Minnie Thomson to Blodwen Davies, February 2, 1931

Box 128, Aberdeen, Sask. Feb. 2nd 1931

Dear Miss Davies,                              

I had not realized until just lately that it is almost three months since I received a request from you for help in collecting material for a life of my brother Tom. Your letter came at about the busiest season of the year-that is on a large western grain farm and there was also serious illness in my family which made it impossible to concentrate or to give my best thought to so important a letter. I shall gladly give you what I can remember and hope at least some of it shall be new and useful to you. I hope what I recall will not be duplicate what any of the other members of the family give you as I don’t know what any of them are writing.

A copy of Paddle and Palette came to me at Christmas, and I read it with a great deal of interest and delight, especially the description of the beauty of Georgian Bay District, and its influence on Tom’s beauty-loving soul. In one or two paragraphs you brought back so vividly the old happy days that I could just see it all and it made me homesick. Your treatment of your subject is wonderfully sympathetic and the information mostly correct. In the letter I received you said you wished to make the biography as authentic as possible. Would you feel hurt if I pointed out one error in the booklet? I know it is very difficult to get dates especially accurate after a lapse of years.  On pages seventeen you speak of Tom’s introduction to the medium of oils as being about 1911. On Christmas of 1907 Tom gave me an oil painting of a young man with a team of horses and plough. The lad is standing at the horses’ heads, before starting to unhitch, and gazing off at a vivid sunset. He was taking lessons then from an elderly artist in Toronto, whose name I can’t recall, but whose pictures were selling for a good sum. Some of them as high as $1,000. This picture of the horses was the first one his teacher had given him any encouragement over. He just said “Did you paint this? Well you’d better keep on.” I am sure of the date, as I was married two days later and had the picture framed, along with three water-colors before coming west. This picture still holds a place of honor in my dining room. Although I have a  number of his latest sketches, this one has a special appeal. It is a lovely thing even though very amateurish.

Now at the very beginning I want to give you an intimate picture of our home life as it is easy to account for genius where one knows his heredity and early environment. I think you will agree that most great men have had remarkable mothers, and my brother was no exception to this rule. Even with the care of a large family on a farm, she always possessed the happy faculty of putting first things first. She never allowed her work as a homemaker to submerge her and I can’t recall any time when she was too busy to read the daily Globe. She was also a lover of the best literature. We had a good library, containing standard books on archeology, geology, and astronomy, as well as the best of the poets and fiction. Mother was especially fond of Scott and Dickens. Also some of George Elliot’s novels and Byron’s poems. She managed so that each member of the family shouldered a share of the responsibility and work. In that way there was always leisure for the finer things of life, such as music, literature and hospitality. She was a living example of Soloman’s ‘Virtuous Woman, whose price was above rubies.’ She was very sympathetic and generous and regarded emergencies as the spice of life. My father was a graduate of Whitby Grammar School, and he used to help us with our mathematics and grammar, while mother helped

Tom received his early education, not academically but just as you say he received his art education, by daily contact with parents with a world’s out-look and appreciation for culture. (added across top of page)

us with our history and literature. I can say with conviction I never knew a man of higher principles than my father. His word was as good as bond to all who knew him. With him right was right and wrong was wrong, there could be no compromise. I well remember while in high school being worried over one of the girls copying my arithmetic solutions every morning. At last I asked father about it, and he said “as I see it, she is committing a crime. And you are an accomplice”. You may be sure I had a talk with the girl and it didn’t happen again. Father was stern, yet very just and kindly, and we all love and revere his memory. This will help you to realize the priceless heritage which Tom received from his parents, a background which I am sure no member of our family would exchange for the proudest in the land. That is where he got his sincerity, and his contempt for snobbery and hypocrisy.

