Tom Thomson

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Imagining Tom Thomson’s Toronto circa 1912

In 1912 Tom Thomson was on the cusp of becoming the painter of Algonquin Park. For the 10 previous years he’d lived in boarding houses. He escaped Toronto’s urban bustle painting with co-workers at York and Lambton Mills, in the Humber Valley and Weston at Lake Scugog and near Owen Sound. He’d been to High Park and the Don Valley collecting samples, to the Scarborough Bluffs to take photographs and to St. Catherine’s to visit a sister. He’d not yet visited the area that would make him Canada’s most renowned artist.

The Toronto Archives hold photographic collections that bring to life the Toronto of that time. They make it easy to imagine Tom walking on the streets where he lived, worked and socialized. The archival photos show what Tom escaped in 1912.

Temperance and Bay, City of Toronto Archives

I wrote about Tom’s city experiences in Tom Thomson’s Toronto Neighbourhoods. I thought I was fairly well done until I heard from Joan Thomson. Joan is related to the artist Tom Thomson (b 1877) through his grandfather Tam’s Scottish son who was also called Tom Thomson (b 1832) and therefore his uncle.

After he came to Canada around 1851, this Tom Thomson married Jane Walker of Ashburn, ON. Tom and Jane separated in the late 1870s and she eventually lost their house in Claremont. Joan Thomson told me that Jane and their son Robert lived at 13 Breadalbane Street in Toronto from 1889 to 1893. Now, that got me stirred up again about Tom’s Toronto.

Tom Thomson • 1877~1917


The artist Tom Thomson’s Aunt Jane and Cousin Robert had lived on the same street as he! Needing short-term accommodation between travels in 1912 Tom lodged with the 29-year-old Irish-Canadian, Catholic, lodger Benjamin Catchpole at Martha Mackenzie’s Boarding House at 61 Breadalbane. The young Benjamin was a Secretary-Treasurer of a Milling Company; he lived at Mrs. Mackenzie’s with two older Catchpoles, probably his parents.

I knew from my former walk for the Neighbourhoods piece that Breadalbane ran between Bay and Yonge and that it bore no traces of Tom’s short stay there. Tom wouldn’t have seen his aunt and cousin, but I wondered: What did Tom see?

Thanks to the intrepid research of Mary Cook and Andrea Ketelaars, we’ve been able to conjure up Breadalbane of old. The maps tell the important parts of the story. Martha Mackenzie’s Boarding House now lies under the Mowat Block. In the 1960s Breadalbane was closed at Bay to allow for the construction of the government complex. In 1912, if Tom had a front window view, he’d have overlooked the convent grounds of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Their convent and school occupied an entire city block—very imposing. He’d have been spitting distance from Queen’s Park.

We’ve put together neighbourhood images. Enjoy the ride through Toronto of yore—Tom’s Toronto.


Angie Littlefield | 416.282.0646 |