The fall colours are at their peak.
Not in Muskoka or the Eastern Townships, where this weekend’s wind and rain made short shrift of the famous red-and-orange foliage, but in a posh suburb in the south of London where Tom Thomson and his Group of Seven colleagues have never been in greater glory.
The 200-year-old Dulwich Picture Gallery’s new exhibition, Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, opens Wednesday following a Monday night gala in which many of Canada’s most iconic paintings were unveiled to a British audience for the first time since a handful of these same paintings were shown in London back in 1924.
“You are seeing the heart of Canada,” Canadian High Commissioner Gordon Campbell told an enthusiastic gathering of a couple of hundred gallery patrons, a new group – headed up by Sotheby’s Canada president David Silcox, a renowned Thomson scholar – known as the Canadian friends of the Dulwich Picture Gallery and various corporate sponsors (including The Globe and Mail).
There are 123 paintings on loan from such institutions as the National Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the McMichael Canadian art collection and such private collectors as David Thomson. They include works by Thomson, A.Y. Jackson, J.E.H. MacDonald, Fred Varley, Arthur Lismer, Lawren Harris, Franklin Carmichael and Frank Johnston. Three of the Group – Lismer, Varley and MacDonald – were born in England, which may explain some of the interest, yet the clear star of the show is Thomson, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1917, three years before the Group was formed.
There is an entire room in the gallery dedicated to the painter, the highlight being a single wall devoted, perhaps for the first time ever, to showing Thomson’s two most-famous works, West Wind and Jack Pine, side by side.
“The two most famous paintings in Canadian art,” said Edinburgh-born Ian Dejardin, who came up with the original idea of a Thomson/Group of Seven showing and is co-curator of this exhibition.
“Canadians practically need a stretcher when they see them on the same wall,”
Thomson is described in a Gallery magazine as “something of an archetype – a perfect role for Gary Cooper, had anyone thought of it,” and was compared to JFK and Marilyn Monroe Monday evening by Mr. Dejardin.
“If ever there was a genius,” Mr. Dejardin said, “Tom Thomson was it.”
The JFK-Marilyn-Cooper references are a deliberate salute to reality – Canadian icons first having to be compared to American icons before a British audience will relate.
And yet, judging by the first impressions of the first visitors, the show is creating interest. The Telegraph, also a sponsor, carried a major story on Thomson and his fellow artists’ work this past weekend and the Dulwich organizers claim interest is on the rise.
“It’s wonderful,” said Montreal visitor Joan Ivory, who once studied art under Arthur Lismer. “Just maybe people will see that there’s more to Canada than a few cities and towns along the Canada-U.S. border.”
It makes for a fascinating juxtaposition, visitors to the gallery coming face to face with Gainsborough, Rembrandt, the Dutch Masters – and then Algonquin Park, Georgian Bay, the Rockies, the Far North where Harris found so much mystical inspiration that the gallery has dubbed the room devoted to his later works “The Lawren Harris Chapel.”
Mr. Dejardin thinks that any British visitors – as well as future visitors to shows in Norway and Holland, where the paintings will be exhibited next – will gain a new perspective on the vastness of Canada.
“My geography is based solely on the Group of Seven,” he admitted. “I’ve only ever been to Toronto and Ottawa.
“But we Brits think we know parks. There’s Regent Park … and Hyde Park … but Algonquin Park is the size of Wales.”
Had it not been for the public’s ultimate acceptance of the art of Thomson and his colleagues – an acceptance that took years to gain – Mr. Dejardin believes the “brand” of Canada as picturesque wilderness would never have become widely known to the world.
And this, he says, is precisely what the Group of Seven hoped to do when they persisted with exhibition after exhibition until, finally, their art became the art of Canada.
“By the eighth exhibit,” Mr. Dejardin told the gathering, “they had found the Canada that they were seeking.
“I can’t think of any group of artists that so effectively achieved their aims.”