In my high school in New York City, where I spent my childhood and much of my teens, Canada was not discussed in the history course. All that I knew of the country “up there” was gleaned from a popular 1950s radio show, Sergeant Preston and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
I used to lie on my brother’s bed (he had his own room, I shared with my sisters) and listen to this thrilling story, full of adventure, about a country I could only visualize vaguely.
Sergeant Preston was brave; he was courageous and he lived in the Yukon, a snow-bound environment where he needed a dog team. “Mush you huskies,” he cried. That said it for me about Canada.
When I came to Canada in 1959, I was fascinated to find the world of my imaginings, even in the city. In time, I became a student of Canadian art and brought my imagination to bear on the images of Canada I saw. When I selected Tom Thomson as my special area of study in 1970, I felt in some obscure way, that he was part of my heritage as a Canadian (I had become a citizen in 1967). Today, I have discovered that from that time till now, no fewer than twelve of my books have included some reference to Thomson - sometimes no more than a few paragraphs, and on several occasions he was the subject of an entire book or catalogue.
Time and again my imagination has intruded into my scholarly output. In thinking over Tom Thomson and his life and art, I realize that he too lived from his imagination. He and the group of artists who were his friends – they lived to become Canada’s famous Group of Seven – were inventing their version of Canada as they worked. Thomson in particular began with little in the way of art training – from 1906 to around 1907 he studied with the much older Canadian artist William Cruikshank, either at the Central Ontario School of Art and Design in Toronto (today the Ontario College of Art) or in Cruikshank’s studio. He went on to become, under difficult conditions, an artist who offered an original vision.
In 1970, I began this catalogue raisonné of Thomson’s work and I have continued it until 2009. As I worked, I became convinced that Thomson’s achievement had the almost too classic prerequisites of greatness: an indelible yet flexible visual style that extended the past, reflected its own time, and stayed fresh and relevant as it moved into the future. During these decades, I found that what I considered the value of his work changed for me. At times Thomson’s enormous gifts for colour and composition, bolstered by an underlying urgency, seemed most pertinent to the triumphant progress of Abstraction, and to Expressionism, as it once again became part of the stylistic mix of younger artists. Later, the life he lived in nature came to seem of importance: I noticed that many contemporary artists embraced the landscape almost as part of their calling.
From 1970 on, I had the work of Thomson in private collections brought into the Art Gallery of Ontario to be photographed. In examining this material, and the Gallery collection of works by Thomson, I found myself fascinated with the inscriptions (often written by Dr. J.M. MacCallum, Thomson’s great patron and friend), on the backs of works and I began to believe they were important to the record. After I left the Gallery and became Director of The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa from 1974 to 2000, and afterwards, I continued to record Thomson inscriptions and labels wherever I could, especially in works as they appeared at auction and in private collections. Even in 2009, incredibly it seemed to me, genuine Thomsons came my way to be recorded. Like every cataloguer who attempts omnipotence, the discovery of this work helped me realize my shortcomings. I would like to believe that I have included all the works by Tom Thomson that exist, but I realize that the field is open. New material will show up with time.