1933, he recalled how “Thomson came down from Algonquin Park with a lot of little sketches, rather meticulous but showing a real understanding of his country. He gave me one of them which I admired,” which Jackson later donated to the National Gallery.
Thomson was “dubious about his ability to make a living out of his painting,” Jackson would recall, “doubtful also about his own talents.” When Dr. James MacCallum made the same offer to Thomson that Jackson had just accepted, to guarantee his expenses if he would commit himself to painting for a year, Jackson recalled that Thomson at first “would not entertain the idea. He wanted to paint for his own pleasure and to earn his living at commercial art. He enjoyed going off with his canoe and a tent for three or four months of the year to paint, but to make painting his life work, he felt, was to take his abilities too seriously.” As Jackson explained to Mortimer-Lamb: “He had been a decorative designer and a very clever one. He had a fine sense of proportion and line. Catalogue covers, brochures, title pages etc. were his principal work, but his idea of work was to stick it out for a few months, put some money aside, then throw up his job and go north…The north country was his home and he loved it passionately, and helped us all to believe it to be a happy hunting ground.”
It is fair to say that Jackson met a man not persuaded he could make a living exclusively as a painter—a doubt that Jackson himself persistently shared, as he had yet to prove he could do it himself. “Largely through Dr. MacCallum,” Jackson explained to Mortimer-Lamb, Thomson “became more confident and got quite interested in the painting game, and yet far from convinced that he could take it up seriously as a means of livelihood.” Jackson visited Thomson at his boarding house, to hash out MacCallum’s offer of help. “We talked it over on several occasions, and finally he decided to try it for a year.”
When Dr. MacCallum and Lawren Harris opened the Studio Building on Severn Street around January 1914, Jackson leased studio 1, and Thomson shared it with him. They painted for the first time together, outdoors in Algonquin Park, that fall.
Their sketching trip began poorly: Thomson in frustration threw his sketch box into the woods and declared he would never paint again; the box had to be repaired by park ranger Bud Callighen so the trip could continue. The eulogizing of Thomson by his artist friends tended to overlook or gloss over the man’s darker qualities: his temper, his drinking, his self-loathing, his bouts of discouragement and depression. But then, some of the artists offering the recollections were prone to their own bouts of anger and self-doubt. Jackson for one destroyed massive amounts of work, would think little of some of the early canvases he sold to the National Gallery, and was famously opinionated about any number of subjects, including the worth of fellow artists. In his friends’ eulogizing, Thomson was portrayed as a much happier, more carefree soul than was actually the case: a man approaching forty who resented critics and was determined to prove them wrong, and yet still had moments of profound self-doubt. “That Thomson occasionally drank too much has no relevance to his art,” Joan Murray has noted, “but his anger does.” She cites his friend, the park ranger Mark Robinson, recalling how Thomson at times was “melancholy and defeated in manner,” then would suddenly “awaken” and be “almost angry in appearance. It was at these times he did his best work.” Anger, Murray has proposed, “sharpened the way he painted, helping him dare to work more roughly and in a more abbreviated manner. Besides making him resolute, it readied him to paint.” (See Murray, “The World of Tom Thomson,” Journal of Canadian Studies 26, no 3 (Autumn 1991), 31.)
Jackson and Thomson were joined for a time in the park at Canoe Lake by Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley, although Jackson and Thomson were their own small team, camping out on their own. Jackson relished his time painting in close company with Thomson. Only Lismer had comparable experience, the previous spring, of working alongside Thomson in the north country in that breakthrough year, for Thomson and the landscape movement overall. “We had six weeks together, moving around in his old grey canoe,” Jackson told Mortimer-Lamb. “I never saw anyone make such progress as he did in that time. To compare these sketches with those done the previous autumn seemed almost unbelievable. He was quite tireless, up before sunrise to fish. He wanted to do all the work and seemed strangely happy when you too appreciated the beauty of some of his favorite haunts.”
By the time Jackson and Thomson were painting in Algonquin Park together for the first (and last) time, the world was at war. Jackson faced tremendous pressure to enlist: His younger brother, Bill, was going overseas with the 14th Battalion, and a good friend, fellow artist Randolph Hewton, was enlisting as well, and hoped Jackson would join him.
Jackson would recall having heard little about the war while in Algonquin Park, but that once he and Thomson were back in Toronto, “we realized we had been unduly optimistic, that the war was likely to be a long one, and that our relatively carefree days were over.” Art, which had been of marginal if emerging civic importance before August 1914, was now scarcely of any significance at all. At the moment a new Canadian landscape movement was beginning to gel, the country wanted soldiers, not painters.
Thomson was resolutely opposed to signing up. Jackson would recall for Mortimer-Lamb: “Poor chap he was much troubled by the war. He was almost a conscientious objector in the early stages. Later I do not know how he regarded it.”
