Tom Thomson at Achray in 1916
Tom Thomson spent the summer of 1916 working as a fire ranger out of Achray on Grand Lake in Algonquin Park. This was the last full summer he spent in Algonquin Park, and in terms of quality and quantity of work produced, it was perhaps his most productive year. Yet Thomson was continually frustrated by the extent by which his 'day job' got in the way of his sketching.
We have long been intrigued by Thomson and his paintings, and in particular, Where did he paint them? Thomson did not leave any written records of his sketches or their locations. In general, the sketches were named and dated from the recollection of others after Thomson's death. Consequently, some of these data are suspect.
We have made significant progress in identifying many Thomson sketching locations in the Achray area and in the process have perhaps clarified some details of Thomson's stay at Achray.
We have concentrated on those sketches that are believed to have been painted in 1916 and that depict distinctive landscape features that should be identifiable if one finds the right location. Our focus has been on his sketches — that is, paintings done in the field, rather than in the studio — as these are the most directly connected to the landscape. Many of his sketches depict subjects that are too generic for any reasonable chance of locating, and we have not included them in our searches. However, we have located quite a few of the other sketches that depict more distinctive scenes. And interestingly, most are quite close to Achray.
This is an ongoing project, but we wanted to publish what we have on the 100th anniversary of his stay at Achray. The sketches and their locations are discussed in this section of our website. Links to the various pages, with a brief description are to be found at the bottom of this page. As an ongoing project, we anticipate adding more material in the future and perhaps modifying or extending the current discussion.
In some cases you may not find our arguments and photographs completely persuasive. That's fine; we have some doubts with some of our identifications as well. We have tried not to overstate our evidence, but biases inevitably creep in. We invite you to visit these locations with an open mind and a copy of the sketch in hand. It is much more convincing to visit these sites in person than through a photograph. But even after all that, if you're still not convinced, we think you will agree that it was an interesting intellectual exercise and at least you probably had a pleasant and interesting day in the bush.
If you get the opportunity to see any of the actual sketches or the studio paintings, take it; reproductions do not do them justice.
We are not claiming any particular expertise in the various subfields that underly this report; we are only interested amateurs. We do have the advantage that we live near by and know the area well.
We are aware of some instances where our observations and conclusions seem at odds with currently accepted ideas; we advance our opinions confidently but respectfully.
We are not claiming priority in identifying these sketching locations. We are sure that others have found many of these locations as well. But these locations seem to be not well-known and most of our searches were done without the benefit of previous knowledge. Indeed, if we had known the locations beforehand, the search would have been much less fun.
The reproductions of Tom Thomson sketches used in these pages may all be found elsewhere on the internet and in most cases in larger and higher resolution versions. The sizes used here are the smallest sufficient to identify the sketch we are discussing, to tell our story, and allow meaningful comparisons with the photographs. To fully appreciate these sketches, you need to visit the hosting gallery. The gallery where each sketch may be viewed is indicated in the index.
Many of our photos are geotagged. To see the photo's location on a map, click on the 'map' link (if present) at the bottom right hand corner of the photo. These locations are gps determined and are subject to the normal uncertainties associated with gps as well as a further uncertainty introduced by small differences between camera time and gps time.
Over the course of this project we have consulted many books, articles and brochures. These have proved to be the most influential:
- For an overview of Thomson's art, see: Dennis Reid, ed. (2002), Tom Thomson, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto.
- For a more popular account of Thomson's art, see: Joan Murray (2011), A Treasury of Tom Thomson, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto.
- For a popular account of Thomson's life and the circumstances surrounding his death, see: Roy MacGregor (2010), Northern Light : The enduring mystery of Tom Thomson and the woman who loved him, Random House Canada.
- For an opposite opinion concerning Thomson's death, see: Gregory Klages (2016), The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson — Separating Fact From Fiction, Dundurn Press, Toronto.
For an interesting and entertaining account of a similar but much more wide ranging — in both time and space — search for the painting locations of the Group of Seven, see: Jim and Sue Waddington (2013), In the Footsteps of the Group of Seven, Goose Lane Editions (Fredericton) and Art Gallery of Sudbury (Sudbury). We would like to thank Jim for a very helpful conversation and several email exchanges as we were finalizing these pages.
The Facebook page for In the Footsteps of the Group of Seven is found here.
For some interesting comments about the importance of location in Canadian art (or not!) see Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson Documentary.
For an on-line catalogue of Thomson's paintings, see Tom Thomson Catalogue Raisonné.
We have written several "Bush Log" pages that relate to Tom Thomson; these pages are listed here: Tom Thomson.