Margaret Thomson Tweedale — 1884-1979
“She was kind, generous, protective of family, loyal, had a good sense of humour, and was fun to be with for young and old.”
Helen Fisk Young, Margaret’s grand niece
“I remember she was always busy. Even in advanced age when we visited, she’d sit on a short-legged stool and polish the floor around her while we were talking.”
Kaye Fisk Morrison, Margaret’s grand niece
Margaret was the ninth of ten children born to John and Margaret Thomson. She grew up in Leith, near Owen Sound sharing with her siblings a love of music, arts, reading and the outdoors. Specially bound books were the family’s favourite Christmas gifts.
With the Thomson births spread over an 18 year period, Margaret had few early experiences with her eldest brothers George, Henry and Ralph who went west to seek their fortunes when she was between five and seven years of age. Margaret’s eldest sister Elizabeth married when Margaret was eight years old. She had 17 years with Tom before he went off to join his brothers out west. It was the family tradition of letter writing that kept them connected. Even when Margaret’s sisters Louise and Minnie married the Henry brothers and moved to Saskatoon they kept in touch through letters.
When she graduated from high school, Margaret went to Ottawa to train as a kindergarten teacher and then to Cobalt and Timmins to teach. In 1920, after more than 15 years of teaching, the spinster school marm married dashing William Tweedale, a Scottish-born Great War veteran. He was 24 to her 36 years of age.
William went to work at the Post Office in Toronto while Margaret made a home for them on Glenlake Avenue in the High Park district. According to grand-niece Helen Young, “It was a small two story brick house against a hillside. A vacant wooded lot was on one side and pleasant, friendly neighbours on the other. The interior was nicely but simply furnished. The walls (which Aunt Margaret painted herself) were cream. There were many paintings about the walls—George’s and Tom’s and A.Y. Jackson’s. There were also two very nice pen and ink renderings by Tom. In the dining room there was a plate rail on which she would place her current fall or spring sketches for consideration. In the living room was an upright piano and stored were her violin and Tom’s mandolin. Her treasured fine china was blue and white Royal Crown Derby Mikado (often used but washed only by her!). A silver tea service was always in use when visitors came to the house.”
Before Margaret had settled into this comfortable domestic life, the tragic death of her brother Tom had upset the whole family. Helen Young recalls, “Aunt Margaret once told me during one of our many telephone conversations that she and her sister Elizabeth (Helen’s grandmother) had talked well into the night about Tom’s death—theories other than natural causes.”
All her life Margaret remained fiercely protective of her brother Tom’s reputation. “In a phone conversation,” adds Helen, “she told me that Zena Cherry, a society writer, had written a column about The Shack. Within The Shack she said was a blanket, ‘that a mother would give her black sheep son’. This comment prompted a hot letter of rebuke from Aunt Margaret.”
Helen continues with another Tom anecdote, “While working at Taylor Statten Camp in Algonquin Park, uncle Bill and aunt Margaret visited me. Algonquin Park Ranger Mark Robinson was a guest there. He told lots of stories of his early days in the Park; including some about Tom Thomson. Aunt Margaret spoke with him and I remember her being quite emotional following the encounter.”
The shared pain of Tom’s death brought the siblings closer together through correspondence and visits. By 1926 George and Jean Telford Thomson had returned to Owen Sound and soon thereafter George started the traditional spring and fall painting expeditions. Margaret first joined these expeditions when she was established in Toronto and had her own driver, the obliging William Tweedale.
William Tweedale was supportive of Margaret’s painting. He was proud of her work and that of George and Tom. He was also supportive of the young Ontario College of Art student, his wife’s grand niece, Helen Young. Helen remembers, “He had a fine collection of classical records which were a lesson for me in appreciation. Although he never mentioned the war, I believe it coloured his political views. The news was closely followed. While staying there I realized that silence was expected during the twelve o’clock news.” Helen also recalled that Margaret and William were very affectionate though at times Margaret could be fiery. “Aunt Margaret was very protective of family letters and memorabilia and I remember her being furious with uncle Bill for his having been over-zealous in cleaning out a closet.”
From the 1940s onward, each year there were painting trips north to the Dwight area with William at the wheel. Sometimes Margaret’s friends Mrs Halliwell and Mrs Cameron accompanied them. William would read while the group sketched. Helen narrates, “I was visiting at times when she had been preparing panels which had to be readied at least six weeks prior to the trip north. She also prepared knee warmers –knitted sometimes by friends. She didn’t wear slacks so those warm stockings were a must. She wore a coat and hat with scarves tied over it. They painted in any kind of weather—morning and afternoon for two week trips. Sometimes they were forced by rain or snow to work from the veranda of Miss Glass’ rooming place at Milford Bay, Muskoka, their location after Dwight. Landscape, of course, was her only subject matter.”
In a 1964 Toronto Star article Margaret stated, “I think my brother George is one of the best painters in Canada.” As proud and fond as she was of George, she preferred to remove herself from the group when she sketched with them. Helen notes, “She did not want to be instructed by George-preferring to work and discover on her own. She was very independent. In Margaret’s own words, “I like to do my own work in my own way but he (George) tells me things and criticizes my sketches.” Program notes from the Glenhyrst 1965 Thomson Family Exhibit state, “Her work is distinctly her own, reflecting her gracious character rather than the robust works of her brothers.”
With George as chief critic and William as great supporter, Margaret created a small body of charming landscapes in the years she took painting expeditions with her family and friends. She was reluctant to promote or sell them. According to Margaret Weier’s 1964 article, “When Mrs. William Tweedale sells one of her paintings, it’s almost like parting with a child.”
Margaret outlived her husband and painting partners George and Fraser by a decade. However, by the time they were gone she had spent a quarter of a century enjoying their company and sketching and painting with them. She was the last surviving Thomson child when she died in 1979.
Margaret Thomson Tweedale’s works were exhibited at Glenhyrst and in Owen Sound in the 1960s. Her works were featured in “The Thomsons of Durham” at the Durham West Arts Centre in 2005 and now once again she joins her brother George in a new painting adventure at John A. Libby Fine Arts.