The death of Tom Thomson resembles a ghost story told around a campfire late at night beneath a panoply of stars, with the Northern Lights dancing in the distance beyond a dense enclosure of boreal forest.
Those who believe Canada’s most famous painter died under suspicious circumstances — whether misadventure, foul play or murder — will view Gregory Klages as a killjoy or stick-in-the-mud. In truth he is something of a wet blanket on the embers of conjecture and speculation, fuelled by gossip, rumour, hearsay and innuendo. Ditto for writers who have cashed in by advancing conspiratorial theories based on bad research and lazy scholarship, motivated by self-interest and celebrity. You know who you are.
Klages’ The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson is the first book out of the gate — albeit a year prematurely — to commemorate the centenary of the iconic Canadian artist’s death. Aptly subtitled Separating Fact from the Fiction, the book published by Dundurn does exactly that.
No Canadian artist in any field, endeavour or discipline is compromised by biography more than Thomson. It’s impossible to separate his art from his life, especially given the circumstances surrounding his death 99 years ago. Although officially ruled as ‘accidental drowning,’ his death at age 39 remains unexplained and unsolved. Consequently his achievements as one of the country’s most significant artists — including acting as the spiritual guide of the famed Group of Seven — has been eclipsed by the machinery of legend and myth, oiled by a shroud of mystery.
Thomson was last seen on July 8, 1917. Although his abandoned canoe was sighted the next day, his badly decomposed body was not recovered until eight days later floating on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park.
Although there was some dark suspicion surrounding Thomson’s demise, including the possibility of suicide, the spectre of foul play did not break daylight until 1935 when Blodwen Davies self-published A Study of Tom Thomson. Death by misadventure received a shot in the arm in 1970 when Judge William Little published The Tom Thomson Mystery.
Since then the conspiratorial floodgates have opened with virtually every author devoting ink to Thomson’s death advancing a pet theory involving violent misadventure. Art scholar Joan Murray and journalist Roy MacGregor have together built a Tom Thomson cottage industry from the timber of conjecture sans verifiable evidence.
I’ll leave it to readers to discover for themselves the unsubstantiated theories advanced by Murray and MacGregor, not to mention David Silcox, Jim Poling Sr., Neil Lehto, Wayne Larsen, George A. Walker and Larry McCloskey. Likewise, I won’t detail the sober, dispassionate methodology Klages applies to questioning, challenging, testing and ultimately repudiating the claims of foul play, whether murder or manslaughter. Anyone with even a cursory interest in the Thomson mystique will want to read The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson.
Klages is a cultural historian, art critic and practicing artist as well as adjunct professor at York University. His interest in the landscape painter dates back more than a decade to when he was a doctorate student at York. He was part of a group that developed a teaching resource regarding Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, during which he supervised a website devoted to Thomson — Death on a Painted Lake — that outlined historical evidence and current theories. The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson is an extended version of the website.
Klages’ methodology is as simple as it is reasonable. Carefully and systematically he examines contemporaneous eye witness accounts and archival sources, some of which have become available in the last 15 years, in addition to letters and photographs from the Thomson family. He studies documents related to a request in the 1930s to dig up a gravesite in Algonquin Park and analyzes the documents detailing exhumation of the site in the 1950s, along with subsequent forensic reports.
Finally, he compares and contrasts primary sources to the unsubstantiated claims advanced in writings published in the last half century, spanning art history and criticism, biography, speculative fiction and young adult fiction. Instead of advancing his own pet theory, he casts a cold, clinical eye on the claims, some of which are patently self-serving, of other writers.
So what are Klages’ primary conclusions?
(1) Thomson was neither murdered nor did he commit suicide, but died by accidental drowning.
(2) In the absence of conclusive forensic evidence determining otherwise, Thomson is buried in the family plot at Leith United Church cemetery, north of Owen Sound, in accordance with the wishes of his family at the time of his death.
Klages ends prosaically
: ‘The conclusion that Tom Thomson’s death was due to drowning in a sad accident was received with grief and melancholy. It was not rejected as implausible, as not fitting with the evidence, or as having been arrived at irresponsibly. Based on testimony produced at the time, the most sensible conclusion is that Tom Thomson died accidentally, by drowning.’
I will leave it to readers to discover for themselves what Klages has to say about other intriguing elements that cloak Thomson in mystery. Was he involved in a drunken brawl on the night before he went missing? Was he engaged to Winnifred Trainor? Or to any other woman? Did he father a child by Trainor that sent her packing to Philadelphia?
Admittedly Accident on Canoe Lake won’t sell as many books as Murder on Canoe Lake, even if the sad, unfortunate details of the artist’s death remain forever unexplained and unsolved. Accidental drowning does leave us with an option, however. As we approach the centenary of Thomson’s untimely death let’s discard the fiction and celebrate the fact of his remarkable artistic legacy which has carved such a deep and lasting impression on this country’s heart, mind and soul. It’s time we put Thomson the Myth to rest so we can justly praise Thomson the Artist.
I’ll give the last word to Klages: ‘Acceptance of what the evidence indicates, that Thomson died by accident and not suicide or murder, points to the importance of understanding his painting not through the lens of romantic myth, but as what it was, the rather more mundane, but nonetheless inspiring efforts of a skilled and hard-working artist.’
Which, in the final analysis, makes Tom Thomson a blue-collar hero. I think he would approve of the description.
Personal note: Roy McGregor has emerged as the Voice of Algonquin Park thanks to such books as Shorelines (later published as Canoe Lake with a new prologue), A Life in the Bush, Escape: In Search of the Natural Soul of Canada and The Weekender. His intimate association with the park over many years gives his opinions gravitas. I have tremendous respect for MacGregor as a writer, but as a person I found him to be pompous and full of himself.
I met MacGregor in 2011 when he was a guest speaker, as I was, in connection with Searching for Tom — Tom Thomson: Man, Myth & Masterworks. an exhibition at THEMUSEUM in downtown Kitchener curated by Virginia Eichorn, director of the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound. I was offered the pleasure of introducing MacGregor which I gladly accepted.
It so happens that, because of stories I had written for the Waterloo Region Record about the exhibition, I gained access to a couple of private letters written about Thomson in the 1970s by the operator of Algonquin Park’s Kish-Kaduk Lodge. The letters were sent to a Kitchener man with ties to the provincial park. The letters had never before been made public — never!
When I discussed their contents with McGregor during a brief chat prior to his lecture, he claimed not only to have known about the letters, but to have dismissed them as irrelevant. His admission was a surprise not only to myself but to David Marskell, THEMUSEUM’s CEO who was with us. I chalked up this obvious falsehood to the arrogance of a man who thinks he possesses the last word on the topic of Tom Thomson. The letters were subsequently donated to the Tom Thomson gallery by Darcy Spencer.
I will post a story about the letters as part of a series of blogs on Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, which I plan to post in 2017 as a tribute to the centenary of the painter’s death on Canoe Lake.