Mysterious sketches suggest Thomson painted in Rockies


Tom Thomson is one of Canada’s greatest artists; he’s also one of Canada’s greatest mysteries.

Thomson was last seen on July 8, 1917; his body was found eight days later. He drowned in Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake while fishing, but it is not known if his death was natural, accidental or if it was murder.

Like his death, large parts of his life are also a mystery. He came and went as he pleased, often not bothering to tell anyone where he was going or what he was doing, leaving sizeable gaps in the record. He also gave away sketches or sold them for a pittance, making it difficult to know how many of his sketches are still unknown.

One mystery Debra Hay, a Canadian art researcher living in England, is working to solve is whether Thomson painted in the Rocky Mountains. Until recently, it’s generally been accepted that Thomson never travelled to the Rockies, unlike many of his contemporaries, including members of the Group of Seven. But Hay believes that he did, and she also believes that she has the proof: namely five sketch paintings of the mountains dated between 1912 and 1914. Two of these sketches, one of which became known as the “Italian Tom,” include a large building.

Hay owns one of these sketches, which she bought in 2013 and has since loaned to the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ont., for the 2017 Bring Tom Home project; two high-alpine sketches are owned by a Scottish collector and the final two sketches were part of a large Italian collection until an American dealer recently bought both.

Hay believes her sketch is of Hector Lake. While the subjects of the two Scottish sketches are still unknown, Hay thinks the building in the two Italian sketches could be Canmore’s Oskaloosa Hotel. Those two sketches show two different views of a building with what appears to be Mt. Lady Macdonald in the background of one and Whiteman’s Gap in the background of the other.

The Oskaloosa Hotel was built on Mineside next to the Rundle Mountain Trading Co. in 1893; it was torn down in about 1920 to make way for Memorial Hall.

At this point, none of the five sketches have been definitively proven to have been made by Thomson, but in general, the sketches do bear Thomson’s hallmark style and brushwork. Dennis Reid, a Canadian curator and art historian, has said he believes Hay’s sketch is a Thomsom original.

The two Italian sketches, which measure 18.5 by 24 centimetres, have undergone the most scrutiny with Canada’s top Thomson experts weighing in on their authenticity. This process has been the topic of stories in the Globe and Mail in August and again in November. At this point, experts are divided on the authenticity and the location of the sketches. At the time of those stories, Mowat Lodge in Algonquin Park was suggested as a possible location.

Hay, meanwhile, is attempting to resolve the question of location.

“One of the problems they are having with authenticating the Thomson sketches is that they just don’t look like the places he painted; Mowat Lodge, it just doesn’t fit into that,” said Hay.

“There is no reason it can’t be in the Rocky Mountains. It can be anywhere; a building like that can be anywhere in Canada, so we had to work out what is in the background. I think my theory is beginning to gain ground because the painting doesn’t make sense otherwise.”

She began her quest shortly after buying her sketch, and her initial exploration led her to wonder if it had been painted at Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park.

Her search took on new meaning when she saw the “Italian Tom” in the Globe and Mail and the discussion about its provenance and authenticity. She contacted Banff photographer Paul Zizka, who suggested her sketch might be of Hector Lake and that the “Italian Tom” might be of Lady Macdonald. At the time, Hay wondered if the building was the Canmore Hotel.

Hay’s research has led her to some tantalizing leads that help corroborate her theory that Thomson made a springtime trip to the Rockies.

A man in two photographs taken by Banff-based photographer Byron Harmon at the Cave and Basin hot springs does look like Thomson. And two sculptors, one of whom created a bust of Thomson, while the other is known for his busts of people such as Sir Winston Churchill, have agreed with her.

Along with the photographs, two letters show that Thomson had the desire to go west to paint. In one he wrote to a friend saying, “I may possibly go out on the Canadian Northern (Railway) this summer to (paint in) the Rocky’s (sic) but have not made all the arrangements yet.” The date on that letter appears to be April 1917, but it may in fact be much earlier as the date is indistinct.

In the second letter, dated July 22, 1915, Thomson wrote to his friend and fellow artist J.E.H. MacDonald to share tentative plans he made to go west, writing that if he did go, he’d be back by the end of September.