Some of my earliest recollections of Tom. I will just put down as they come to me. I can see him first as a small boy with a string of fish caught in the creek where he would clean and smoke in a piece of stove pipe, and I still remember how delicious they were. He was very fond of fishing and of swimming, and as father owned a sail boat, he and my brothers became expert with the…the rest of the page illegible…sang and I can still see the whimsical grin when he got an extra good caricature. Later Tom joined the village band, as one of the cornet players. Through time the band fell through, and an orchestra was formed. George playing the clarinet, Henry and Ralph violins and Tom the mandolin. There was also a cornet, a brass viol, a slide trombone and piano. They played rather intoxicating dance music and with a flawless maple floor in the hall, a good time was a foregone conclusion. When Tom was about seventeen, he became very restless and discontented. He was very anxious to go sailing, and as he had rather weak lungs and a touch of inflammatory rheumatism mother opposed his going. Through time he changed his mind, and stayed home working on the farm until he was of age. When he came into enough money from grandfather’s estate to attend Business College in Chatham.

This is Tom as nearly as I can picture him before he left home. Later he took vocal lessons and had a very sweet voice. I often think it a tragedy that he did not have the advantage of a university education. I know for a fact that he was bitterly disappointed over the lack of opportunity. I have a son who is very very like his uncle, who is now attending Saskatchewan University, and he told me at Xmas time that he didn’t think it possible for life to hold any greater happiness than he was finding in his work. He passed his grade IX at 13 and wrote off several subjects himself while waiting the age to enter university. Last summer he took the only medal open to him, also the only scholarship. He is now in his third year and Principal Murray suggested that he has inherited his uncle’s intellect. He is also musical. Perhaps though if Tom had gone to university, his art would not have been developed. He might have developed other modes of expression which after all would have been a pity. My object in speaking of my son was not to boast of him, and I decidedly don’t want any reference to him in the biography, but I couldn’t help thinking while reading the booklet that owing to lack of information which only the family could give, undue emphasis had been placed in the illiteracy of grandfather Thomson. I think in all fairness, that that impression should be corrected in the completed volume. After all, judging by the Canadian educational standards of his day, grandfather was not illiterate. He could read and write ad transact his business shrewdly and successfully. He had the three R’s and that was as much education as many of the schoolteachers then had. I have often heard my mother and her brother and sister discussing the types of teacher who taught in their school days in Ontario. Often the teachers had to get the older pupils to work the arithmetic problems for them. My mother’s family received most of their education in PEI from an uncle who used to gather the whole community, young and old together in the evenings and teach them all the branches of school work, even to ancient history. Mother’s mother was a doctor’s daughter and a woman of refinement and fine character. It is true however, that conditions in the early days in Ont imposed endless toil and often privations on the pioneers, with a resulting lack of leisure and opportunity for culture, as we have it in these days. But you take any family with an imprisoned urge for creative expression, and remove the bars and a medium will be found.

After Tom returned from Seattle I saw less of him than other members of the family who were at home, as I was away a good deal. At the time of his return I was in St. Catherines, and missed his visit. However he took a week-end to come across on the boat from Toronto, to see me, and we had a most satisfying visit to together. That was in the fall of 1905. While he was there he and I attended St. Thomas Church, and next morning he made a rough sketch of it.

(On Christmas of 1906 he gave me a large water color sketch of this church, I have it still, and it is one of the most admired and prized of all my pictures.)

I didn’t see him again until the next July, when he insisted that I stop off in Toronto for two days to visit him on my way home, and we had a wonderful visit together. He knew the most delightful tea rooms, and one day he took me to McKonkey’s. I had not been there before, and remarked on what a delightful place it was, how cool and restful, and on the beautiful service and delicious food, and Tom said “I would like to eat here always, but one can’t on $15 a week." (That was what he rec’d when he came to Toronto.) After a while he said, “I like the atmosphere of this place, and the class of people who come here.” I wonder if any of his artist friends ever suspected that hunger for the refinements and niceties of life. His choosing of the more primitive mode of living was rather of necessity than preference. It was a cheerful and philosophical acceptance of the only alternative to dependence. He told me once that his paint alone cost him about $500 a year, and he smiled as he said “You know an artist has to have paint, even if he goes hungry.”

