Leonard Rossell, 541 Mariposa Avenue, Rockcliffe, Ontario
The Grip, about the time of which I write, was the home of a group of artists who were later destined to have a real influence on Canadian art. Some of the names, obscure then but very familiar now, were J.E.H. MacDonald, Frederick H. Varley, Tom Thomson, Arthur Lismer, Frank Carmichael, Frank Johnston, his brother Bob and Smithson Broadhead.
Mr. Robson, at that time the Art Director, seemed to have a genius for securing the services of any artist of promise and the Grip became noted for the excellent work turned out. A fine spirit pervaded the Art Room and through all the fun and the pranks we managed to turn out a high standard of work. It would be hard to find a group of artists so different in character and outlook. At one end of the room sat Jimmy MacDonald, as he was then familiarly known. His desk was covered with sketches, notebooks, paints and brushes, all in utter confusion. [...] He used to bring his sketches down to the office and inspired many of us to make a start at outdoor sketching. It was extremely likely that Tom Thomson caught inspiration from them for I quite well remember the first sketches Tom did. Like all beginners’ work, they were “not so hot”, but unlike most beginners, they improved very quickly; so rapidly indeed that Tom became famous while the most of us were still struggling along.
Tom, as I knew him, was also a quiet, retiring, fellow. Tall, like MacDonald; they had much in common. Indeed, they exercised a steadying influence on some of the too vivacious, lively spirits who worked in the same room. Tom was generous almost to a fault and possessed a quiet sense of humor. He was generally liked by all the fellows and it was impossible not to get along with him because of his unselfish and kindly disposition. Although seldom starting any fun he would often join in and become adept at shooting small bits of cardboard with his thumb at another fellow. Shooting him from another end of the room he could hit him at any spot, rarely missing. That was Tom’s specialty and I think he was unbeatable. MacDonald would smile but I don’t recollect him joining in any of the many pranks played.
A certain reserve and quiet dignity prevented him from participating, and being older too I suppose had its effect. At the opposite end of the poles to Tom was Frank Johnston. A storkily built, extremely vivacious, supremely confident young fellow. Nothing could be quiet long when Frank was around, and he was responsible for may of the lively escapades which happened at the Grip. He was just as adroit as his mischief-loving disposition got him into the scrape.
Mr. Robson either did not see all our carrying on or he was extremely indulgent. He had an office to himself, so likely did not see much that went on in the Art room. At any rate, he did not need to care. Provided that we turned out the goods. So to speak. I would say that he was a most successful Art Director, knowing how to deal with each artist so as to obtain the best from each one of us. I know that Grip never attained such prominence as at the time when he held the position of Art Director.
Some little time after I went to the Grip two young men arrived from England; Arthur Lismer and Smithson Broadhead. They were classed as figure men, having had the advantages of an English Art School training in figure work. They were a valuable addition to the staff of the Grip as MacDonald, Johnson, Tom, and most of the others, specialized in design. Sometime later another clever figure artist in the person of Frederick Horseman Varley arrived at the Grip from England. It was somewhat canny how these clever men eventually arrived at the Grip Limited. I think Mr. Robson possessed a sixth sense; he certainly managed to draw to the Grip all the best talent. And, moreover, he kept them as long as he remained Art Director. When he left to join Rous and Mann the artists followed him, and the Grip Limited lost the reputation it had so long kept. I believe one of the secrets of Mr. Robson’s success was that the artists felt that he was interested in them personally and did all he could to further their progress. Those who worked there were allowed time off to pursue their studies at the School of Art or take private tuition. Some of us took lessons in landscape painting, illustration, portrait painting, under such men as Beatty, Jefferies, and others. Tom Thomson, so far as I know, never took definite lessons from anyone, yet he progressed quicker than any of us. But what he did was probably more advantage to him. He took several months off in the summer and spent them in Algonquin Park. He was never fond of society. I do not mean by this to say he was unsociable, for a truer friend did not exist to those he called his friends. After he started painting, however, the subject seemed to absorb him to the exclusion of every other interest. This is, I think, one reason why his progress was so phenomenal. He would, while the rest of us were having a good time at parties, theatres etc., be working away. The first sketches he did, as I remember them, were painted in a somewhat low tone, and while they showed fine draughtsmanship were rather somber and unattractive. I remember several years later taking up to his studio my summer’s work for his criticism and he said they reminded him of his former work. He advised me to try painting in purer colours and in a higher key.
Every summer would find Tom up in Algonquin Park and he brought back [...] numbers of small sketches, evidently done very quickly. I never knew anyone who seemed so successful in catching a mood of nature, and treating it in so simple a manner. His sense of colour was so true that the moment you saw a sketch of his you felt it was right, and beyond criticism. I, personally, felt his smaller sketches done from nature rang truer than his large compositions, and for that reason preferred them.
He did what so few are able to do, concentrate on one thing. For that he sacrificed everything, money, society of friends, comfort and other things which others could not live without. He was a clever designer and could always command a good salary, but he was content to be without a penny if he could only paint.
Fortunately he had friends who recognized his genius. They managed, somehow, invarious ways to see he did not lack essentials, because Tom was a very independent spirit and was much more inclined to given than to receive. I doubt if Tom had any money to spare, even when his pictures were sought after. He was too generous. I remember paying him a visit to his shack studio. He was painting the “Northern River”. Around the studio were numerous small sketches, art books and a stove on which he cooked his meals. He insisted on cooking me bacon and eggs, etc. and we had a sumptuous repast, for Tom was an excellent cook. After supper I watched him paint and marveled at the care with which he laid on the colours, no hesitations whatever. I realized that behind the consummate skill there had been months of solitude spent alone with nature absorbing all she had to give, He had paid the price and was reaping the benefit. On leaving Tom would invariable come upon you some present; this time he wanted me to take one of his expensive Art books It was a beautiful book, full of exquisite drawings. When I firmly refused he wanted me to take three of his small sketches, one of which I still have. Tom had absolutely no business sense. Once it was said that he received and cheque for $100 for some picture. On going to the Bank to cash it, it was questioned by the teller. Tom immediately tore it up and left the bank. I cannot vouch for the truth of this. But it is something Tom would be quite likely to do.
He would begin to plan for his summer trips long before the time came. At the office we had great arguments on the relative value of tents, fishing tackle, etc.; on anything to do with camping and woodcraft Tom was a master. He could pack his camping equipment, paints, etc. etc. into the smallest compass. He knew all about the best rods and flies for fishing. Indeed he eked out his small supply of cash by acting as guide up in the wilds of Algonquin. That he was an expert canoeist goes without saying. While the mosquitoes were singing outside his silken tent he would be painting some mood of nature from the inside. He would turn his hand to anything when his funds ran low. There are quite a number of log cabins in the Park which he helped to build.
Working in an office, I believe was very irksome to him although he would never say so. He was a true child of nature and was never so happy as when in communion with her. Indeed all his own nature seemed to be in harmony with her, or how could he so truly have caught her every mood? With his passing went a true artist, a rare spirit and a good friend.
(LAC, MG30 D284 Tom Thomson Collection, NO. T485 .R82, Leonard Rossell)