The great Canadian painter Tom Thomson is often seen as a solitary man: just him in his canoe on some remote northern Ontario lake with only his fishing pole and art supplies to keep him company.
But as author and curator Angie Littlefield points out in her recent book, Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends: biography, history, art and food, that image is a narrow view of one of Canada’s iconic artists; it’s time, she writes, to “make room for new images.”
While Thomson did love to paddle northern lakes with “only the call of a loon and the movement of paddle (to) break the silence,” he also had many friendships, including among his nine siblings, and a great love of all things culinary. He was known for his doughnuts and his “masterful pancakes.”
Thomson, who helped to define Canadian painting with works such as The West Wind and The Jack Pine, also loved to read, hunt and listen to music.
Using Thomson’s ongoing correspondence with friends and family, along with other sources, Littlefield has pieced together a wonderfully rich and far-reaching view of Thomson and his life that goes beyond his time in northern Ontario, his death in 1917 and his stature as a great Canadian.
“A great deal is written about his art and his mysterious death on Canoe Lake in 1917. Much less is written about his life. I looked further into Tom’s life story and found short bursts of praise for his cooking … these small references prompted research into the persons who saw fit to praise Tom’s culinary talents.
“The lives of Tom’s friends provided vignettes of Canada in its early years as a country; they also proved the adage that you can tell a lot about a man from the company he keeps,” writes Littlefield, who is also the author of The Thomsons of Durham: Tom Thomson’s Family Heritage.
Each chapter is built around a specific friendship, including Thomson’s siblings and the likes of artist J.E.H. MacDonald, co-founder of the Group of Seven.
And rather than be content to leave the many food references at just that, Littlefield went a step further and added a “food connection” to each chapter. These connections explore meals and cooking as it was in the early 1900s. As part of the connections, she includes recipes for the various meals mentioned in the different sources, such as squirrel pot pie, rabbit pie and roasted pike, allowing readers to eat as Thomson once might have.
Through her exploration of Thomson and his life by way of his friendships and his culinary skills, Littlefield is also able to dig into the theory that – if proven true should be a point of pride for the Bow Valley – Thomson painted in the Rocky Mountains. It is generally accepted that Thomson didn’t travel to the Rockies, but a series of small sketch paintings uncovered in England and Italy are suggesting otherwise.
This theory was first shared with Outlook readers in December as part of a story that looked at Thomson’s possible connection to Banff and Canmore through those small oil sketches.
Littlefield takes a deeper look at this theory by way of what she cheekily refers to as the “Thomson-Belaney bromance,” with Belaney being Archie Belaney, who would transform himself into the conservationist and writer Grey Owl.
Thomson and Belaney met in Ontario in 1912, a year or so before Belaney completed his fraudulent transformation from white Englishman into an Indigenous conservationist. And as Littlefield relates, it appears the two men may have travelled together to Banff in the summer of 1913.
“The best fuel to fire the Thomson–Belaney bromance theory is the huge gap in both their chronologies for the summer of 1913. Tom Thomson authorities supply no sound whereabouts for him from January to fall of 1913 … Archie Belaney scholars are likewise vague about his whereabouts that summer,” writes Littlefield.
“The currently accepted Thomson canon places him near mountains only in Seattle at the beginning of the 20th Century when he’s inexperienced with oils.”
Littlefield adds that “there’s nothing to contradict the idea that Tom and Archie left for a short time to go to Banff and environs – on the QT.”
The trip west, if it was made, would have been kept quiet as Belaney was undergoing his transformation into Grey Owl, and it wouldn’t help his cause if there was evidence of a trip to the Rockies with Thomson. And by this time, Thomson was a known figure, having sold his painting A Northern Lake to the Ontario government for $250 – a large sum of money back then.
“That could trap him in his old identity – maybe even make his transition impossible,” she writes. “Any trip to the Rockies had to be quiet and without traces. Tom and Archie had time, funds and reasons for secrecy.”
Thomson later sent Belaney three paintings, which Belaney took to the U.K. when he went to visit his aunts in 1937. It’s interesting to note that the three Thomson sketches that launched this Thomson-Rockies theory were found in England. Two of these sketch paintings are owned by a Scottish art collector and the third by Debra Hay, who is working to prove this theory.
While the subject of the paintings Thomson sent Belaney is not known, it makes sense that if the two travelled together to the Rockies, Thomson would have sent his friend paintings of the mountains.
“Did he present his favourite mountain memories as gifts for the aunts who raised him? Maybe,” writes Littlefield.
Where Fine Kettle of Friends has a lot to offer readers across Canada, Littlefield’s exploration of this theory, including sharing a photograph taken by Banff-photographer Byron Harmon of what appears to be Thomson and Belaney soaking in the hot springs at the Cave and Basin, offers Bow Valley art lovers a little extra.
Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends is a refreshing approach to sharing the story of a famous Canadian. These iconic Canadians are often taken too seriously and handled with too much reverence, and the resulting books often turn out the same: too serious and too reverent.
Thankfully, writers and historians are finding new ways to talk about Canadian history and the people who inhabit it. Fine Kettle of Friends is a great example of this, given Littlefield’s approach to look at Thomson’s life and his art through friendships and food. We learn a lot more about the man through his love of cooking, food, music, dance, family and friends than we perhaps could through his art alone.
Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends: biography, history, art and food, self-published by the author, is available via www.angielittlefield.com for $30.