According to Maria Tippett, Maud Varley would recall how, after returning to Toronto from Algonquin Park in the fall of 1914, she and Frederick stood with Thomson for ninety minutes at the corner of Bloor and Yonge watching “12,000 men pass by eight abreast.” Thomson called the men in the military parade “gun fodder for a day.” Thomson was “really upset with the idea of what [the marching men] were going to,” Maud remembered. He declared: “Six months! Hell 3 or 4 years it must be.” (See Tippett, Stormy Weather, 89.)
Jackson managed to hold out until June 1915, when he enlisted as a private in Montreal’s 60th Battalion. Jackson was training at Valcartier when Thomson wrote J.E.H. MacDonald from Algonquin Park on 22 July. Thomson was unsettled, without admitting why. But he had heard about Jackson’s enlistment, which disturbed him. Jackson had been as cynical about the war as Thomson was in the fall of 1914: now Jackson was voluntarily in uniform, heading off to kill Germans, if they did not kill him first. “As with yourself,” Thomson told MacDonald, “I can’t get used to the idea of Jackson being in the machine, and it is rotten that in this so-called civilized age that such things can exist but since this war has started it will have to go on until one side wins and, of course there is no doubt which side it will be, and we will see Jackson back on the job once more.”
The winter of 1916-17 saw Tom Thomson produce a series of canvases at a shack he occupied behind the Studio Building that were more decorative, even more illustrative, than his previous works. The Fisherman, with an angler casting at a pool below a rapids chute, could have served as a railway travel poster. He also produced his two most iconic canvases, The West Wind (which would incite debate over whether it was actually finished) and The Jack Pine. He exhibited nothing in the Spring OSA show, and returned to Algonquin Park in early April, buying a guide’s license at the end of the month. The sketches he produced in the park were as strong as anything in his oeuvre.
Thomson paddled away from Mowat Lodge on Canoe Lake on 8 July. Exactly who saw him, and when, and where he was headed, and why, would be of eternal controversy. We only know for certain that on 10 July, ranger Mark Robinson, back from his curtailed war service, recorded in his journal a report that Martin Blecher, who had a cottage next door to Mowat Lodge, had found Thomson’s canoe, upside-down in Canoe Lake, and that Blecher “wanted us to drag for Mr. Thompson’s body.” His bloated corpse was spotted, floating in the lake, on 16 July. Thomson apparently had resurfaced near Little Wapomeo Island, only a few hundred meters from Mowat Lodge.
“I have just heard such cruel news which I do take hope will prove untrue that Tom is drowned in Canoe Lake,” Jackson immediately wrote J.E.H. MacDonald, on 4 August.
Things have been looking so hopeful in my little world lately and I am just awaiting the word to go to France and let loose two years of suppressed energy and emotions. And now I could sit down and cry, to think that while in all this turmoil over here there is a ray of light and that the peace and quietness of the north country should be the scene of such a tragedy. It seems like the severing of another tie which bound me to Canada because without Tom the north country seems a desolation of brush and rocks. He was the guide, the interpreter, and we the guests partaking of his hospitality so generously given. His name is so often coupled with mine in this new movement that it seemed almost like a partnership and it was in which I supplied the school learning and practical methods of working and helped Tom to realize the dreams which my debt to him is almost that of a new world, the north country, and a truer artist’s vision, because as an artist he was rarely gifted, and now we are so few. Lismer away. Lawren I do not look upon as a personal friend so much as a friend of the movement. Hewton is going to give up art altogether. And so Jim we alone are left to play the game. I have seen so much of death over here that I hear without emotion of boys I marched with, slept beside and went through rainy and sunny days with being killed. It makes me almost callous. Well I’m going to play the game again Jim, and forget myself in work if they only give me freedom enough.
Arthur Lismer was as devastated as Jackson. “I suppose there is no further new of Tom,” he had written Dr. James MacCallum, on 21 July from Halifax, unaware Thomson’s body had been recovered from the lake, five days earlier.
It is difficult to estimate all the chances that he might be safe somewhere, altho’ the circumstances are strange enough for any amount of speculation, which I guess you have all indulged in to the limit. He was too good a bushman to allow his canoe to drift away, as it was found. Neither is he lost in a neighbourhood he knew so well, & a well known figure as he was couldn’t make a getaway from the district even if some impulse had urged him to do so.
I have had all sorts of ideas on the subject & can only conclude that poor old Tom is gone. We’ve lost a big man, both as an artist & a fine character & I know you will be feeling pretty bad about it. When one recalls the few years that he had been painting, it is remarkable what he achieved. He has put a new note into all his associates, just as he has made his art sing with a lively Canadian note. He was the simplest soul & most direct worker I ever knew. Whilst we often speculate as to how it would be done, Tom did it with that amazing freshness that was always an inspiration to look at. He had no preconceived notions like the rest of us. He never tackled a canvas like anybody else. Everything he produced grew out of his experience & he painted himself into it all. Personally I’m thankful for having known him & worked with him both in the studio & outdoors.
