Most art lovers familiar with Canada’s iconic Group Of Seven might know of their connection with Georgian Bay. Some of their best known works, and those of their contemporary Tom Thomson, depict in their unique individual styles the waves, rocks and pines of the islands.
A big reason for this was that their prominent patron, Toronto opthamologist Dr. James MacCallum, provided opportunities for the artists to experience the Bay. The Group consisted of A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, Fred Varley, Frank Johnston, and Frank Carmichael. When Johnston left the Group he was replaced by A.J. Casson
MacCallum owned property near the Monument Channel, north of Go Home Bay. The doctor was an avid canoe tripper, sailor and explorer of Georgian Bay, cruising to places like Parry Sound, Byng Inlet and French River from his base on the southeast shore. He had a deep attachment to the Bay that seemed to be captured in the works of these artists.
It being the early 1900s when many young painters were struggling economically, the doctor would invite them to his rambling wooden cottage to sketch and paint, which they did gladly.
A.Y. Jackson, a founder of the Group of Seven in 1920, writes in his autobiography A Painter’s Country that he had met the doctor at the Bay in 1913. “Almost by instinct he could find his way in fog and darkness through the intricate channels…Even after his family had scattered, he would go there (to the cottage) alone to tinker with his leaky old boats, and pace his big verandah facing west, which was often lashed by wind and rain.”
One can almost feel MacCallum’s kinship with the place.
After Thomson drowned at Algonquin Park in 1917 MacCallum “…became a kind of patron saint of the Group of Seven,” Jackson wrote. In appreciation of his generosity, the visiting artists decorated their patron’s cottage walls with paintings of local scenery and symbols of the Bay.
Former head of the National Gallery of Canada, the late Charles Comfort has credited MacCallum’s enthusiasm and hospitality to the artists with helping them find “expression in the inspiration this region affords.” Several of their major canvases now in the gallery’s collection were from sketches made at the cottage.
Dr. MacCallum died in 1945, and concern arose in the art world about the future of the cottage’s murals. Five years later the property was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Henry R. Jackman of Toronto who carried on the MacCallum’s tradition of caring for the work of the artists. However, after about a decade the Jackmans began to worry about the security of the murals on their living room walls, and arranged to donate them to the National Gallery in Ottawa.
I was news editor at the Free Press Herald in Midland, the nearest newspaper to the Go Home area, in the Sixties when the Jackmans alerted us that the National Gallery conservators from Ottawa would be at the cottage to remove the panels containing the murals. On a Monday morning with camera and notepad, I hopped in my small boat and made the long trek to the Monument Channel and pulled into the Jackmans’ dock.
The experts from the gallery were already at work using stepladders and flashlights to painstakingly survey the panels and decide how best to remove them. Mr. and Mrs. Jackman watched attentively — and perhaps a bit anxiously — ready to offer any help the conservators might need.
Charles Comfort, writing in Canadian Art, 1951, describes the murals before they were removed:
“There are 19 panels in all, of which MacDonald’s are possibly the finest. Two of these exist on either side of a massive stone fireplace. The left-hand panel celebrates the history of ‘the Bay’ and includes a Huron Indian, a Jesuit preist teaching Christianity to a child, and a figure possibly intended to be (Samuel de)Champlain. The right-hand panel honours local industry, a trapper, a fisherman, and a lumberjack. The head of the lumberjack is reputed to be the only painted portrait of Tom Thomson in existence, which lends to the panel’s considerable national importance. MacDonald’s other contributions are an upriight panel on the north wall which contains sketches of both Jackson and Lismer in a moving local setting, four other panels which are contemplative fragments depicting native trees in varied seasonal garb, and, on the north wall, the supply boat John Lee, (above) tied to a gigantic rock, eagerly attended by local cottagers.
“Lismer’s contributions include panels of bird life, island recreation and, on the south wall, a large composition in gay holiday spirit of a group of vacationers picnicking in the sunny island spaces, delighting in the surrounding beauty. As well as the living rom decorations, Lismer painted a Chinese dragon on the boathouse, celebrating his rather exotiic interest in the Chinese theatre. Though time has almost obliterated it, this oriental rondel continues to fascinate and confound all who pass within sight of it.
“There are three Tom Thompson panels, each a decorative treatment of wood interior foliage in very low tonalities….
“The general effect,” Comfort observed, “is one of colourful airy buoyancy that suggests they were painted for the private satisfaction of Dr. MacCallum, his family, and his friends.”
At the Free Presss Herald we devoted almost a full page to the story with photos.