Hidden Gems: Tom Thomson’s Letters to His Patron


Telegram from J. S. Fraser to Dr. James M. MacCallum (July 10, 1917), Mowat Lodge, Algonquin Park,  James M. MacCallum fonds, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

On July 10, 1917, Dr. James MacCallum received a telegram from J.S. Fraser, owner of Fraser Lodge at Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. The small piece of paper, bearing the logo of the Great North Western Telegram Co., delivered two short sentences that shook the Canadian art world: “Tom’s canoe found upside down. No trace of Tom since Sunday.” On July 16, Fraser sent another message, confirming MacCallum’s worst fears: “Found Tom This Morning.”

In an age in which communication is almost always instant, digital, paperless and easily deleted, reliving key moments in art history through telegrams and other archival documents offers a very real link to the past. There is perhaps no better example of the tangible connection between the death of Canadian artist Tom Thomson and the present day than the Dr. James M. MacCallum fonds, preserved in the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives. This fascinating body of correspondence contains both of the aforementioned telegrams, as well as a series of handwritten letters from Thomson to MacCallum.

“I find the first telegram very moving, because it’s from that moment in time when his canoe was found — but Tom wasn’t — and they suspected there’d been an accident,” said Cyndie Campbell, the National Gallery’s Chief of Library, Archives and Research Fellowships Program in an interview with NGC Magazine. “For me, the telegrams really bring it home. I always get emotional when I see them.”

Dr. James M. MacCallum, c. 1920. National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

MacCallum was an early patron of Thomson’s, and of other artists’ who would go on to form the Group of Seven. As such, he exchanged regular letters with Thomson while the artist was on painting expeditions in Northern Ontario. When MacCallum died in 1944, his paintings by Thomson and other members of the Group of Seven were bequeathed to the National Gallery. The letters and telegrams, however, did not come to the Gallery through MacCallum, who had not provided for their preservation after his death. Instead, they were donated at the behest of artist A.Y. Jackson, who convinced MacCallum’s son James that the correspondence should be preserved at the National Gallery of Canada.  

“The letters and telegrams donated to the National Gallery of Canada had everything to do with Dr. McCallum’s determination to make sure Tom Thomson’s work was appreciated and preserved,” says Campbell. “A.Y. Jackson recognized that the correspondence kept by Dr. MacCallum was a key piece of Thomson’s story. When he intervened to have the papers donated to the Gallery, he was acting to ensure their preservation and their accessibility to art historians — and, in so doing, the place of Thomson and the Group of Seven in Canadian art.”


Tom Thomson, MacCallum's Island (1914), oil and plywood, laid down on wood, 21.6 x 26.8 cm. Bequest of Dr. J.M. MacCallum, Toronto, 1944. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © National Gallery of Canada

The Gallery had preserved its own archival records — including correspondence with artists since the arrival of its first Director, Eric Brown, in 1910 — but the MacCallum Papers constituted the Gallery’s first donated archive on Canadian artists. As A.Y. Jackson wrote to H. O. McCurry, the Gallery’s Director at the time, “They throw quite a vivid light over the Thomson period, and should be made available to any serious person who is writing on the formative years of the Group of Seven.”

Since the donation, the Gallery’s Archives have grown exponentially to comprise more than 20 000 files and over 75 000 photographs related to artists and the visual arts in Canada and abroad. Some of the fonds contain a single letter, while others boast hundreds of boxes and tens of thousands of photographs. The National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives is accordingly the largest visual arts library in the country, containing rich and diverse holdings that range from Alex Colville’s art-school drawings to the country’s only complete collection of Guerrilla Girls posters.


Letter from Tom Thomson to Dr. James MacCallum (July 7, 1917), Mowat Lodge, Algonquin Park, James M. MacCallum fonds, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

To see letterhead from Mowat Lodge covered in Thomson’s sweeping hand is something special. True to his time, Thomson addresses his patron with the formal “Dr. MacCallum,” followed by “Dear Sir,” and fills him in on not only his progress painting but also his work guiding canoe trips, the weather, working as a fire ranger, and even the supplies of maple syrup, bacon and “canned stuff” that he takes on his journeys into the wilderness. The archive also contains the last letter Thomson wrote to MacCallum — or, in fact, anyone — before he died, as well as correspondence between MacCallum and Thomson’s family after the artist’s body was found.

If visitors want to peruse the letters themselves, they can ask to see copies of the folders and read typescript versions of the letters, which are much easier to follow than Thomson’s scratchings in thick ink. For those who want to get closer to Thomson’s time, the original letters and telegrams can be viewed upon request, allowing everyone from interested visitors to scholars to draw their own line between past and present.

“For me it’s that link to the past,” says Campbell. “I don’t know if it’s because I have canoed on Canoe Lake myself, but those telegrams bring me right into that moment almost a hundred years ago. I can imagine the canoe being found upside down. I can imagine the search for Thomson and then the terrible finality when the body is found. I can feel the urgency to keep those close to Tom informed of events. I can feel the past.”

The Dr. James M. MacCallum fonds can be viewed by appointment at the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada.

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