One opinion which seems to be held by most of Tom’s friends is that he was unusually reserved and quiet. I can’t somehow reconcile that description of him with the Tom we all knew and loved at home. He had his quiet moods but one never caught his glance but he would smile… With his own folk he was not reserved and silent. He dearly loved an argument and generally held his own in a battle of wits. This was in 1907 and he used his oil paints for these pictures. He was never so happy as when amusing the children. Their demands were endless. He used to enjoy dancing among the old crowd at Leith and Annan and if possible would make a special trip home to attend a dance in the old hall.

In 1915 after 8 years absence in the west the Sask. members of the family paid our first visit home. Tom knew we were coming, and as soon as he could he came up to Owen Sound, landing after mid-night. We were all in bed, but my aunt who lived with us and who was very fond of Tom, heard his step and reached the door first. We were all dressed and came down and talked till after three. He insisted on sleeping on the couch, and in the morning when we came down, he had his blankets all neatly folded and a plate of buttered toast and porridge ready for breakfast. We had all overslept, and he thought it a good joke. He had only one day to stay, and that was the last we saw of him. We had planned to visit him on our return trip, and see his paintings, but the conductor made us change at Bolton and we were disappointed. Later we learned that he felt hurt over it, but we were not allowed a stopover and it couldn’t be helped. I noticed a great change in Tom. He seemed engrossed with his work and much quieter. He told us then that he was going to try again to enlist, and if they turned him down he might come west and paint the Rocky Mountains. He was worried too that no one was buying pictures.

However in the spring the call of the north was too strong to resist and we were disappointed again.

His tragic death in 1917 came as a stunning blow to all his relatives as well as to his many friends. Mother never fully recovered from the shock and grief and it was the beginning of the break up of her health. Our sister at Annan wrote us urging us to come home and spend the winter with our parents and our aunt, as it was preying on their minds till sleep was impossible. So we went down in Dec. and stayed till March and were rewarded by seeing them all in a more cheerful mood, and all, even father, doing his bit in war work. It was strange how complete strangers to the family, people who met Tom perhaps once, came to mother after he was gone and told of some little kindness received form him. One woman had met him at a friend’s home one Sunday afternoon. There was something special at the church that evening and she said she would have gone, but she could not very well take her two small children. Tom immediately insisted on looking after the children while the mother and his friend went to church. When she came back the children were quite happy and had not fretted at all for her. He had a very big heart, and was kindly in his judgments. There is a little gem of Henry Van Dykes’s of which he was fond, and which he copied to give as a Christmas remembrance more than once. I have often felt that is expressed his creed and described his character. It is called Foot Path to Peace.

“To be glad of life because it gives you the chance to love, and to work and to play, and to look up at the stars: To be satisfied with your possessions, but not content with yourself until you have made the best of them; to despise nothing in the world except falsehood and meanness and to fear nothing except cowardice: To be governed by your admirations rather than your disgusts; to think seldom of your enemies, often of your friends, and everyday of Christ, and to spend as much time as possible with body and with spirit in God’s out of doors-these are little guide-posts on the footpath to peace.”

There was one peculiar thing about Tom. He almost never wrote letters. I think perhaps I received two or three from him and they were both interesting and amusing. Now I think this about all I can recall that could be used. It is so difficult for one who is not a writer to express what one knows and feels. I can well understand how a work of this kind would occupy months of your time.

And I don’t want to let this opportunity pass without expressing a very deep gratitude for all his fellow artists who appreciated and befriended Tom at the beginning of his struggle. It must have meant as much to him to have their companionship and encouragement and it is gratifying to know that he justified their confidence in him, both as a painter and as a friend. I also feel very happy that his biography is in the hands of so sympathetic and gifted a writer, on who is both an artist and poetess as many descriptive passages in the booklet Paddle and Palette prove her to be.

Sincerely Yours,

Minnie Henry

(LAC, MG30 D38 ‘Blodwen Davies fonds’, Vol. 11)