Thoreau MACDONALD, 1901 – 1989
Born near Toronto, Ontario, the only son of J.E.H. MacDonald and Harriet Joan Lavis, he was taken to England in 1904 by his parents during the period in which his father worked as a book illustrator for the Carleton Studios.1 On their return to Canada in 1907 they settled again near High Park and the Humber Valley.2 There Thoreau accompanied his father on some of his sketching trips. He would try to persuade his father to pick his subjects near a convenient hill for play in winter or a stream in summer.3 In 1913 the MacDonalds moved to Thornhill where Thoreau attended public school.4 During these early years he observed and learned much about the country which provided him with valuable knowledge for the future. At the age of fifteen he became a farm hand and spent most of the next six years of his life at this occupation.5 When his father moved his studio to The Studio Building he accompanied him. There he visited Tom Thomson, a close friend of his father, then living in the shack at the back of the property. During these visits he had dinner with Tom and spent some time talking with him about his experiences in the woods and some of his simple philosophies of life.6 The excitement of watching the Algonquin Group at work and the contact of the personalities which made up their numbers, kindled the boy’s interest in art. He began to study under his father in 1919. By 1922 he had successfully submitted his first linoleum cuts to The Canadian Forum and by 1923 was art editor and illustrator for this publication.7 About then he found the work of Rockwell Kent to be of particular interest. Kent was a vigorous painter of nature and combined his art with travel from which he produced paintings of frontiers and rural landscapes and later, decorative wood engravings and illustrations. By then MacDonald himself was a dedicated artist recording the truth of his observations of nature and his outlook was greatly enriched by the writings of Henry David Thoreau. From about 1922 Thoreau MacDonald has done design and illustration work for the following books: Old Province Tales by Archibald MacMechan (1924); The Chopping Bee by M. Victorin (1925) (1929); Shahwandagooze Days by D.A. Dunlap (1925); Lyrics of Earth by Archibald Lampman (1925); A Canadian Art Movement by F.B. Housser (1926); The Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott (1927); Poems by William Henry Drummond (1926); Red Snow On Grand Pré by Archibald MacMechan (1931); Storied York, Toronto Old And New by Blodwen Davies (1931); A Canadian Child’s ABC verses by R.K. Gordon (1931); Indian Nights by Isabel Eccleston MacKay (1930); Canadian Landscape Painters by A.H. Robson (1932); The Old Province Of Quebec by A.L. Burt (1933); West by East and other Poems by J.E.H. MacDonald (1933); A Year On The Farm (his own drawings, 1934); The Iceberg by Sir Charles G.D. Roberts (1934); Village and Fields, a few country poems by J.E.H. MacDonald (1933); The Leather Bottle by T.G. Roberts (1934); The Complete Poems of Francis Sherman edited by Lorne Pierce (1935); Some Tools Of The Pioneers (his own drawings, 1936); J.E.H. MacDonald by Albert H. Robson (1937); Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon (1938); The Industrious Bear from Krylov’s Fables (1938); J.E.H. MacDonald by E.R. Hunter (1940); Audubon Guide to Attracting Birds, various authors, NYC (1941); Queen’s University, A Centenary Volume, 1841-1941, Ed. R.C. Wallace (1942); Cape Breton Over by Clara Dennis (1942); The Sword of Lionheart by Rt. Hon. Vincent Massey (1942); David and Other Poems by Earle Birney (1942); Wilfred Campbell by Carl F. Klinck (1942); Canadian Art, Its Origin and Development by William Colgate (1943); Down North by Malcolm MacDonald (1943); In The Village Of Viger by Duncan Campbell Scott (1945); The Loghouse Nest by Louise de Kiriline, S.J.R. Saunders (1945); John Kerr by Constance Kerr Sissons (1946); The Circle Of Affection and other pieces in prose and verse by Duncan Campbell Scott (1947); Andy Clarke and His Neighbourly News (1949); Young Bush Pilot by Jack Hambleton (1949); A Landmark Lost (1932); A Few Old Gates at Thornhill and Some Nearby Farms (1933); The Rocking Chair and other poems by A.M. Klein (1951, reprint); Woods and Fields by Thoreau MacDonald (70 drawings – 1951); Hurt Not The Earth by E. Newton-White (1958); Country Hours by Clark Locke (1959); A Canadian Nation by Lorne Pierce (1960); The Knight Of Dundurn by W.S. Wallace (1960); Thornhill, 1793-1963 (The History of An Ontario Village) by Doris M. Fitzgerald (1964); Birds and Animals, drawings by Thoreau MacDonald (1968). In all MacDonald either designed the layouts, end papers, covers for, or he illustrated, over 150 books. See M.E. Edison, Thoreau MacDonald, 1973. In 1925 he completed his part in the decoration of St. Anne’s Church, Toronto, having done the mural “Raising Of Lazarus” as part of a team of artists working under his father. Describing his book illustration work in 1938 