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Charles Taylor Prize

Exclusive excerpt: Tom Thomson's backwoods life in downtown Toronto Add to ...

The first of a series of excerpts from the five books nominated for the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize. We will present one every day this week. The prize will be awarded next Monday (Feb. 14) in Toronto.

Jackson's move to Montreal at the end of 1914 was a great loss to Tom Thomson. Jackson, with his extensive European training and experience, had begun to foster Thomson's talent, recognizing his raw skills and helping to refine them. When for two months the previous summer Thomson was unable to paint, it was Jackson's company that unleashed his creative abilities. The two men spent only a matter of months together, but over the course of that time Thomson began developing artistic gifts the depth and power of which his earlier works had given scant hint.

Jackson did not exaggerate when he said Thomson was getting to the end of his tether financially. With his year-long patronage from Dr. MacCallum at an end, and with discouraging prospects of earning a comfortable living through commercial design, he was forced to make economies. At the end of the year he moved out of his latest lodgings - a boarding-house at Wellesley and Church - and into a tumbledown shack behind the Studio Building. Situated on sloping ground and surrounded by saplings, the shack had formerly served as the workshop of a cabinet-maker and even for a time as a henhouse. Lawren Harris and Dr. MacCallum paid $176 to have the modest structure re-roofed and insulated with beaverboard. An east window was added for light and the shack was furnished with a bunk and a box stove. Thomson was then allowed to occupy it for the peppercorn rent of $1 per month.

Harris had an affection for this primitive kind of jerry-built, lumber-and-tarpaper shack; many examples would later appear in his art. Though the exact origins of this particular shack are unclear, it was probably one of the many self-builds that mushroomed in Toronto over the previous decade as immigration soared and many poor British immigrants built themselves two- and three-room shacks with no plumbing or electricity. Thomson's new home was probably technically illegal as a residence since efforts to clean up Toronto saw the City Council pass by-law 6691 in 1913 "to regulate the installation of sanitary conveniences under the Public Health Act". He nonetheless made himself happily at home, spending his leisure moments carving axe handles and decorating the walls with paddles, lures and trolling spoons - mementoes of the self-sufficient life in the bush. The shack represented an attempt to replicate, in the heart of Toronto, his primitive living conditions in Algonquin Provincial Park. Its unadorned decrepitude evoked the humble shelter-houses occupied by the park's rangers and loggers.

If the shack provided him with cheap living quarters, Thomson spent the winter of 1914-15 sharing work space in the Studio Building with Frank Carmichael ... The studio shared by Thomson and Carmichael took on the carefree and disarrayed air of bachelordom. It was cluttered with easels bearing half-finished canvases, and on the floor, as Carmichael wrote to his fiancée Ada Went, lay "canvases and frames in great array, and not without disorder. The table too is covered with half-used tubes of paint, brushes, bottles of oil, turpentine, bottles, sketches, colour boxes with sketches standing up against the wall. Under it are colour boxes and tubes with a pile of sketches at one end, looking not unlike a bunch of shingles broken open." Their cooking was equally chaotic, including mishaps and "queer sights ... when a finger is burnt or some stuff boils over". They often ate with Bill Beatty, who treated them to fried potatoes and oyster stew. Thomson's speciality was Mulligan stew, and he also made preserves from the berries he picked in the north. He seems to have been something of an impromptu chef: MacDonald's son Thoreau remembered seeing him mash potatoes with an empty bottle.

From the book Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, © 2010, by Ross King. Published in 2010 by Douglas & McIntyre: an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc., and McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Tomorrow: The Geography of Arrival: A Memoir, by George Sipos

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