A decade ago, I found myself in Canada on a Sunday morning with a few hours to spare. At that time of the day, in that season, Edmonton, Alberta, was a silent, sleepy city. The sky seemed endless and freezing; the next day, the first snows of the season would fall and cloak the place in a blanket of white. That last Sunday in October, it was a city of pealing church bells and hise rise blocks, where a lone, nonchalent moose walked slowly down the highway. Wooden porches were deocrated with carved pumpkins and muddy boots. I set off, looking to kill some time, finding the place practically deserted and most of the shops closed. One building promised warmth and comfort; the doors of the art gallery stood open and invited me inside.
I had never heard of Tom Thomson before that day. As I entered, he stuck me at once; large, post-impressionistic canvases full of loose vivid brushwork in deep, generous colours. The images of autumnal trees and snowy rivers, of the wild and beautiful wilderness of Algonquin park faced me as I crossed the hall to read about this artist whose name was new to me. Slowly, I unravelled the facts. In fact, this was no straightforward exhibition, but the imaginings of a later artist, resurrecting Thomson and filling in his "missing" years. The mystery of his life unfolded before me; his importance, isolation and unsolved death.
Thomson was born in 1877 near Ontario. His attempts to enlist in both the Boer War and Great War were refused due to an underlying medical condition and abortive attempts to work as a fire ranger and study business betrayed his true calling. He blossomed late; in 1907, he joined a firm called Grip Ltd, an artistic design firm where he would meet many of the other artists who later came to be known as the Gang of Seven. Together they travelled into the countryside, inspired by the loneliness and beauty of the Saskatchewan river and its surroundings. On long camping trips between 1914 and 1917, he produced many of the images for which he is now famous, his style rapidly maturing as he became increasingly focused on his work. In July 1917, he disappeared on a canoeing trip to Algonquin park, his body being found a week later in the lake. Even today, theories about the circumstances of his death encompass accident and murder and have spawned their own novels romanticising his life.
The truth of Thomson's death may never be known but the vivid, brilliant legacy of his work will continue to move those who see it today. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau, whilst combining the plein air elements of Impressionism with the freedom of Post-Impressionism, his pictures contain a vibrancy and life comparable to Cezanne and Van Gogh; like the latter, he died mysteriously at the peak of his self-taught genuis, after a flourishing of his creativity. When I left the gallery that Sunday morning, suprised at the impact upon of this chance encounter, I knew I had to find out more about Thomson. Later, battling through the snow, I had the opportunity to scour Edmonton's bookshops for a suitable tome, which I struggled to fit into my already-stuffed suitcase. In those pre-Amazon, early days of the internet, I knew I would not easily find such a work in England. Having been an habitue of book shops of all varieties, I had never before seen any study dedicated to Thomson. But the book and the memory came back with me. A decade later, these images continue to have a profound effect on me, as does the conviction that his oeuvre still lacks the UK following that it deserves.