George Burgoyne8 noted, “Thoreau MacDonald, of Toronto, evidently found illustrating W.H. Blake’s translation of Louis Hemon’s ‘Maria Chapdelaine’ a task much to his liking . . . in these black and white drawings reveals the decorative sense that marked his parent’s work. MacDonald, thoroughly attune to the spirit of this tale of French Canada, has attempted no grand flights. Simple drawings illustrate a story that wins by its simplicity and truth. With telling line and effective masses the artist shows Napoleon Laliberté announcing the parish news from the steps outside the church; the horse Charles Eugène pulling the cutter through the woods; the family saying grace in the lamp-lit home; the spring break-up on the Peribonke – ice-floes sweeping down on swollen waters that curl in foam, a dark wooded shore and geese winging northward; stumps being pulled from the ground in the clearing; lumbermen on the drive; a boy making the essential smudge outside the log home; Wendigo pursuing the trespassing hunter; blueberry picking in the bush amidst charred trees; scenes of sowing and harvest; sawing wood for fuel; François Paradis hauling his toboggan in the grim winter woods that were to vanquish him; Chapdelaine driving out at night to bring the doctor to his dying wife – all the salient incidents are set down and they truly illustrate the story. . . . MacDonald has shown a sympathetic understanding of his subject in illustrating the narrative, and skill in the small drawings that end chapters and also appear as incidental embellishments.” In 1943 E.R. Hunter’s Thoreau MacDonald was published as the eighth volume in the Canadian Art Series by Ryerson. Reviewing this publication St. George Burgoyne9 in The Gazette noted, “In a few over forty pages, which bear just under thirty illustrations in black and white, Mr. Hunter succeeds in presenting an amount of interesting information, sound criticism and justly tempered appreciation of Thoreau MacDonald’s work, rightly stressing a dominant quality – its sincerity. It is a treat to study these illustrations with their varied technique and to realize – something often overlooked in these halftone days – how expressive good line can be. It is clear, even to the dabbler in pen and ink, that much thought has gone into these seemingly simple designs, and admirable discretion has been shown in the selection of these drawings which give a fair idea of the scope and scale of his talent.” In 1952 MacDonald’s pen-and-ink drawings for West by East, Maria Chapdelaine, The Mackenzie, Andy Clark and his Neighborly News and Woods and Fields were exhibited at the Willistead Art Gallery, Windsor, Ont., in April of 1952.10 Other one-man shows of his work took place at the Art Gallery of Ontario (1967); Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. (1967); Thornhill Public Library (mainly from the collection of Bruce Pierce of Toronto – 1971).11 Describing Thoreau MacDonald, John Maclure12 in a Maclean’s article wrote the following, “. . . Thoreau, who still lives on the tree-grit seven-acre MacDonald farm that is like a peaceful island in the tossing sea of suburbia. . . . On the shady lane leading to the old farmhouse, I suddenly had the illusion that I was not just walking a minute or two from a busy street, but half a century into the past. Flowers, mostly asters, bloomed by the house in an unkempt bed, as they had fifty autumns ago when MacDonald, in this spot, painted The Tangled Garden, which helped stir the most violent storm in the history of Canadian art. My illusion of travelling into the past was heightened when Thoreau MacDonald greeted me. He might have stepped out of a portrait of his famous father. He has the same finely carved features, the same sandy complexion, the same eyes that seem to reflect a gentle and perpetual amusement. . . . He is now in his sixties and these pictures (by J.E.H.), to him, are not art alone, but the happy memories of youth. He varnished the boards on which his father did the paintings in northern Ontario, in the Rockies, in Nova Scotia. Often he was there when the paintings were done, painting at the side of his father, who would nod approval when Thoreau was painting well, and correct him tactfully when he blundered. . . . Thoreau doesn’t drink or smoke, doesn’t like meat, refuses to drive a car, and dwells on the pleasures of the day when life was ‘industrious, not industrial.'” Today Thoreau MacDonald’s drawings and paintings are in the following collections: McMichael Conservation Collection of Art, Kleinburg, Ont.; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Hart House, U. of T.; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Queen’s University, Kingston; Dartmouth College, Halifax; and elsewhere. MacDonald is a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters (1933) and member of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists. See Margaret E. Edison’s definitive book on Thoreau MacDonald.
From A Dictionary of Canadian Artists