Beginning in 1912, Canadian landscape artist Tom Thomson painted extensively in
Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park, where he also worked as a guide and ranger until his
drowning in Canoe Lake on July 8, 1917.
From 1914 on, Thomson preferred small birch panels for his oil sketches, which depict the
rugged landscape of the park as it changed with the seasons and the weather. The
sketches were groundwork for large canvases executed over the winter in the Studio
Building in Toronto, which he shared with other artists, some of whom later formed The
Group of Seven.
The birch panels were custom made for Thomson — about 8 ½" x 10 ½ " (21.6 cm x 26.7
cm) — and they fit neatly into a sketch box designed with slots to hold and separate three
panels in the lid as well as paint, oil, and brushes. The base was used as the palette and
the box could be carried with a leather shoulder strap. It was the ideal kit for an artist who
sought inspiration in places that could only be reached by paddle and portage.
Among many other details of great interest to me in the researching and writing of
Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson’s Last Spring was the whereabouts of Tom’s personal
belongings when he drowned. Among the many items missing from his second floor room
in Shannon and Annie Fraser's Mowat Lodge was this sketch box, paints, oils and brushes.
In her catalog for a 1971 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, The Art of Tom Thomson,
Joan Murray, reported that “[i]n his sketch box, Thomson lovingly preserved a water colour
done in 1912 by another artist (unknown today) Perce Cuthbert, showing a ‘cello player lost
in thought. . . On it the following stanza from a poem appears:
“Sweet strains rose from the ‘cello,
Soft, almost melancholy—mellow,
Vibrating in the memory,
Awakening the very inmost soul.”
The poem's mix of sadness and joy struck exactly the emotional cord I was striving for in
writing about Tom and I included it in Chapter 25 of Algonquin Elegy. More important to me,
however, was a black and white reproduction of the Perce Cuthbert painting, the caption of
which said its owner was Mrs. Jessie M. Fisk.
First, of course, this was clear evidence that Tom was not carrying his sketch box with him
when his canoe overturned and he drowned. I asked myself where and when was it found
and were his paints, oils and brushes in the sketch box finally recovered?
On December 25, 1917, his older brother, George Thomson, wrote an angry letter to
Shannon Fraser saying, “When I was at Canoe Lake, you showed me various things
belonging to Tom. You will recall that you promised to hold them subject to the wishes of
whoever should act as administrator. This as you know was undertaken by T. J. Harkness
of Annan. He now wants every article boxed and sent COD to his address at Owen Sound.”
Harkness had married Tom’s older sister, Elizabeth. Their first child, Jessie Margaret
Harkness was born on September 6, 1895. Jessie married Frederick E. Fisk. That, I
thought, partially explains how she came into ownership of the Perce Cuthbert painting, if
not the sketch box. At first, I thought that the sketch box would have been among the articles
sought by George. However, it was not included in the short list of personal items received
described by Elizabeth Harkness a letter to Dr. James M. MacCallum, M.D., Tom’s art
patron, dealer and friend a few weeks later on February 9, 1918:
“In the bundle from Canoe Lake were his plaid overcoat, cap and a worn-out suit, 1 pr Red
Hudson Bay blanket—4 pl, a brown canvas bag, another older one, 1 pr drawers, 4 pr
socks, 1 aluminum 3 qt pail, 3 lids, 2 plates, 2 tin cups,” she said. “This is about all of any
importance, two or three handkerchiefs, ink bottle, 2 pipes I think this is everything. The
snowshoes did not come.” No mention of the sketch box.
I found no evidence that George Thomson, who traveled to Canoe Lake on July 12 to 14
and again on July 18 and 19 following Tom’s drowning, recovered the sketch box during
these visits. On July 19, 1917, George did ship a crate of Tom’s sketching boards from the
Mowat Lodge to Dr. MacCallum, saying, “It may be that some of Tom’s artist friends may be
able to use them. If so, just give them to whoever can use them.”
Therefore, I believed that George returned with none of Tom’s belongings except 33 of the
62 sketches Tom completed during that last spring, which were found by Mark Robinson at
the cottage of Tom’s girlfriend, Winnifred Trainor, on July 16, 1917. Was Tom’s sketch box
left there overlooked by Robinson?
Joan Murray’s 1998 book, Design for a Canadian Hero, added a further piece to the puzzle.
She said that, in addition to the Perce Cuthbert painting, also found in the sketch box after
his death was a calling card and exhibition invitation given to Tom by painter Florence
McGillivray, who had visited him at Canoe Lake that last spring. If true, who found and
removed the card and exhibition invitation, the significance of which would not be
recognized for many years?
While preparing for my book tour promoting Algonquin Elegy this summer, I found some
additional information about the sketch box. In an article for Tom Thomson, the massive
catalog published by the National Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario for a touring
exhibition of Thomson paintings in 2002 and 2003, Sandra Webster-Cook and Ann
Ruggles said the sketch box had been given by Dr. MacCallum to Albert Curtis Williamson,
Williamson was born at Brampton, Ontario, on Jan 2, 1867 and died in Toronto on April 18
1944. Nicknamed "the Canadian Rembrandt," and known primarily for his portraits. He
also painted genre scenes, interiors and landscapes, typically in a dark tonal style
developed after more than 10 years of painting in France and Holland following a brief
period of study in Paris. He returned to Toronto in 1904 and certainly was acquainted with
“Williamson gave it in turn to his nephew, the painter John Beynon,” the article said. In a
letter to Harrison O. McCurry, director of the National Gallery in November 1946, Benyon
said of the sketch box, ‘It has not been cleaned or touched in any way. It is exactly the same
as at the time of his passing.’” (Emphasis added.) All that I could find about Beynon was
that he was born in 1890 and painted landscapes. The sketch box was obtained from
Beynon by the National Gallery of Canada in 1947.
That was puzzling because the painting, calling card and exhibition invitation had been
removed. How did he Dr. MacCallum get the sketch box? Did Dr. MacCallum find in it the
painting, calling card and exhibition invitation? Among Dr. MacCallum’s papers at the
National Gallery Archives is a handwritten I.O.U. from Williamson. Was the I.O.U for the
Perhaps, Fraser found the sketch box, hidden or discarded by Tom before paddling away,
and shipped it to Harkness, who removed the painting and sent the sketch box to Dr.
MacCallum as George had done with the crate of birch panels. Harkness may have
passed the painting to Mrs. Fisk when he died in 1925. That scenario leaves the calling
card and exhibition invitation unexplained.
Two friends of Tom and Dr. MacCallum returned to Canoe Lake in late September 1917
and erected a memorial cairn at Hayhurst Point on Canoe Lake, a favorite campsite of Tom’
s overlooking where he drowning. Perhaps, one of them, artists James E. H. MacDonald or
John W. Beatty, retrieved the sketch box while there from Fraser or the Trainor family, and
brought it back to Dr. MacCallum, who sent the painting, calling card and exhibition
invitation to Harkness. Dr. MacCallum may have kept the sketch box and sold it to
Williamson for an I.O.U.
The National Gallery of Canada purchased the box from Beynon in 1947 for its Study
Collection. A full-page black and white photograph of the sketch box appears in the Tom
Thomson catalog. I never found anything about the missing paints, oils and brushes.
Anyone with additional information regarding the mystery of Tom Thomson’s sketch box is
asked to come forward because there’s already too many unanswered questions in this
89-year old case.
Missing Sketch Box