Following the footsteps of the Group of Seven

For centuries art historians have studied the masterworks of Rembrandt, Vermeer, da Vinci and Manet in search of their muses.

When it comes to Canadian painters the Group of Seven however, this task becomes more difficult.

Just ask Hamilton’s Jim and Sue Waddington, who have spent nearly 40 years locating and photographing over 300 sites sketched by the painters –  many previously unknown.

The couple was at the Wellington County Museum and Archives on May 29 to share their experience following in the footsteps of the Group of Seven and uncovering their formidable muse: the Canadian wilderness.

As unlikely as it may sound, the adventure started with a rug hooking project Sue was working on in 1977.

After visiting the McMichael Collection in Kleinburg she had selected A.Y. Jackson’s painting, Hills, Killarney, Ontario (Nellie Lake) for a tapestry creation. During the project, she wondered if the place actually existed. It turned out there was a small lake in Killarney Provincial Park by the same name, so they decided to investigate.

“We went to Nellie Lake, and it’s one of the hardest portages in the park,” she said. “We were climbing around the hills, with a little 4×6 picture, and as we went higher up the hill, we came to the spot… we couldn’t believe we could sit down and say, he did it right from here.” After that, as Jim says, they were hooked.

“When you go there, you sit and you feel you’re there with them – they’re still there;  they’ve left their mark in the way they painted that scene,” he says. In terms of process, Jim says their work is very much a team effort.

“Sue gathers clues about possible locations from readings about the Group. I try to visualize how the scene (in the painting) would look as a topographical map. Then I search real topos to find a correspondence,” he explained. “Then we plan a canoe trip to see if we are correct.”

One common misconception about the Group of Seven is that most of their work was completed in Algonquin Park, due in part to the legacy of Tom Thomson’s mysterious death. However, a small fraction of their work was actually done there.

In fact, one of the Waddington’s stops included Wellington County. Those familiar with the work of Alfred J. Casson will know he spent a brief period painting in Elora during the summers of 1929 to 1931. He said, “I fell in love with Elora at first sight… Elora was unlike any other Ontario town I knew. The others tended to be built on flat land, but Elora had a hilly terrain and was perched right on top of the lip of the gorge. I became obsessed with it.”

Some notable paintings to come out of his Elora-Salem series included, Mill at Elora, Old Store at Salem, and The Blacksmith’s Shop – which the Waddington’s showed in their presentation to be the present day Shopper’s Drug Mart.

“We walked around Elora one day and practically every corner had a painting,” Sue said.

Though urban sites such as those in Elora are interesting in terms of local history, the Waddington’s prefer to seek out places inaccessible by car. This meant traveling to remote regions of northern Ontario and as far as Pond Inlet, Nunavut to find the sites of some Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson works.

Others they find completely by accident.

“We had been looking for… A Grey Day for years, and we assumed it was in Killarney because Carmichael had a cottage there,” she said. “One day we were paddling (in Georgian Bay) and came around the corner and there it was,” she said. “That painting we’d been carrying around for 20 years.”

Recent technology has also made their hobby easier, Sue says. Before, paintings and sketches were only available as hard copies in museums or archival catalogues with prints costing up to $100 each.

Now they can easily be found online, and with hundreds of works available for each artist in the Group the Waddington’s have enough adventures to keep them busy for the time being.

“There’s thousands of paintings in these big galleries, but they only show the ones the public knows about,” says Sue. “We were in Algonquin Park a few weeks ago, and we had about 150 to 200 pictures to look for… we carry around handfuls.”

Though they started their “hobby” in the late 70s, the Waddington’s only brought their discoveries to the public’s attention within the last 10 years. Jim says they never saw it as a project with an end goal – they just did it for fun.

“We didn’t know anyone else was interested,” he said. “Boy were we wrong. The presentations are far more popular than any physics lecture I ever gave.”

Also on display at the museum until June 8 is Celebrating the Seven, showcasing fibre interpretations of the Group of Seven’s iconic Canadian style.