Why Did She Give Up The
Last Spring Paintings?
Tom Thomson spent his last spring, in 1917, at the Mowat Lodge, painting landscape
sketches around Canoe Lake on small wooden panels. He produced more or less sixty-two
of them, a daily record of the season's change in Algonquin Park from about March 23 to
May 24. At his death on July 8, 1917, none remained among his few possessions. Almost
everything he owned was missing but a few items -- new snowshoes, chief among them.
This essay is about those paintings. Some he gave away to dinner guests at the Lodge
on May 24, including four to his art patron and good friend, Dr. James M. MacCallum, M.D.,
three to Lodge owners, Shannon and Annie Fraser, one to Mrs. Daphne Crombie and, very
likely, others, too. Others he may have destroyed. Winnifred Trainor had a few. The
Thomson family later divided among them as many as thirty-three. Where were they found?
Tracing these paintings was the underlying mystery investigation of Algonquin Elegy:
Tom Thomson's Last Spring. It creates three fictional scenes which tell what is actually
known about who got them and imagines how some others, chiefly the family, received
Remarkably, exactly what actually happened is still the subject of speculation that if
settled could impact their value in the Canadian art market today. What I believe happened
took on new significance when one sold at auction for $1,150,000. The 8 1/2 by 10 1/2 inch
oil painting on a wooden panel called "Northern Lights" was originally owned by the artist's
older brother, George Thomson. He died in 1965.
Exactly how the family recovered its paintings is a key part of the Tom Thomson mystery
never adequately explained because George never explained where he found them.
Knowing why he refused to do so, from where and when he secured these very valuable
paintings for the family may explain away much of the Thomson mystery. The historical
record is empty of all but a few facts.
George happened to be visiting when word of Tom's disappearance reached Owen
Sound, where his family lived. Undoubtedly, because he was the oldest and vacationing, he
was dispatched to Canoe Lake, arriving on Thursday, July 12, 1917. He returned to Owen
Sound on Saturday, July 14. This is supported by Chief Ranger Mark Robinson's daily
journal, family correspondence in the months following and is re-told by all biographers,
who say George recovered the paintings from among his brothers belongings at the Park.
That part of the story is entirely lacking any support among the written records and can be
traced to his two early biographers who said their information came from George.
Neither of these two earlier biographers knew that George did not recover the painting on
this first trip or that he returned to Canoe Lake on July 18 and departed on the evening train,
July 19, with his brother's body, sealed in a copper-lined or steel casket, which arrived in
Owen Sound the afternoon of Friday, July 20. His second visit is firmly established by
George's correspondence dated July 19 from Mowat Lodge to Dr. James M. MacCallum, M.
D., ophthalmologist and Toronto art expert, and Tom's obituary in The Owen Sound Times.
What's murky is from where he recovered his brother's last spring sketches on this second
The first biographer was Blodwen Davies, who gathered much information she did not
put into her book. In 1930, Mark Robinson told Miss Davies that Thomson had painted a
new sketch every day. The brief story told in his March 23, 1930 correspondence to her
grew in remarkable detail as recalled by Robinson over the next 25 years. He originally said:
"The spring before his untimely death he painted a canvas a day showing the various
stages of the advancing spring and summer. He was very fond of this work and one day
dashing into my cabin he said may I have my records on those walls for the summer. I
assured him that he could but death stepped in and they were never hung. I saw a great
number of these canvasses they were good. I think Tom’s Brothers and sisters got most of
In her book, Algonquin Story, first published in 1946, the second biographer, Audrey
Saunders, picks up the story.
"Tom must have come north to Canoe Lake for the last time in April, of 1917," she wrote.
"Mark [Robinson] tells us of a special project that must have been started two months
before the lush greens of June ended the spring painting season. This spring, Tom
confided in his friend that he had completed a series of sketches recording the changes in
Algonquin seasons and landscape for sixty successive days. There has always been
controversy over the amount of painting he did that spring, for when his brother, George
arrived to take over his belongings in July, there were only thirty-five spring sketches in his
cabin." (Emphasis added.)
Miss Saunders wrote that George came to stay at the Mowat Lodge for several days
following Tom's disappearance. "[B]ecause there seemed to be nothing that he could do,
he decided to return to Owen Sound. Before he left, however, he took possession of the
belongings which Tom had left behind in the shack, and made arrangements to complete
the things that would have to be done in the event of his brother's death." (Emphasis
The little cabin or shack, she said, was owned by the Trainor family just below Potter
Creek. In a tape-recorded interview at Camp Ahmek in 1953, Robinson discussed what
happened following discovery of the body on July 16, 1917. He said, "I was instructed [by
Park Superintendent George W. Bartlett] to go to the little house and look see what was
around there, and Mr. Trainor and I found -- I forget -- it was forty, I guess, or somewheres,
maybe less, of the sixty-two pictures, or sketches, that were lying around there."
Audrey Saunders finishes the story, leaving a clue that she had talked or corresponded
directly with George Thomson about these matters. "Present-day visitors would like to think
that Tom Thomson's grave is still to be found in that Canoe Lake Cemetery, but the cairn on
the monument across the lake tells that "His body is buried at Owen Sound," she wrote.
"From George Thomson, his brother, we learn the reason for this. On his arrival at Owen
Sound he was informed his brother's body had been found. As there was little else he could
do, he arranged for the body to be brought back from the original burying place to the family
plot at Owen Sound."
