Five Questions with David P. Silcox

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We asked David P. Silcox five questions about his research process and what makes Tom Thompson a pioneer. You can find him at IFOA 2017.

IFOA: What was the research process like?

David P. Silcox: The basic and detailed research was initially done by Iris Nowell in 1976 for the first edition of Tom Thomson: The Silence and The Storm.

She had delved into every corner of the libraries in Toronto, Ottawa, and Owen Sound to find letters, monographs, books, catalogues, and other sources that would provide first hand information.

I supplemented her large stockpile of information by tracking down a few of those who had known Thomson personally. His sisters still had letters and other memorabilia, and Judge James C. McRuer, Chief Justice of Ontario, had exchanged letters with Thomson that were helpful. I also found some material in the National Gallery of Canada Archives and the Dominion Archives, although neither holding was extensive in those days.


Joan Murray, who had organized a retrospective of Thomson’s work at the AGO in 1971, was also very helpful in answering questions and assisting in locating some of the paintings we wanted to include in our book. She had already started work on the Thomson Catalogue Raisonné of his paintings and ephemera. We gave her, in return, information that we ferreted out about the whereabouts of paintings, and the location of letters or other documents that she was happy to have copies of.

For the 2017 and much expanded and reorganized edition (nearly 80 rarely or never before published works have been added to the 1977 edition, along with new chapters and a more attractive layout. Over 150 of the full-page reproductions show Thomson’s oil sketches to the size of the original paintings.

These works are, I believe, Thomson’s best and most vital work, being closest to his heart, and rarely used for making large canvases; indeed of the more than 400 and more Thomson painted, only twelve to fifteen were blown into larger works. For the members of the Group of Seven the large canvases were where the money was. For Thomson, the small oil on wooden panels were where authenticity and emotion were most evident.

More importantly, and after seeing a large number of Thomson oil sketches in private collections as the President of Sotheby’s for twelve years, I began to think about aspects of Thomson’s life and work that had not been commented upon before. For example, that he was really the catalyst that spurred the Group of Seven into being, even though he had died nearly three years before the Group was formed. He was also a curious, adventuresome, and persistent experimenter, who tried different techniques, different colours of underpainting, and who was open to ideas and influences if he thought he could use them for his own unique purposes. His personal behavior was also commented on by just about everyone who met or knew him, and I suspect he was a mild bipolar individual. And finally, having seen more clearly that ever before, he was moving inexorably toward some form of abstraction.

IFOA: What makes Tom Thomson a pioneer?

Silcox: Thomson lived at a time when everyone was one kind of pioneer or another. Canada was only a month away from its 50th Golden Anniversary when he died on 8 June 1917. Everyone was itching to make Canada an independent country, not a colony, despite the iron ties still in place to Britain. Non-Canadian-born artists were somewhat suspect, at least until they showed their ability to adapt and to adopt Canadian ways.

Thomson was a pioneer in the sense that he was one of the keenest of his circle to want to create a visual sense for the new country. The war of 1914-18 accelerated this process of marching toward nationhood. The losses at The Somme, at Vimy Ridge, and at Passchendaele only added power to the issue. Thomson was obsessed by the war in Europe, and some of his paintings of Algonquin Park reflect his knowledge about the rapacious destruction of the farming country in Europe. His equivalent sketches were Fire-Swept Hills, Burnt Over Forest, Burnt Area with Ragged Rocks, and other such subjects.

Having grown up on farms in Leith and in a farming community, Thomson would have been aware of the role of pioneers in cutting down the hardwood forests to make fields for crops and space for orchards, gardens, barns, houses, and sheds for implements like binders, ploughs, hat rakes, and manure spreaders.

IFOA: If you had a chance to ask him one question about his work or life, what would you want to know?

DS: First I’d ask him if he’d like to autograph my book for me. And Second, I’d ask him if he thought that he’d have to leave Algonquin Park to find new inspiration soon. And I’d I would also ask whether he thought that he’d make a good abstract painter. To which he’d doubtless reply “Of course I’d make a good abstract painter. All paintings and murals are abstract, from the mosaics of the Islamic and Arabic world, from the talismanic carvings of tribes around the world, to the abstract hieroglyphs of Egypt and the surreal sculptures of Bali, Sri Lanka, and India, just to mention a few. We all live in a world of abstraction, don’t you think? I certainly do.”

IFOA: What are you working on next?

Silcox: I’m working on another book or two on David Milne. I’ve had new thoughts about him too, having lived with him, so to speak, for most of my adult life. I’ve got some new ideas that I want to explore about his personality and about his work. The other book is focused on Milne’s colour dry points, which were creations of remarkable subtlety and grace, planned to a millimetre in balance, the relationships of each element with each of the others and honed to a hair’s breadth. Milne worked hard at his dry points, which were technically difficult—a plate for each of four, five or six colours, superimposed on each other with a tolerance that was severe and nearly impossible to control. Disaster could strike at any time. A slip in the paper, a little too much humidity in the air, the blanket between a plate and the print roller being either too damp or too dry, too little ink or too much, or rubbing the ink off with a rag instead of one’s hand. It took Milne a long time practicing to scratch plates, but even when he became expert at it, the hurdles still had to be gracefully skimmed over. As John Ruskin wrote “nothing is really done well until it is done easily.”

IFOA: What are you reading now?

Silcox: What I am reading now, apart from articles I’ve ripped from years of receiving The New Yorker, is a book that I purchased on the basis of its title alone: Galileo’s Middle Finger. I sent for it immediately, since it was something I wanted to have sitting prominently on my office table or desk. Galileo was under house arrest for most of his life, and I’ve seen his Middle Finger, which is preserved under a bell jar in the Museo Galilei in Florence. It was for many years a relic in the Santa Croce Church nearby.

I’ve skipped a couple of chapters at the beginning of the book, which are largely autobiographical, but the book does move on, as I hoped it would, to deal with the conflicts that scientists have had with churches (Galileo), religious zealots, and political power brokers, who only want the answers they need or without the benefit of reason or careful analysis, cancel long-form census collection data, which only happens every ten years. I’d love to give them Galileo’s Middle Finger.

silcox-davidDavid P. Silcox is the bestselling author of The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, as well as an art historian and a cultural administrator. Former President of Sotheby’s Canada, he is a Senior Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. He served as Associate Dean and Professor, Faculty of Fine Arts, York University, and has served on the boards of over thirty cultural and educational organizations across Canada and abroad. Silcox is known for his extensive writings on Canadian artists, including David Milne, Emily Carr, Christopher Pratt, Jack Bush, the Group of Seven and Iain Baxter.