Tom Thomson Biography
The following brief Biography has been developed by David Huff, Curator of Collections at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound. The material has been compiled from various sources, including the Gallery’s archives, Charles Hill, and Joan Murray. Anyone interested in learning more about Tom Thomson’s life can go to More about Tom Thomson for a list of books, films and other websites about Thomson.
Tom Thomson, the brilliant, pioneering Canadian artist for whom the City of Owen Sound’s art gallery is named, was born near Claremont, Ontario, northeast of Toronto on August 5, 1877, the sixth of ten children born to John Thomson and Margaret Matheson. Two months later, the family moved to their new home, Rose Hill, near Leith, eleven kilometres northeast of Owen Sound. It was in this quiet rolling country side, overlooking the shores of Georgian Bay that Thomson grew up.
Thomson was raised on the farm and received his education locally, though ill health kept him out of school for a period of time. He was said to have been enthusiastic about sports, swimming, hunting and fishing. He shared his family’s sense of humour and love of music.
Indeed, Thomson’s Victorian upbringing gave him an immense appreciation for the arts. Drawing, music, and design were valued and honoured pursuits. Within this Scottish family structure, however, there were also pressures to succeed, to find an occupation, marry and have a family.
Thomson had a restless start to his adulthood. Unsuccessful at enlisting for the Boer War in 1899 due to health reasons, he apprenticed as a machinist at Kennedy’s Foundry in Owen Sound for eight months. Still undecided on a career, he briefly attended the Canada Business College in Chatham. In 1901, he moved to Seattle, Washington to join his brother George at his business college. Here he became proficient in lettering and design, working as a commercial artist during the next few years. By 1905, he had returned Canada to work as a senior artist at Legg Brothers, a photo-engraving firm in Toronto. Thomson continued to return home to visit his family his entire life, though his parents had, by this time, sold the farm in Leith and moved to a house in Owen Sound.
In 1909, Thomson joined the staff of Grip Ltd., a prominent Toronto photo-engraving house, and this proved to be a turning point in his life. The firm’s head designer, artist-poet J.E.H. MacDonald, contributed much to Thomson’s artistic development, sharpening his sense of design. Fellow employees included Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley, Franklin Carmichael and Franz Johnson – all adventurous young painters who often organized weekend painting trips to the countryside around Toronto. After Thomson’s death, these men, together with Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson, would go on to form Canada’s first national school of painting, the Group of Seven.
Curator Charles Hill comments that “Thomson’s surviving artwork prior to 1911 consists of drawings in ink, watercolour and coloured chalk, of women’s heads very much in the vein of the American illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, who had established the “Gibson girl” look, as well as ink and watercolour landscapes done around Leith, Owen Sound and Toronto and illuminated text presented as gifts to members of his family or friends.” He also states “The arrangements of some texts and designs has a similarity to the patterning of stained glass and are most likely characteristic of the Arts and Crafts-influenced commercial work he might have done.”
In 1912, inspired by tales of Ontario’s “far north,” Thomson travelled to the Mississagi Forest Reserve near Sudbury and to Algonquin Park, a site that was to inspire much of his future artwork. It was during this same year that he began to work for the commercial art firm Rous and Mann.
Thomson was joined there by Varley, Carmichael and Lismer. Later the same year, at J.E.H. MacDonald’s studio, Thomson met art enthusiast Dr. James MacCallum, a prominent Toronto Ophthalmologist.
When out painting on location, Thomson would use a small wooden sketch box, not much bigger than a piece of letter-sized paper, to carry his oil paints, palette, and brushes; his small painting boards were safely tucked away from each other in slots fitted in the top. Sitting down in the canoe, on a log or rock, with the sketch box in front of him, he would quickly capture the landscape around him.