I visited McMaster University’s Museum of Fine Arts in February 2020, to view several early (pre World War I) works by A.Y. Jackson. One of them, Girl in the Middy, an oil sketch of Rosa Breithaupt, herself painting by the water’s edge, contained a bonus painting on the obverse side: a landscape catalogued as “unknown” in subject matter. Jackson’s fellow member of the Group of Seven, A.J. Casson, actually wrote (in ink!) on it: “The sketch on the reverse side could possibly be an early AY Jackson.” That clearly seems to be the case. But what does it depict?
We have some basic clues to the subject matter. Rosa Breithaupt was one of two artistically inclined Breithaupt sisters (the other was Edna) that Jackson first met in 1910, when he traveled from Montreal to the southwestern Ontario city of Berlin (which changed its name to Kitchener in 1916). As a struggling young artist, A.Y. made the visit to meet and mingle with well-off relatives and their circle of friends. The circle included the Breithaupts, one of Berlin’s most prominent families. Rosa and Edna’s father, Louis, owned a tannery in Penetanguishene, at what is still known as Tannery Point, on southeastern Georgian Bay, and had a summer home near the tannery on Penetanguishene harbour. They also had a large houseboat, the Vancrofter, which could sleep two dozen people. When the Vancrofter wasn’t accommodating guests at the summer home, it was towed by a tugboat into the Cognashene region to the northeast, an emerging cottaging area studded with islands in Georgian Bay’s 30,000 Islands, where it would be anchored. Jackson’s Berlin relatives, the Clement family, had a cottage in the Cognashene, at Portage Point, across from another leading Berlin family, the Williamses, at Wabec Island.
Jackson visited the Cognashene (and Georgian Bay) for the first time, in the summer of 1910, staying for about a month at the Clement cottage. It was his introduction to the iconic rock-and-pine Georgian Bay landscape depicted by Jackson and fellow future members of the Group of Seven (formed in 1920), and by Tom Thomson. Before the war broke out, he visited Penetanguishene and the Cognashene again in 1911 and 1913. He also stayed at Dr. James MacCallum’s cottage up the shore from the Cognashene at West Wind Island in the fall of 1913. We also know from paintings of the Tannery and Penetanguishene harbour that he stayed with the Breithaupts in Penetanguishene.
It’s important to know, when looking at Jackson’s sketch, that the landscape of Georgian Bay changes dramatically only a few miles north of Penetanguishene. Around Penetanguishene, the terrain is very sandy and otherwise typical of much of southern Ontario, and extensively farmed. Just beyond Penetanguishene, about halfway up the west side of Beausoleil Island (now the heart of Georgian Bay Islands National Park), the rock-and-pine of the Laurentian shield emerges at the Gin Rock Islands, and typifies the landscape just to the north, at the Cognashene.
When I first laid my eyes on Jackson’s unknown landscape, I was struck by how much it resembled a view I know very well. I have lived not far from Penetanguishene for about 25 years. I have kept boats at two marinas in its harbour, and have otherwise been in and out of its harbour many times. The sketch immediately brought to mind the westward view from outer Penetanguishene harbour, toward the high ground of Tiny Township around Lafontaine. When you come into the main harbour from the outer harbour, you negotiate a narrows formed by a spit of land on the left (south), extending from the high ground of Asylum Point. On the right is Michaud Point. Once you are through this gap, the length of Penetanguishene Harbour opens on your left, to the south. Tannery Point is about 2.5 km to the south. While I cannot say so without a shred of doubt, the sketch of Rosa on the opposite side associates the landscape sketch with the Breithaupts. I am fairly persuaded that the unknown landscape is a quick sketch Jackson made, probably from a rowboat or sailboat, while puttering around near the Breithaupt summer home in Penetanguishene during one of his pre-war visits.