Spring Ice by Tom Thomson

Spring Ice by Tom Thomson (1916)

The exhibition I visited back in November at the Dulwich Picture Gallery was entitled The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson.   The reason for the Group not including Thomson himself was, although he was closely connected to and had greatly influenced the seven members of the Group, he died before they had formed this artistic association in 1920.

Tom Thomson, who was born into a large western Ontario farm family in Claremont, Ontario, was the son of John and Margaret Thomson.  It is interesting to note that unlike many early stories of artist’s lives, Thomson never showed an early interest in art.  In his youth, he was far more interested in music and literature.  At the age of twenty-two, he worked as an apprentice in an iron foundry owned by a friend of his father.  It is possible that Thomson took advantage of his father’s connection with the owner and failed to fulfil his part of the apprenticeship as within a year he had been sacked because of his lack of time management.  Thomson then decided that the excitement of military life was for him and applied to fight in the Second Boer war but was rejected on medical grounds.   Later he would be turned down again by the Canadian military when he tried to enlist and fight in the First World War.

In 1901, aged twenty-four, he was admitted into a business college at Chatham but stayed there for less than a year, at which time he went to Seattle where his brother George had a business school.  It was in this American city that he worked as a photoengraver and designed commercial brochures and spent a lot of his free time sketching and fishing.

Thomson returned to Canada in 1905 and two years later joined Grip Limited, a leading Toronto artistic design company.  It was whilst working there that he met some of the future members of the Group of Seven.   Apart from Lawren Harris, who came from a wealthy background and enjoyed an independent income, all the artists, who formed the Group of Seven, supported themselves at one time or another as commercial artists or graphic designers producing lettering and layout as well as illustrations for magazine and books.  Thomson and his newly found friends, who all loved to sketch and paint, would often go off together at the weekends on sketching trips.

One of Thomson’s favourite destinations on his painting trips was Algonquin Park, a forestry reserve north of Toronto, which stretches between Georgina Bay on the west and the Ottawa River to the east.  It is a vast stretch of pristine wilderness and an ideal location for landscape artists.   Thompson first journeyed there on a sketching expedition in 1912 returning home clutching numerous sketches of the areas he visited.   These sketching trips up north were a bit of a logistical nightmare as the artists had, as well as carrying food, shelter and cooking utensils, had also to carry their painting and sketching materials and this culminated in an almost impossible burden.  The weather conditions for en plein air painting or sketching was not conducive for the artists due to the cold and wet and this necessitated them having to try and paint or sketch with speed in changing light.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is one of Tom Thomson’s early works which he completed in 1916 and which is entitled Spring Ice.   The 1915 study for this painting, in the form of a small oil on cardboard sketch, as well as the finished oil on canvas painting are normally housed at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.  One should remember that many artists looked upon their preparatory sketches as works in their own right and not just as a preparation for the finished article.  Thomson made some subtle changes to his finished painting in comparison to his contemporary sketch.  Although the positioning of the land, trees and lake remain the same, the colours on the final canvas are noticeably different.  In the finished work Thomson has used much brighter pastel colours and by doing so has cleverly brought to us a hint of spring.   Also, whereas the sketch had a square shape, the oil on canvas work was wider and horizontal in shape.  This added width allows us to get a better view of the blue waters of the lake.   One can imagine the difficulty Thomson endured to capture the scene.  Probably squatting down on the thawing earth, balancing his sketch box on his knee so as to obtain a low-level view of the lake.  Can you imagine how cold it must have been and how cold his fingers must have been in the chilling air?  It was those same frosty conditions which bit unmercifully at his limbs that prevented the ice flows from melting as they moved slowly in the water.   We can see that there is a long time to go before the warmth of summer arrives to add warmth to the ground and tease the vegetation from the earth.  We are still in spring and the trees have yet to open up their buds to the elements.

Artists like those of the Group of Seven had to endure great hardships in the cause of producing a realistic representation of nature.  They had to paint quickly to capture the scene with its many moods as the light from the sun or moon changed.  The mood for this painting is one of serenity and tranquillity and one can understand why artists like Thomson put up with the harsh conditions so as to record the beauty of nature.

Thomson’s life ended suddenly and in mysterious circumstances.  It was the summer of 1917 and he had been out alone in a canoe on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park when he disappeared.  His empty canoe was spotted later that day.  Thomson was an expert fisherman, canoeist and hiker, and when his body was found eight days later in the lake it seemed incongruous that he could have died accidentally.  To this day the circumstances of his death have remained shrouded in mystery. The official cause of death was given as “accidental drowning”.   The investigation claimed there was a fishing line wrapped around his legs and he had suffered a blow to his head before he died.  As with all deaths in unusual and suspicious circumstances, the conspiracy theorists have had a field day, putting forward numerous scenarios, which ultimately led to the artist’s death.  Murdered by a neighbour, killed in a drunken brawl over money he owed his assailant, and killed by the father of a girl whom he had got pregnant were just a few of the many suggested circumstances that led to the artist’s demise.  Maybe closer to the truth was the belief that it was a simple accident or that he had committed suicide during one of his many bouts of depression.  We will probably never know the truth but the one thing we do know with great certainty is that on that lake in July 1917, Canada lost one its great artists, aged just forty.