Other evidence that Hay is using to build her case includes the fact that Thomson trained as a commercial artist in Seattle and had two brothers in Tacoma, two sisters in Saskatchewan and other connections in Winnipeg. With those connections, it’s feasible for Thomson to have taken a train to the Rockies. It’s a journey that would have only taken a few days from wherever he started, including from his home in Ontario.

While Hay is beginning to build a solid case for Thomson in the Rockies, she still has some challenges to overcome before her theory is accepted as fact.

One challenge is, of course, that many people do not believe Thomson travelled to the Rockies. There’s also the fact that the three small mountain sketches, including her sketch, is signed “TT,” but Hay said that is something he did on personal gifts and letters. The two Italian sketches, however, are signed with Thomson’s full name.

Another challenge is that Hay’s sketch of Hector Lake shows no snow on the ground, while the two of the Oskaloosa show heavy snow. But as anyone who has lived in the Rockies knows, heavy snow can come one day in spring and be gone the next.

“I’ve been telling people that doesn’t really matter because if he was up there for a week or two, he could have seen all weather,” said Hay, who is no stranger to the Bow Valley region. She once worked in Kananaskis Country, and her family also lived in the Columbia Valley near Golden, B.C.

There’s also a problem with the scale and perspective of the mountains when compared to the building. Neither seems quite right. But Hay said many painters found it difficult to paint the mountains and they often used techniques to frame the mountains and reduce their scale to make it easier to paint what could be a challenging subject.

“People from Ontario are saying it’s not the scale of the Rocky Mountains; it’s too small to be the Rocky Mountains, but it depends from what angle you are looking,” she said.

The angle of the Oskaloosa – if that is indeed what it is – compared to Mt. Lady MacDonald is troublesome, as is the slope on the left of the sketch next to the small wooden building. While the slope on the left doesn’t have an easy answer, the small building does provide another clue as to a Canmore connection: The vertical lines suggest vertical log construction, indicative of structures built by Canmore’s Finnish community.

In the second sketch, the one with Whiteman’s Gap in the background, the main lines and angles of the mountains are correct, but the lower slopes of EEOR (the East End of Rundle) and the hillside that rises behind the homes along Three Sisters Drive appear to be have been compressed into one.

The two vertical poles in front of the building in the sketch are likely telegraph poles, and that does correspond to telegraph poles that stood in front the Oskaloosa Hotel, which faced the spur line for the coal mines.

“I’m still pretty convinced that it is a possibility,” said Hay of the Oskaloosa Hotel and Canmore as the subject matter of the two Italian sketches, “especially when that second painting came through. You’re at the back of the Oskaloosa looking towards Mt. Lady Macdonald and you walk to the front and turn around what have you got? Whiteman’s Gap,” she said, adding that despite challenges and scepticism, her idea of Thomson in the Rockies is gaining support.

“We’re getting somewhere,” said Hay. “I’m not going to be embarrassed to nail my colours to the flag on this because I think we’ve got a real possibility. What are the chances of having the building in the right place in one painting and looking across to a mountain with the contours of Lady Mac, and then turning around and seeing Whiteman’s Gap? When Rob (Alexander) and I noticed a distant, flat topped mountain in the distance that corresponds to Goat Mountain in the Spray Valley beyond, well, that was a defining moment in this quest.”

Even so, she is wondering if Canmore residents agree with her, and she’s hoping that there are photographs of the Oskaloosa or of Thomson, letters or perhaps a small oil painting of the mountains signed “TT” tucked away in boxes or drawers that might help clear up the mystery of Thomson in the Rockies.

“It would be interesting to get the perspective of the locals,” she said. “I imagine there could be some family photos, perhaps of a wedding at the Oskaloosa, which would be interesting; even better, some guest books from one of the mountain lodges.”

In the meantime, Hay is still digging, searching for clues anywhere she can, including among the lives of Lawrence Grassi and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Rummel, confident that she’s on the right track.

“It’s interesting that Lizzie’s stepfather was Italian artist Roberto Basilici, who lived with the family at Gate Ranch in Priddis during the years 1912-1914. A connection? Possibly,” she said.

To see photographs of the Oskaloosa Hotel and of the second sketch, go to


About Author

Rocky Mountain Outlook