One of 10 fake Vancouver Art Gallery sketches previously attributed to Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald was not even a copy of a MacDonald painting, but a copy of a work by a different artist, fellow painter Tom Thomson – who is among the most revered and well-known historical Canadian artists.
The oil sketches, donated to the VAG, which said they had spent decades buried underground north of Toronto, have been at the centre of a years-long mystery. The newly revealed Thomson angle could provide a clue as to who actually made the paintings.
The sketch in question was initially labelled Untitled (Batchawana Rapids) and dated circa 1919, when it was said to be by MacDonald. Unnoticed at the time of the donation was a strong resemblance to a well-attributed sketch by Thomson: The Rapids, dated 1915. Thomson was a prolific artist whose career was cut short upon his mysterious death in Algonquin Park in 1917, before the Group of Seven was formed.
The similarities were noticed by a Globe and Mail reader who happened to see the Thomson work at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., the day after The Globe and Mail reported on the fake MacDonald sketches.
“I went ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh.’ I kind of couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” says Bryan Wall, a landscape painter himself, based in Collingwood, Ont. As it turns out, a leading expert in the Group of Seven had included this same observation years earlier in a report to the VAG, after the donation was finalized and announced. This Thomson connection is not, however, part of a show about the mystery, which just opened at the Vancouver Gallery.
Mr. Wall had driven to the McMichael last Friday to see the exhibition “Tom Thomson: North Star” for a second visit, this time with his parents. His father had brought along a copy of the previous day’s Globe because he thought his son would be interested in the VAG development. The story, which Mr. Wall read later that day when he was back home, included a photo of the sketch in question. When he saw the picture in the newspaper, he says he knew he had seen “pretty much the exact same sketch” at the McMichael. “I couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Wall says. “It was kind of like matching socks; you know there’s another one somewhere.”
When he retrieved the exhibition catalogue, which he had bought on his first visit, he saw that the two sketches were definitely a match. “Even if two artists were sitting side by side painting the same thing, this wouldn’t happen,” he says. “Because water has fluxes and moves differently depending on the flow. It’s always splashing differently in different places. And this artist” – meaning the one who made the copy, the unknown one – “has matched the splashes perfectly.”
As The Globe reported last week, the Vancouver Art Gallery acquired 10 sketches purportedly by MacDonald in late 2014. But shortly after the early 2015 announcement of the acquisition, some Canadian art experts expressed doubts about their authenticity.
The VAG sent the paintings for testing – a visual analysis by expert Charles Hill, a retired National Gallery of Canada curator; followed by a handwriting analysis of signatures on the back, which were purported to have authenticated the works; and finally, a scientific analysis by the Canadian Conservation Institute. The CCI report, which was delivered to the VAG in 2016, determined definitively that the sketches were not made by MacDonald.
But a year earlier, Mr. Hill’s visual analysis raised significant doubts. Among his observations was that this particular sketch, supposedly by MacDonald, was in fact a copy of the Thomson work.
“I have never seen any documentation that MacDonald copied Thomson’s works,” he wrote in his 2015 report. While MacDonald did design the Thomson estate stamp, Mr. Hill wrote, “it is unlikely he would copy Thomson’s sketches to learn from Thomson. He was a mature artist already set off on his own direction. There is nothing in the handling of paint in this oil sketch to suggest an attribution to MacDonald.”
Richard Hill (no relation), the VAG’s now-curator of Canadian art who created the new exhibition “J.E.H. MacDonald? A Tangled Garden,” says a decision was made not to include the information about the Thomson sketch in the show, partly because of limited space, but mostly out of concern that it might make an already complicated story more confusing.
The Thomson sketch currently on view at the McMichael belongs to the collection of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University. One of four purchased in 1941 from Thomson’s sister for $160 each, the sketch has rarely been exhibited beyond the university. It travelled to Germany in the early 1980s, but was not even part of the Thomson show that the Kingston gallery and the Art Gallery of Hamilton presented in 2021-2022.
Alicia Boutilier, chief curator and curator of Canadian historical art at Agnes, had not been aware of the connection between the Thomson sketch in her collection and the VAG mystery. But when she saw photos of the two works side by side on Tuesday, she agreed with Mr. Wall’s observation.
“It makes me wonder where this person saw this painting to make this copy, because it’s been at Queen’s since 1941,” she said. She noted that it would have hung on campus initially, along with the other works in the university collection, rather than in a gallery. “They probably would have been more viewable then than they are now. Because they would have been up there for students to walk past and possibly paint.”
The Thomson sketch was reproduced in black and white in a 1968 catalogue of the art collection at Queen’s. And it was reproduced in colour in 1977 in Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm by Harold Town and David Silcox.
Charles Hill believes the 10 sketches donated to the VAG may have all been made by the same person. If so – meaning the person who copied the Thomson sketch also made the others – this could provide a clue as to the unknown artist’s identity. “Was it a student at the university? Was it a teacher at the university? Was it a patron; someone who just walked through?” Mr. Wall wonders. As he points out, the copy is too detailed to have been painted from memory.
Ms. Boutilier says she’s thrilled that someone was moved enough by the Thomson sketch – which, she admits, is not her favourite – to copy it, turning it into an autumn scene. And that somebody, years later, noticed.
“I think it’s so incredible that this reader … had made these connections,” she says. “I just love that people are looking at these artworks so closely to be able to make these connections, to either paint them – or link them to a fake.”