The West Wind
by Tom Thomson
The Sketch for The West Wind is usually said to have been painted on one of the Cauchon Lakes in northern Algonquin Park. This is based on the recollections of Thomson's patron, Dr. James MacCallum. But there is no consensus on any particular location on the Cauchon Lakes. Indeed, a specific location is rarely identified at all. There is no question that the painting has the "feel" of the Cauchon Lakes, but it has the feel of many other northern lakes as well. Consequently several other locations have been proposed over the years.
Carolyn Wynne MacHardy's thesis, "The West Wind" by Tom Thomson (pdf), provides a useful listing of various suggested locations and references as does Roy MacGregor's book Northern Light.
For the past several years, Bob and Diana have been searching out Tom Thomson painting locations in the Achray area (see Tom Thomson at Achray in 1916). As part of this project we have also made several trips to Laurel and Cauchon Lakes to check out painting locations from the fishing and sketching trip of Tom Thomson and Lawren Harris in the spring of 1916. While we have incidentally discussed painting locations in our trip reports (Trip Log - Brent to Cauchon Lake and Return - Bug Fest 2014, Trip Log - Kiosk, Mink Lake, Club Lake, Cauchon Lake and Return - Two old farts wimp out, and Trip Log - Brent to Cauchon Lake - 2016 June 15-21), we have not formally reported on these painting locations. These trips, however, gave us the opportunity to search for possible locations for The Sketch for The West Wind in the chain of lakes from Cedar Lake west to Cauchon Lake. In addition, at other times we have had adequate opportunity to search for this painting location in the Achray area.
The result of these searches are presented here.
Winifred Trainor is reported to have said that Tom Thomson told her that The Sketch for The West Wind was painted on Cedar Lake near Brent. We saw nothing on Cedar Lake that supports this location. We did not however search from Brent east to the outflow of the Petawawa River.
Aura Lee Lake (now Laurel Lake)
While we know of no credible claim that The Sketch for The West Wind was painted on Aura Lee Lake (now Laurel Lake), we know Thomson was there in the spring of 1916 and completed other sketches there.
Both Dr. MacCallum and Lawren Harris related separately (but many years after the fact), the story of a thunderstorm with strong winds that occurred during their fishing trip in the spring of 1916 on the Cauchon Lakes. Although one may quibble with the interpretation of exactly what they said, this is strong evidence that The Sketch for The West Wind was painted here.
We assume that they — the fishing party consisted of James MacCallum, Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris and Chester Harris — arrived by rail and disembarked at Daventry on present-day Little Cauchon Lake. We know from other paintings, Little Cauchon Lake for example, that they spent time on Little Cauchon Lake. While Cauchon Lake is only a short paddle away, we cannot unequivocally demonstrate that they visited there but believe that they probably did.
Little Cauchon Lake
East end of Cauchon Lake
The 'Waddington Site' on Cauchon Lake
In a series of Facebook posts in May and June of 2016 (27 May 2016, 29 May 2016, 31 May 2016, 3 June 2016, 9 June 2016, 10 June 2016, 12 June 2016, and 13 June 2016), Jim Waddington — coauthor with his wife Sue of In the Footsteps of the Group of Seven — suggested a location on the north shore of Cauchon Lake as being the location where The Sketch for The West Wind was painted.
We are not convinced that the Waddington site is the location where The Sketch for The West Wind was painted but include it as a possibility.
The Northeastern Campsite on Cauchon Lake
If one assumes that the painting location for The Sketch for The West Wind is somewhere on Cauchon Lake, then the location is most likely somewhere along the north shore. An alternative possibility to the Waddington site is the most northeasterly present-day campsite on the lake. This location requires interpreting the painting as showing a nearer headland coming in from the left and that the hill on the extreme left of the sketch is on that headland. The hills obscured by the foliage of the tree in the sketch is on the far shore beyond the headland.
This location has red pines, some perhaps of an appropriate age, and a possible site for a cabin/shack. We believe that this location is a better match than other locations on the lake. The entire scene is just about the field of view of a 35mm equivalent lens. The hills are at an appropriate distance. The match with the background is not perfect but the vegetative regrowth makes a comparison difficult, especially considering that the trees on the near point obscure the shapes of the hill beyond. But in Thomson's day, this area had been very heavily logged and the far shore would probably have been visible from this location.
In our view this spot provides a good match but the hills still require some vertical enhancement and some artistic license. The background hills are the same background hills viewed from the Waddington site, but at a greater distance and a somewhat different angle. An objection to this location is that it may be too sheltered to experience a storm such as depicted in the painting.
Thomson spent most of the painting season of 1916 at Achray on Grand Lake, so he had ample opportunity to paint this picture here. Professor Dwight, of the Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto, suggests that The Sketch for The West Wind was painted to the west of the present-day pier at Achray while The Jack Pine was painted to the east. However, interpreting the quote by Professor Dwight is ambiguous (see notes).
There is always a hesitancy to publish inconclusive results but that's what we are facing here. We have investigated multiple locations from Thomson's summer of 1916 looking for the painting location of The Sketch for The West Wind; there are several possible matches — perhaps, good matches — but, in our opinion, none completely convinces.
Another possibility that should at least be considered is that the sketch is a composite loosely based on a familiar landscape and other recalled elements (e.g. the tree and the stormy conditions). Indeed several Thomson sketches are thought by some not to have been painted en plein air. The reason to think that this may be true of this sketch — aside from the difficulty of matching the hills to a known location — is that the sketch shows no indication of having been painted under the physically difficult circumstances described by MacCallum and Harris (see notes).
Thomson did many sketches of the view across Grand Lake towards the mouth of Carcajou Bay from various viewpoints on the north shore of the lake. Not all of them show the hills across the lake in exactly the same way. The background of The Sketch for The West Wind certainly strongly resembles that landscape, as it does the south shore of Cauchon Lake, but it is not an accurate rendition of either. The tree might or might not have been present in that location. There are presently similarly curved and twisted red pines in a few spots along the shores of both Cauchon lakes and of Grand Lake. (And the loggers would have bypassed such deformed specimens present in Thomson's day.) At the present time there is also at least one larger example growing on the west beach at Achray.
A west wind certainly produces waves similar to those in the sketch at the east end of Grand Lake near the Jack Pine site, and the sandy bottom causes the same yellow tint in the water. While the size of the waves in the sketch and the clouds in the sky do not quite jibe with the stories about a violent storm, they do indicate a windy day due to a high pressure system moving in. The sketch really is about the wind, as expressed in the water and sky. The landscape anchors it, and the tree ties it all together. The shape of the tree is typical of one growing isolated in an exposed location; it is not being actively twisted by the wind but has been shaped by the wind over its lifetime. However it is in keeping with the sense of movement in the sky and the water.
In our discussion of the Thomson painting Spring Lake (Rocks and Water) we showed that Thomson was not averse to altering a scene ... when it suited his artistic intent. However, in our search for other painting locations, we have also learned that if you have to rely heavily on "hand waving" and "exaggeration" to make your case, it usually means that you haven't (yet) found the correct location. In the case of The Sketch for The West Wind we suspect that it may well be that the actual location will never be determined with high certainty — if it exists at all. If push comes to shove and one is forced to provide a location, the safe response probably remains: The Cauchon Lakes. (But then, a case could also be made for Grand Lake.)
From “The West Wind” by Tom Thomson, a thesis by Carolyn Wynne MacHardy, University of British Columbia, April 1978:
Chapter One considers the facts concerning the painting and its sketch and reviews the various hypotheses advanced concerning the dating of the two works and the site from which the sketch was done. In the absence of any specific documents concerning The West Wind, it is necessary to refer to the testimonies of friends and acquaintances of Thomson, and occasionally to those of people whose interest in Thomson prompted them to individual research and speculation. It also outlines the history of both the sketch and the canvas following the death of Thomson in 1917 and problems concerning the title by which the canvas is known.
Of other identifications, the Watties believed that the sketch was done at Round Lake and the Reverend Mr. Arthur Reynolds of Annan, Ontario, suggested that it was done at Fairy Lake near the lookout, on the road between Dwight and Huntsville. Dr. R.P. Little compared the view himself and agreed with the Reverend that the view was very similar; however, Winnifred Trainor assured Dr. Little that The West Wind was actually painted at Cedar Lake in the north of the Park. In 1970 William T. Little agreed that the sketch had been painted at Cedar Lake rather than Fairy Lake because "there is a ruggedness about this picture that is more characteristic of the craggy and clean-cut terrain of Cedar Lake than of the Lake of Bays country."
Without mentioning the sketch by name, Lawren Harris in a lecture in 1948 relates:
...one afternoon in early spring on the shore of one of the Cauchon Lakes in Algonquin Park ... a dramatic thunderstorm came up. There was a wild rush of wind across the lake and all nature was tossed into turmoil. Tom and I were in an abandoned shack. When the storm broke Tom looked out, grabbed his sketch box, ran out into the gale, squatted behind a big stump and commenced to paint in a fury.
In a letter of 1937, Dr. J.M. MacCallum states specifically that The West Wind sketch was done at this time:
It may interest you to know... that the West Wind was done at Lake Cauchon. Thomson, myself, Lorne [sic] Harris and his cousin Chester were up there. It was blowing very hard and Lorne Harris was painting farther up the shore. The wind blew down the tree of the picture and Harris first thought that Thomson was killed, but he soon sprang up, waved his hand to him and went on painting.
A study of the topographical map of the two Cauchon Lakes suggests that the most probable site lies about 400 yards east of Davenport [sic - should be Daventry] on the north side of Little Cauchon Lake (figure 4). In addition to affording the necessary wide view across the lake, this area was serviced by the railroad, and thus the shoreline would have been partially cleared. The hills in this area do not rise as sharply as do those on the other shores, and there is a sandy point from which it would have been possible to gain the shore. From this promontory, the hills on the south shore are very similar in contour to those represented in The West Wind.
Letter from Professor Dwight to Martin Baldwin at the Art Gallery of Ontario, dated January 14, 1955. (Art Gallery of Ontario, Library).
Dwight notes that the actual trees upon the site at Achray are white pines, but he suggests that Thomson "substituted two twisted red pines as might be found on the top of a hill or some other very exposed position. It is fairly obvious I think that he put them into the foreground of THE WEST WIND to accentuate the idea of a windy day."
From Algonquin Story by Audrey Sanders:
Tom seems to have spent at least one summer at the old rangers’ cabin at Achray, which stood just to the right of the new stone building that is now the headquarters. Professor T.W. Dwight, of the Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto, who spent eleven years there at the Forestry School’s fall camp, feels sure that the Canvas “West Wind” was painted from the place where Tom’s cabin formerly stood. Professor Dwight took photographs of the skyline across the lake as it appears in recent years, and compared it with the hills in the background in the painting. Even allowing for changes brought about because of the tree growth in the intervening years, the similarity between the two is very striking. By using this same method, Professor Dwight decided that the picture entitled “Jack Pine” was painted from a nearby spot, the point stretching out into the lake to the left of the ranger’s log cabin built by Ned Godin.
Commentary on the above:
This suggests that there were two cabins; one west of the stone building and one to the east. (See photo below from Algonquin Park Archives and Collections that shows a log cabin near the point west of the current Achray pier.) Thomson it seems, at least initially, was in the west cabin. But we know from Ed Godin that Tom moved into the east cabin (Out-Side-In) around the beginning of June 1916. Thus it appears that Thomson was living at Achray prior to June. This might clear up the concern as to why Thomson would be starting his fire ranging duties so late in the season – he didn’t start late, he just moved into the Out-Side-In “late”. Further, it might help “explain” the early season paintings apparently from the Achray area.
The use of 'left' and 'right' in the quote is confusing. If by Old rangers' cabin Audrey Sanders is referring to "Ed Godin's cabin", 'right' is based on standing with ones back to the lake facing the front of the cabin (but the back of the new stone building), which seems unlikely; when professor Dwight is referring to The Jack Pine painting location, he is facing the lake. However, if Audrey Sanders is referring to the old cabin on the point west of the stone building, it is to the right when facing the lake, but not just to the right. The most consistent interpretation of the quote would seem to be that old rangers cabin is referring to the cabin, now gone, that used to stand on the point west of the present-day pier and that the ranger's log cabin built by Ned Godin refers to the Out-Side-In.
In Northern Lights, Roy MacGregor writes:
There has always been controversy concerning the exact location of The West Wind. Godin said that it was first sketched out near Kiosk. Ranger Tom Wattie said it had been painted at Round Lake, where he had his family cabin and where Thomson sometimes stayed and sketched. In August 2009 I went by canoe to Kioshkokwi Lake and spent hours trying to match a copy of The West Wind to the shoreline and while there are angles that look persuasive, nothing quite convinces. Mark Robinson claimed that the original sketch had been completed at Achray on Grand Lake and further claimed that Thomson had tried to give the exquisite little painting to him but that he’d refused, telling Thomson to put it on a large canvas over the winter. Winnie Trainor once said that Thomson told her it had been painted at Cedar Lake, near the railway depot at Brent.
James MacCallum, however, claimed not only to know where it was painted but also to have been there when it happened. MacCallum said that he, Thomson, Harris, and a cousin of Harris’s had been travelling that spring and Thomson decided to paint a gnarled tree growing near the shore of Little Cauchon Lake. To make the story more dramatic, MacCallum claimed, confirmed by Harris, that it was blowing very hard – as evidenced in the whitecaps in Thomson’s painting – and that “the wind blew down the tree of the picture and Harris first thought that Thomson was killed, but he soon sprang up, waved his hand to him, and went on painting.”
A far less dramatic account comes from oldtimers in Huntsville who always claimed that The West Wind was painted at Fairy Lake and that Tom had been staying at the Trainors when, one day, he set out and found inspiration at the nearest lake from town. There is, in fact, a certain point where you can stand and, if you imagine that a gnarled pine once stood on the rocks, the round hills on the far shore rather neatly match Thomson’s masterpiece.
- Roy MacGregor. (2010), Northern Light : The enduring mystery of Tom Thomson and the woman who loved him, Random House Canada.
- Carolyn Wynne MacHardy. 1978, "The West Wind" by Tom Thomson, A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, The Faculty of Graduate Studies, The University of British Columbia. (pdf)
- Audrey Sanders (reprinted 1963), Algonquin Story, Department of Lands and Forests, Ontario.
- Jim and Sue Waddington. 2013. In the Footsteps of the Group of Seven, Goose Lane Editions (Fredericton) and Art Gallery of Sudbury (Sudbury).