Parallel Tales: In the Footsteps of the Group of Seven


Photo © Goose Lane Editions

It all began in Killarney, Ontario in 1977. While looking for blueberries at Nellie Lake with their children, well-known Canadian art patrons Jim and Sue Waddington came across the scene that inspired A.Y. Jackson’s painting Hills, Killarney, Ontario (Nellie Lake) (c. 1933). They didn’t know it at the time, but the find marked the start of a 36-year quest to locate and photograph the landscapes in paintings by the Group of Seven.

The Waddingtons have documented their journey in the 2013 book, In the Footsteps of the Group of Seven. Jim Waddington narrates the story as a series of tiny mysteries — many of which are solved, and some that aren’t. The adventurers’ emotions are almost tangible as the story unfolds: satisfaction after finding the site of Frederick Varley’s Evening, Georgian Bay (c. 1920), and excitement after finding the inspiration for Cottage on a Rocky Shore (1914), on view at the NGC in Room A109a, by Group of Seven predecessor Tom Thomson.

Arranged geographically rather than chronologically, the narrative follows the Waddingtons throughout Ontario and across Canada as they trace the Group of Seven back 100 years to the landscapes that inspired their works. The journey helps debunk a common perception that the Group of Seven members were largely Ontario painters, demonstrating that they were inspired by scenes as far west as Vancouver Island, as far north as the Arctic, and as far east as Petite Rivière, Nova Scotia.

Readers are not left to imagine the visuals, either. Each discovery is accompanied by an image of the painting, along with the Waddingtons’ photograph of its actual location. Displayed side by side, the visuals leave readers with a greater appreciation for the painters’ lively and iconic depictions of Canadian scenery. The images also illustrate the liberties taken by the painters.

The Waddingtons’ story is endearing. Recalling their search for the location of their favourite A.J. Casson paintings — Little Bay, North Channel (1948) and A Little Bay in La Cloche Channel (c. 1958) — the authors provide readers with a glimpse into their relationship: “I did not believe her, but we had been married long enough that I knew it was no use arguing.” 

The book is as much about the Group of Seven artists as it is about the duo tracking them down. Valuable insight into each painter’s history, distinct style, and adventures in Canada’s great outdoors is concentrated in the introduction by Canadian art writer and consultant Tom Smart and in the first chapter, but features throughout. Accompanied by photographs of the painters, the narrative familiarizes readers with eight — not a mistake — of the Group of Seven painters: A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, Lawren Harris, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, Franklin Carmichael, and A.J. Casson. No story about the Group of Seven would be complete without Tom Thomson, as well, who inspired many of the Group of Seven artists, but died before the Group formed in 1920, and a fair share of time is spent discussing him.

The parallel tales bring readers remarkably close to the Group of Seven, while keeping the artists just out of reach. This compelling yet light and easy read is perfect for Group of Seven aficionados, outdoor enthusiasts, and anyone interested in the artists who defined a distinctly Canadian style of painting. In the Footsteps of the Group of Seven allows readers to sit exactly where members of the Group of Seven sat, if only for a moment.

In the Footsteps of the Group of Seven (Goose Lane Editions, 2013) is available for purchase at the NGC Bookstore.

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