A Note on the Catalogue

In the over forty years I have worked on this catalogue, I have found many changes. Some of them, such as the removal of inscriptions through time or deliberate erasure, are sad memorials to a lack of understanding of the significance of such records.  For instance, I recorded “1916” (the date according to MacCallum, who visited Thomson in Algonquin Park in the spring of that year) on the verso of In the Sugar Bush (Shannon Fraser), Spring 1916 (1916.39), a date now invisible.  Elsewhere, I have noted labels missing today, as well as the inscriptions I saw on the frame, masking tape, and cardboard or brown paper backing. Sunset by Lake, Summer 1915 (1915.54), for instance, had a note on its original cardboard backing that the work had been presented to Ernest Freure in January 1917 by Thomson himself – a valuable record of a friendship.

I have included my original notations as follows: the date recorded, say 1970 as “(1970)” with the inscription or labels I saw at the time.  I have also gratefully accepted the assistance of curators, registrars and conservators who have helped me with my task, but where my notation differs from theirs I have noted the difference under “Comments”. One point: when I began this record, I did not note the location of inscriptions or labels on the verso and, as a result, many of the Thomsons I recorded in private collections lack this information. For help in this regard, particularly with the Thomsons in the collection of the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery in Owen Sound, I am indebted to the valuable suggestions of Charles C. Hill of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

What has changed in the last thirty-five years of Thomson studies is the view held by scholars of the role played by Dr. James MacCallum. Since Thomson dated few of his works, the doctor had taken on the task of writing dates on the backs of works. I always had followed this dating, but Hill, who shared with me the cataloguing job in preparation for the retrospective of Tom Thomson at the National Gallery of Canada and Art Gallery of Ontario in 2002, believed MacCallum was not infallible. He suggested that Thomson more consistently painted on a wood support in 1916 than in 1915 when he used, though not exclusively, a wood-pulp support probably manufactured as a bookbinders board.1 I have followed Hill’s idea in developing Thomson’s chronology.2 Combined with the development in Thomson’s ease in handling paint, freedom and lightness of brushwork and clarity of light, the idea that Thomson used a wood support more often in 1916 is a help in dating works. Other new discoveries I made involve the forty sketches which belonged to W.L and R.A Laidlaw. I have been able to identify some of them since many of the works in a show of 1949 have on their verso catalogue numbers recorded in red or green crayon – numbers often circled, likely by a staff member at the then Art Gallery of Toronto.

Concerning inscriptions on the verso of works, it is important to understand that the first to write on them was the artist. Later, MacCallum not only added dates, but places, and often instructions to the framer (hence, the word “copper: on some of the works – it refers to the colour of the frame), as did Thomson’s painting peers, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and J.E.H. MacDonald.

After Thomson’s death in 1917, the estate was handled as follows: Thomson’s father John selected works to give family members as gifts – and the gifts were generous.  Thomson’s sisters, Louise and Minnie, for instance, who both lived in Saskatchewan, received at least ten works each, as we know from a show held in Saskatoon in 1927 to which they lent their collections. After this division, two family members acted as executors: Thomson’s oldest brother, George (1868-1965) and his oldest sister, Elizabeth Thomson Harkness (1869-1934). Most of the work fell to Elizabeth since George was living in New Haven, Connecticut at the time and only returned to Canada in 1926; it was she who listed the works in the estate and applied the numbers she assigned to their versos. In later years, to authenticate works, George added his “OK.”

Elizabeth and George helped place the estate as best they could, George particularly working with the larger canvases.  In their work as salespeople, they were helped by MacCallum and Thomson’s artist friends (MacCallum even gave works as gifts to helpful individuals such as Arthur Lismer). From 1926, the family policy, at least according to George, was to dispose of the estate as much as possible to museums or other public institutions. He noted, “especially to such places as afford in as large a degree as possible an opportunity for observation and study by art students and those whose interest in art is above the ordinary.”3

At some unspecified later date, perhaps about 1931, probably due to the ill health and then the death of Elizabeth, the remains of the estate went to a younger sister, Margaret Thomson Tweedale (1884-1979), who, in the business-like way of her older sister, listed the sketches she received and noted their number on the backs of sketches.  In 1941, on a large group of sketches purchased by Mellors Galleries in Toronto, A.H. Laing recorded the number he assigned each work on the verso as follows: “T-T- (and the number),” as in Moccasin Flower, Spring 1916 (1916.68), which was “T-T-44” on his list.

As for titles, they have often changed, and often have depending on the owner. Today, galleries strive for greater accuracy and return to the earlier titles.  However, even with titles given by MacCallum or others and written on the verso of sketches, differences occur in reading various words. I have indicated such changes and differences of opinion under “Comments” and recorded all titles under which work may have been known, from verso inscriptions to early records, in the Alternate Titles field of each record where applicable. Wherever possible, I have returned work to its original title.

Some housekeeping matters: Thomson’s younger sister Margaret changed her married name from Twaddle to Tweedale.  In 1971, she told me that she changed her last name because she disliked the connotation of the word “twaddle” since it meant “foolish talk.” I have used the name Tweedale throughout since this was her preference. Secondly, for ease in reference, I have kept commercial gallery’s names in the simplest possible form. Thus, I have used Laing Galleries, Toronto throughout, rather than G. Blair Laing Inc. as the name of the Gallery appeared in later years. I refer to Joyner Toronto rather than Joyner Waddington’s, although I am well aware that the two amalgamated in July 2002 and held their first auction in the fall of that year.  Also, I have shown restraint in listing the literature on the works.  Only the more important materials are found here though I have been more inclusive than when cataloguing works for the Thomson Retrospective.  Concerning the literature cited, if there is a choice I have used the English version in page numbers. 



1. Charles C. Hill [report on Tom Thomson’s] Evening Fall, 1916. Accession files, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

2. Ibid.

3. George Thomson to S.H. Robson at the Art Gallery of Toronto, 18 December 1926 (see the accession files of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s work A Northern Lake (1916.51)).