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Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends by Angie Littlefield

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

Canadians have a romantic image of the painter Tom Thomson as a solitary individual, paddling alone through the wilds of Ontario, vigorously sketching scenes from nature that he would convert into large oil canvasses at his Toronto studio—a man thoroughly, even exclusively, dedicated to his art, totally immersed in the creation of what have become iconic images of the Canadian landscape. And so much is true, except that he seldom travelled alone and he occupied himself with rather more than just sketching on those trips. He fished, hunted, picked berries and other wild edibles, had long conversations, and even longer silences in the deep summer nights. And one more thing, he was rather good at making doughnuts. Yes, doughnuts. While camping in the wilds of Algonquin Park, no less! And in social settings, he was also an avid dancer and versatile musician, hardly a wallflower.

That’s all very well, one might say, but what on earth do doughnuts and dancing, etc. have to do with Thomson’s art? Actually, as Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends shows, they had a lot to do with it.

Plenty has been written about Thomson’s drawings and paintings as such. He is regarded as a luminary of the Canadian art world, despite having drowned at the age of 39, still early in what was promising to be a stellar career. Difficult to categorize, his brush technique and use of bright, vibrant colours give his work a post-impressionist feel, and his influence on painters in the famous Group of Seven was considerable. But he himself is often portrayed simplistically as a back-to-nature loner. This is very far from the truth. Our image of Thomson needs a makeover, and this book aims to do just that.

The premise of Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends is that family, friends, and, yes, food and its preparation had a nurturing influence on Thomson’s budding talent. Author Angie Littlefield presents the important relationships in Thomson’s life: first his family, particularly his siblings, then the friends who were important at each stage of his development as an artist, among them Ernest Thompson Seton and even one Archie Belaney, later better known as Grey Owl. Interspersed among these discussions are recipes. Why recipes? From an early age, Thomson was an adept and enthusiastic cook, and he was often at the center of preparation or choosing of meals for dinners and social functions. Littlefield’s extensive research has gleaned much information on food from letters of Thomson and his social sphere, but she goes further, reproducing recipes from cookbooks of the period to show what types of food were available and what food preparation at the time looked like. Squirrel, rabbit, pigs lips, bannock, dandelion, chop suey, Mulligan stew, beefsteak pie, and, yes, doughnuts. All of this conveys a deeper picture of Thomson’s zest for life and goes part of the way toward fleshing out the deep sensuality that found its way into his painting.

Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends also delivers something else. In this year of Canada’s 150th anniversary, Thomson can be seen as more that just a recorder of Canada’s natural beauty and an influential artist. Born in 1877, not long after Confederation, Thomson was an active player in Canada’s forging of new, independent identity for itself.

Like most of Canada at the time, Thomson had roots on the farm, but his ambitions took him to the city. It was in Toronto that he started his career, but it wasn’t until he went back to the land, specifically the wilds of Algonquin Park, that he found the last element needed to let his full artistic passion bloom. In his work we see thus a merging of old and new, temporal and eternal. So it is with Canadians’ sense of themselves. Canada and Canadians should always be on the cutting edge of progress and modernity, as Thomson was in his art. But as Thomson learned, the connection with the land itself must always be nurtured. For it nurtures us.

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