In 1917, George Rowe or Lawrie Dickson, not Hugh Trainor, owned the little cabin below
Potter Creek, which was the subject of a Thomson sketch given the misleading name, The
Artist's Hut. Thomson did not stay there and did not keep his sketches there. That last
spring he had a room at the Mowat Lodge. This is established beyond doubt by the
available written evidence.
The Trainor cottage on Canoe Lake was originally constructed as a mini-headquarters in
1908 where park rangers would gather. It had a large kitchen. Later, because a
Presbyterian missionary stayed there, Canoe Lake residents referred to it as "The Manse."
The Trainors acquired it in 1912. In his 1953 interview, Robinson said that on the morning
of July 8, Thomson retrieved his canoe and fishing tackle "from this little cottage up here that
used to be known as 'The Mess,' now owned by Mr. Trainor's." Either the transcriber or
Robinson made a mistake because it's evident that he found the 30 or so last spring
sketches in the Trainor cottage on July 16 -- after George left Canoe Lake following his first
trip and before he returned on his second trip.
This, however, explains only where the painting were when Tom paddled away from the
Mowat Lodge dock. The only other known fact is that George gained possession of them
and shipped them home to Owen Sound. Even this is murky because George also shipped
a box of wooden sketching panels to Dr. MacCallum on July 19, 1917, according to his
letter. The express charge from his list of expenses may refer to them. Nonetheless, there
is no doubt that the family recovered 30 or so of the last spring sketches but from whom and
under what circumstances did George gain their possession on his second trip to Canoe
Winnifred Trainor did not arrive at Canoe Lake until the morning of July 17. Presumably,
she would have learned immediately about Tom's sketches taken by Robinson and that
he'd also found and read several letters between her and Tom Thomson.
"Most of them was from Miss Trainor," Robinson said in his 1953 interview. "They were
just ordinary boy and girl letters, there was nothing extraordinary about them. . . There was
one still to be opened, I opened it and I handed them back to Mr. Trainor. I said, 'Your
daughter's letters to Tom,' I said, 'Keep them, give them to her,' and I expect he did so."
The reading of her letters may have shocked and dismayed her. However, regardless,
she could not have delivered the painting to George Thomson herself because she hurried
abroad a train bound for Toronto that evening, before George arrived on his second trip to
the Park. She did so, I speculate because later that same night, at the inquest into Tom's
drowning, the scant available evidence suggests that Shannon Fraser tried to produce
letters and testify to his belief that Tom had committed suicide arising from the possibility
that Winnifred Trainor was pregnant with his child and demanding marriage.
A big question arising from these few threadbare facts is why didn't George find the
paintings himself during his first trip to Canoe Lake. It seems possible that it's because
Winnifred Trainor was gone and Hugh Trainor refused him permission either to search or
take them away. Isn't it therefore likely that Robinson wrongfully seized the paintings from
the Trainor cottage on July 16? The bigger question would be what legal grounds did he
have for doing so and, subsequently, giving them to George Thomson?
There is nothing answering these questions in any of the historical records but a 1954
statement by Winnifred Trainor.
"I do not know what to write - as Tom Thomson was the man that made me happy then
vanished. If I saw you I could say things that I will never write - His friendship to me was as
true as ever when he went on to the great beyond - I still have his small pictures (gifts) - and
what I gave up for him I should have had some of his others - but I was not treated fair, and
bad nothing to do with his death-now my time will soon be in too." Letter from Winnifred
Trainor, Toronto, to H. O. McCurry, The National Gallery of Canada, 18 January 1954
Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson's Last Spring, suggests a theory explaining Winnie's
statement from the point of view of George Thomson in the common law of personal
property regarding the gift of valuable property. If these last spring sketches were seized
from the Trainor cottage by Robinson and given to the Thomson family without her
knowledge and consent, there would a serious ownership question. Whether Winnie could
have brought such a claim against his estate in 1917 or later may never be answered
because events surrounding their return to the family have ever since been wrapped in
silence and misleading recollections.
Perhaps, an answer lies in what Mark Robinson and George Thomson told Audrey
Saunders for her book in 1946, ten years before Judge William T. Little dug up Thomson's
Canoe Lake grave site in 1956, Mark and George were still telling basically the same story
of one trip to the Park during which the 30 or so last spring paintings, not the body, were
recovered. Algonquin Elegy and another essay here explain how Little's discovery exposed
Thomson to personal disgrace and embarrassment. Using what Miss Davies gathered and
what they said, Little's 1970 book, The Tom Thomson Mystery, reiterated the story of
George's gathering up of these painting from among his brother's belongings before
leaving Canoe Lake on July 14 . Little said George insisted that is what happened.
In 1956, if the casket at Leith was exhumed and found empty, there would be an
investigation certainly revealing his second trip, a fact well known to the family that he'd,
nonetheless, publicly denied. First, of course, the family would learn that George was duped
by undertaker Franklin W. Churchill into bringing an empty casket home to Owen Sound.
Second, even more devastating, his earlier story of finding Tom's last spring sketches
among Tom's belongings would come under intense public questioning because the family
also well knew that he did not bring them back on his first trip to Canoe Lake. Robinson
died in 1954 so without a straight-forward and honest explanation from George Thomson,
the provenance of the family's collection could be doubted and their marketability damaged.
Winnifred Trainor, bitter over her treatment by the family, was alive in 1956 when Little's
discovery was front page new across Canada but she did nothing. Even today, her nephew,
Terence Trainor McCormick of Vestal, New York, refuses to publicly discuss what he
knows. I believe this is the last remaining mystery of Tom Thomson's death, which only her
84-year-old nephew could answer today: