Posted July 6, 2020
Canadian art history comes to life with works by Tom Thomson and E.J. Hughes rubbing shoulders with contemporary artists at Madrona Gallery.
IN JULY 1917, painter Tom Thomson died in a boating accident on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, Ontario. Forty years after Thomson’s mysterious death, I was a young camper on Canoe Lake. Ghostly stories abounded about Tom Thomson’s canoe, said to glide silently past on full moon nights shimmering like silver. With or without a paddler.
Of course we believed. To encourage the mystery, and perhaps a visitation, campers put candles in tin saucers and set them adrift on the dark water. They floated like small stars before swamping and sinking, but our hearts stayed kindled. We felt certain that one moonlit night, a ghostly canoe would glide out of the mist and into our memories of Canoe Lake.
Tom Thomson’s excursions into wilderness areas shaped a new direction in Canadian painting. His sketches and oils encapsulated the rugged beauty of Northern Ontario. A contemporary of the Group of Seven, he helped forge a uniquely Canadian landscape style.
Many Canadians have a Tom Thomson story. But few of us get a chance to view an original painting outside a museum. That’s why a visit to the Madrona Gallery in downtown Victoria is such a treat. The gallery has a whole room dedicated to historical Canadian paintings.
Click on the image to start a 6-painting slideshow of some of the historical works at Madrona Gallery
Co-owners Michael Warren and Teresa McFarlane launched their dynamic gallery ten years ago. A few years ago, Madrona began dealing in historical Canadian and American artists. “We started slowly,” Warren says, “and filled a local niche.” The gallery owners bought favourite artists in their price range, then reinvested the profits.
Looking closely at a line-up of small paintings on Madrona’s wall reveals some famous names: A.Y. Jackson, A.J. Casson, Franklin Carmichael and Arthur Lismer. Dates are mostly from the 1930s on these Group of Seven treasures.
Madrona has two paintings by A. J. Casson and Warren offers an art historical critique. He explains that the earlier painting, “Redstone River” (1937), shows loose impressionistic brushwork and a bright fall palette. The price is $45,000.
The later Casson, titled “On the Madawaska Below Palmer Rapids,” was painted in 1960.
“This painting shows the mature style that Casson is known for,” says Warren. The skillfully balanced composition has smoothy ordered shapes, carefully modulated green tones, recession in space, and energetic cloud patterns. The price is $32,000.
A famous woodcut by W. J. Phillips called “Summer Idyll” features delicate shades of mauve and blues. It’s dated 1926 and priced at $37,500.
And then there’s the Tom Thomson. A gold plaque mounted on the frame reads: “Tom Thomson ‘Winter Morning.’” The price, not listed on the tag, is—get ready—$3.5 million. Madrona is selling this painting on commission.
I wonder how Thomson would feel about this price tag, 100 years after his death? For most of his artistic career, he questioned his painting prowess and ability to support himself. When someone admired an artwork, he was apt to say: “Here take it, I have lots of others.”
Warren acknowledges the art market is a tough business requiring a lot of capital investment. He shows me an oil painting by Quebec’s Jean-Paul Riopelle with the simple title: “Le Rouge et le Noire” (The Red and the Black). Red underpainting and accents are visible within the sculpted black and white impasto paint. Hills and valleys of painted patterns appear on the dramatic artwork, which measures 12 by 9 inches. The painting is valued at $350,000
Ten years after founding Madrona, Warren remains enthusiastic about his job of viewing, researching and selling artwork, both historical and contemporary. Marketing original art is a complex process with many steps, explains Warren. “Selling involves bringing clients into the gallery, understanding and meeting their needs, creating trust and building long term relationships,” he says. It’s about finding both artists, or in the case of historic works, sources for the high-end originals, and collectors to receive the artwork. Warren is careful to research each new art purchase and keeps to a budget.
Artists who painted and practiced in BC are also featured in Madrona’s historic works collection. “BC Forest” by Arthur Lismer, was painted in 1961 and shows the influence of Emily Carr in the majestic foliage. EJ Hughes sketched and painted many familiar places on Vancouver Island and his works are also included in the collection. The serene landscapes of Takao Tanabe are a favourite of the owner who tells me one multi-hued gem recently sold to a Toronto collector.
“Glorious Lone Land” by Ted Harrison took up an entire wall in Madrona’s historical room during June 2020. At six by eight feet the painting, likely Harrison’s largest, was experiential, with vibrant colours, shifting patterns and wormhole clouds lifting the viewer aloft. “In one day, I had three parties all vying for this painting” says Warren, who found the painting at an auction in Toronto. The painting finally sold to a collector in Calgary.
Besides a June show featuring contemporary artists like Meghan Hildebrand, Clayton Anderson, and Nicholas Bott, Madrona Gallery’s tenth anniversary celebrations included their annual Historic and Post-War Canadian Art exhibition. Millions of dollars were invested in this important show, which opened on Saturday March 14, 2020, just as the WHO officially declared the pandemic. Understandably, sales suffered. Some paintings that sold at the opening were returned on the following Monday by people fearful about economic repercussions.
“I got a pandemic for my tenth anniversary,” quips Warren, who continued to go the the gallery every day after it closed to the public. He was heartened by the response of many clients who called to see how he was doing. “It was a good time for people looking for great deals on original artwork,” he says.
In spite of present difficulties, Warren and his wife Teresa McFarland remain optimistic about the future and keen to foster the arts community and create a strong and friendly cultural climate. When they started the gallery in 2010, Teresa’s full-time employment helped support the gallery’s growth. Looking back, Warren believes he was naive, but in a joyful way. “I started knowing it was the right thing to do,” he says, “and not worrying about the outcome.”
Historic works are always on display at Madrona Gallery, 606 View St. Also on at Madrona from July 4-18 is “Guthrie Gloag: Adapt,” a solo exhibition of new driftwood sculptures by the scientist/artist. See an earlier Focus story on the sculptor here.
Kate Cino has run www.artopenings.ca for over 10 years, and has written about the arts in Victoria for even longer.