Go off the rails
A train trip to Ontario's Agawa Canyon lets you journey to the Group of Seven's landscapes without picking up a paddle
“I’m incredibly aware that I’m stealing the crown jewels here,” said Ian Dejardin. “It’s like asking the Louvre for The Mona Lisa — and you agreed!” Dejardin, director of London’s venerable Dulwich Picture Gallery, was speaking at a Toronto media reception in September 2011 announcing that 123 paintings by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven would shortly be heading for England, Norway and the Netherlands until the end of October 2012.
The aptly termed “crown jewels” include some of the most iconic images in Canadian art, including Thomson’s The West Wind from the Art Gallery of Ontario, and The Jack Pine from the National Gallery of Canada. They will hang side by side for the first time.
These paintings were last seen in Europe at London’s British Empire Exhibition in 1924-5 when they were praised enthusiastically, in contrast to the derisive reviews they had been receiving at home. The exhibition will be making its way back to Canada in November and heading to the McMichael Collection (10365 Islington Avenue, Kleinburg; tel: 888-213-1121; mcmichael.com) north of Toronto, which has its own large collection of works by the Group and their contemporaries.
The Group of Seven (Lawren Harris, J.E.H. Macdonald, Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Carmichael, Frederick Varley and Frank Johnston) came together in March 1920. By 1930, writes art historian David Silcox, “the whole country had been appropriated by their painted vision of a northern nation, embracing a vast geography and a terrain that was spread from coast to coast to coast; a vision that defined Canada as different from anywhere else.” Today the vibrant paintings of the Canadian landscape by the Group and Thomson, who died before the group was founded, are the favourites of gallery goers across Canada — and have skyrocketed in value.
Several of the paintings which are to be temporarily in Europe interpret the glorious autumn colours of the Algoma wilderness area north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (nicknamed the Soo), particularly the Montreal River area and Agawa Canyon. Today’s visitors can travel by the same railway used by the Group to reach the area that inspired them. In fact, the area has changed so little it is even possible to clearly identify the specific vistas depicted in several paintings.
We were lucky enough to get a late booking on the fall colours excursion train operated by Algoma Central Railway between Sault Ste. Marie and the Agawa Canyon from late September to early October. After an overnight stay in a hotel across the road from the station, our train left promptly at eight on a damp, foggy morning.
We kept our fingers crossed for sun as we made our way to the dining car for breakfast. Nothing fancy: blue plastic tablecloths and styrofoam coffee cups, but also a small army of servers bringing plates of pancakes and bacon and eggs to a steady stream of customers — and it was clear that lingering over a second cup of coffee was not an option. We bid goodbye to two Red Hat Grannies from Flint, Michigan seated across from us and headed back to our seats.
By the time we got there, a watery sun was trying to penetrate the fog. We listened to the GPS-triggered commentary broadcast from flat-screen TVs installed throughout each car, but the misty view from the video camera mounted in front of the train was not promising. However, a little later, as we approached the Montreal River, the fog lifted dramatically to reveal blue sky and stunning colours close to where J.E.H. Macdonald painted Falls, Montreal River in 1928. I remember as a student having a not very good print of the painting in our tiny living room.
Painters in a boxcar
Just before noon, we began the descent into Agawa Canyon where our train stopped at Mile 114 for 90 minutes before returning to the Soo. We had arrived in the place first scouted out by Lawren Harris as a painting location when he got off the train here in May 1918 with his friend Dr James MacCallum, a Toronto eye specialist who was a friend, patron and confidant of the Group.
As a member of the Harris family (as in Massey-Harris tractor manufacturers) Lawren was independently wealthy and had the means to help his friends. Excited by the potential of the Agawa Canyon, Harris promptly rented a boxcar from the railway company and fitted it out as a mobile bunkhouse with beds and a stove. In the fall of 1918, together with J.E.H Macdonald and Frank Johnston (with Dr MacCallum tagging along), Harris returned to the canyon where they painted and lived in the boxcar — which the railway company obligingly moved for them when a new location was needed.
The trip was so successful that they repeated it the following September, this time joined by A.Y. Jackson. Now, in addition to a canoe, they had a three-wheeled hand cart for going up and down the line. In 1920, the three artists returned to the canyon area yet again with Arthur Lismer joining them.
This was a rare and memorable time. Four members of the Group were actually painting together. The evening discussions in the boxcar, the criticisms and encouragement of each other's work as well as interpreting different treatments of the same subject made them all better artists.
Brush with history
Deciding to pass on the 300 or so steps up to a lookout point over the canyon, we set off along the banks of the tannin-stained Agawa River towards Bridal Veil Falls. And there in front of us was the subject of two paintings: Waterfall, Algoma (1918) by Lawren Harris and J.E.H. Macdonald’s Algoma Waterfall, painted two years later from a slightly different viewpoint. The only difference was that the flow of water was lighter than when Harris and Macdonald were there. One cascade to the left of the painting was missing but the darkened rock-face clearly showed where it usually flows.
We walked to Black Beaver Falls and then headed back to the train. Getting under way again, we watched intently approaching the Montreal River. This time, on the other side of the train, I managed a quick photo of a steep cliff face through a gap in the trees. Only when I got home did I realize that this was clearly the subject of J.E.H. Macdonald’s superb The Solemn Land from 1921.
On our return journey in late afternoon the brilliant blue sky contrasted with yellow flashes of birch and aspen sliding by the window, with occasional glimpses of lakes and red-tinged hills we had missed in the morning fog. We reached the Soo just after 6PM, just in time to try one of the Italian restaurants for which the city is well known — and the best veal piccata I’ve ever had. I doubt the Group of Seven members ate as well in their boxcar. But who knows. Maybe Lawren Harris brought along a chef as well.
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