Lismer’s letter captured the incredulity of people who knew Thomson well, who had travelled with him in his canoe for weeks at a time: how could such an experienced outdoorsman have died within sight of Mowat Lodge on a calm lake? Over the years, a plethora of theories would arise over what happened to him, and why. Lawren Harris would conclude he was murdered. Frederick Varley became persuaded that the pressures to enlist in the war compelled Thomson to deliberately capsize the canoe and end his life.Shannon Fraser, the proprietor of Mowat Lodge, that autumn proposed to Bill Beatty and J.E.H. MacDonald that Thomson had killed himself, which only fed later theories that Fraser was trying to cover up his complicity in the death. Dr. MacCallum too apparently suspected that Thomson had taken his own life. In November 1940, he wrote Harry McCurry, who had been hired as assistant director of the National Gallery in 1919 and took over as director in 1939. “Like [Marius] Barbeau you are to be the recipient of a facsimile reproduction of the last letter which Tom Thomson wrote before his death. The original will, I intend, eventually reach the archives of the National Gallery. I suggest, as the lawyers say, that you draw some deductions from it as to the state of mind of the poor chap.” The last letter on record from Thomson to MacCallum, in MacCallum’s papers in the National Gallery, was written by Thomson on 7 July, the day before he was last seen, but it does not suggest anything untoward about Thomson’s mental state. Thomson provided an unremarkable update on his guiding work, and poor weather and oppressive flies, which had been impeding his sketching. He may have been frustrated, but the weather had just turned for the better and he was hopeful about being productive again. “Will send my winter sketches down in a day or two and have every intention of making some more but it has been almost impossible lately. Have done a great deal of paddling this spring and the fishing has been fine.” Perhaps MacCallum knew more than he was sharing about Thomson’s mental state, having canoed with Thomson that May in the park.
The possibility that Thomson took his own life cannot be dismissed. Depression is mercurial, and Joan Murray, one of the leading scholarly experts on Thomson, would entertain the possibility in 1991, knowing the artist’s penchant for self-loathing, drinking episodes, and bouts of depression. Something was amiss with Thomson that year. Not exhibiting anything in the Spring 1917 OSA exhibition was a conspicuous decision not to share his latest canvases. Murray has written that Thomson’s friends “felt his death somehow lacked dignity, that in some way it was their fault. The sense of personal guilt—the idea that one might have prevented it if one had taken certain precautions, had behaved differently—was perhaps inevitable. Anyone acquainted with secret aspects of Thomson’s life—his violent fluctuations of mood, his wild drinking—would question the feelings of his friends. His hell-raising, zest, and anarchic individualism may have been another side of a depressive personality who would have come to misadventure before long, perhaps even through suicide.” If Varley, who knew Thomson well, was correct, and that the war was in some way to blame, then the wounding of Jackson has to be considered as a motivating factor, beyond any shame he might have felt that park rangers like Bud Callighen and Mark Robinson volunteered for service, and he did not. Thomson must have received news of Jackson’s mauling by the machine as it circulated among his artist friends. Did he hate himself enough, for taking refuge in the Northland, while Jackson, who had been so important to his rise as a painter, was wounded in the hip and the shoulder—the shoulder with which he painted? Without belabouring the endless speculation about the circumstances of Thomson’s death, it is possible he drowned after (or during) a bout of drinking linked to his episodic depression.
Jackson steered clear of the speculation about Thomson’s death, and focused on what they had all lost in a friend and fellow artist, and what Thomson’s art meant to the new movement that the war had interrupted—a movement that now seemed to be on the verge of dying along with Thomson. Thomson was on Jackson’s mind as he prepared to return to the front and begin his research as a war artist. “Our poor little Canadian school suffered a great loss in the death of Thomson,” Jackson told Mortimer-Lamb in August. “He was the true heart of the north country. He understood it better than any of us and was making great strides in means of expression. Now I am afraid there will be too few of us to work together again. It will hit MacDonald very hard. He and Thomson without being chummy had a great respect for each other.”
To MacDonald, he wrote: “I have heard nothing further about Tom, but conclude it is only too true. I know how keenly you will feel his loss. You had very much in common. Tom I know though he was a man of few words often expressed to me his confidence in you and in the future of your work, and without you he never would have associated himself with our little school. Well it is a blessing that the last years of his life were devoted as they were. He has blazed a trail where others may follow, and we will never go back to the old days again.”
Jackson was an old soldier now, of combat and art. In painting, as in war, there was nothing to be done about fallen comrades but honour them and push on.