Robert Stacey and Stan McMullin
Massanoga: The Art of Bon Echo
from the catalogue published by Penumbra Press Archives
of Canadian Art, 1998
[ 18,589 words ]
PREFACE & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This book was originally commissioned in the late 1980s by Denice Wilkins,
then chief naturalist and interpreter at Bon Echo Provincial Park. She
had asked that the poet Stuart MacKinnon serve on the board of the Friends
of Bon Echo Park as a result of her discovery of his 1980 poetry collection,
Mazinaw. From him she learned of the paper I had delivered at the
1980 University of Toronto conference on Walt Whitman, entitled 'The
Art of Bon Echo: Is there a Mazinaw School?' Would I be interested
in expanding it into something more substantial? I eagerly agreed to revive
my long-dormant project, which, some time before, the poet, anthologist
and Whitmanite, John Robert Colombo, had also prodded me to develop beyond
its initial lecture format. Neither I and my long-suffering publisher,
John Flood, nor the Friends of Bon Echo Park, which agreed to sponsor
a book on the art history of Mazinaw Lake and its great Rock, suspected
at the outset just how challenging and time-consuming it would be to tell
in words and pictures the full, many-chaptered, novel-like Bon Echo story.
Over the next decade, it became clear that no single volume could tell
the rich and complex tale of the extraordinary cultural phenomenon planted
on the rocky shores of Mazinaw Lake by Flora MacDonald Denison, the pioneer
feminist, and her playwright son, Merrill Denison. My own detailed account
was written first, followed by a separate treatment of the Bon Echo pictographs,
but this collaborative overview, co-authored by another mainstay of the
Friends, Stan McMullin, is being published in advance to serve as a general
introduction to this magical place. The full story of Bon Echo includes
not only the painters' Mazinaw, but also the Mazinaw of photographers
and filmmakers, playwrights and poets, eulogists and ethnographers. The
Mazinaw Effect and its companion volume, The People of the Pictographs,
are still awaiting the touch of the funding fairy-godmother's wand.
Massanoga is a small sampler of the vast Mazinaw image bank — a Whitmanian
'presage', of the wonders awaiting the intrepid searcher through
the many rooms and hallways of this outdoor gallery. Our hope is that
it will not only tempt the reader to explore the wonders of Bon Echo Provincial
Park itself, but actively assist in the pursuit of further probes both
within and beyond its borders.
Far too many persons and institutions helped the authors conduct their
investigations to thank them individually here. However, three names stand
out as being particularly instrumental in making Massanoga a reality:
Stuart MacKinnon, Denice Wilkins, and Bon Echo Park Assistant Superintendent
Gary Sharman, to all of whom this book is gratefully dedicated. I would
also like to acknowledge the assistance and encouragement of John Robert
Colombo and Cyril Greenland, Fred and Karl Hagan, Louise Comfort, George
and Jessie Falconer, Robert and Colleen Koolen, Stan Bevington, Stan McMullin,
and John Flood. And, not least, megwitch to my companion and editor, Maggie
— Toronto, February 1998
This book is inspired by a lake in eastern Ontario, Canada, whose Algonkian
Indian name, Mazinaw (sometimes spelled Massanoga), is believed to mean
'painting' or 'painted'. Such a designation makes
sense when you consider the hundreds of prehistoric, red-ochre pictographs
running along the base of the lake's dominant feature — the
great granite lakeside cliff, known as Bon Echo Rock for its sounding-board
qualities. But the aboriginal name is doubly appropriate, because Mazinaw
Lake, and especially the 'Rock', has been one of the most frequently
painted landscapes in all of Canada since the turn of the century.
Geographically, the Bon Echo Rock is a striking feature of the Pre-Cambrian
Shield: a 300-metre (1,000-foot) fault in a granite / gneiss formation,
with a sheer, exposed face 100 metres (350 feet) in height above the waterline
of Mazinaw Lake, itself more than 130 metres (435 feet) deep. This body
of water may be the deepest we know of in Ontario, apart from the Great
The vertical face of the Bon Echo cliff is also the site of a remarkable
botanical discovery. It is home to many gnarled and ancient white cedars,
which have sustained themselves through natural adversity for centuries.
Their corkscrewed formations made these trees worthless to the loggers
who ravaged the area in the second half of the nineteenth century. So
on the cliff face we have the remains of an undisturbed ecosystem, part
of a true old-growth forest, with at least one tree over nine hundred
Located at the headwaters of the 'Canadian', or 'Little
Mississippi', which flows eastward to the Ottawa River above the
national capital city of Ottawa, Mazinaw Country lies at a height of land
and at a dividing of waters — often a mark of spiritual and cultural
significance for seekers of truth and beauty. To the unknown First Nations
peoples who inscribed 260 or more of their cryptic signs along its length,
it undoubtedly had sacred significance. They may have thought of it as
the residence of manidos and animal spirits to which they made
offerings or with whom they communed on vision quests. Certainly, this
is the most numerous collection of Algonkian rock paintings, or pictographs,
yet found in any single location east of the Rockies.
Since the 1850s, when the colonisation roads were hewn out of the white
pine forest, the Mazinaw site has continued to attract visitors and to
generate mythology. Among the many folk legends associated with Bon Echo
are those describing the Indian treasure cave supposedly discovered by
Captain John Meyer in the 1820s. As the captain was never able to return
to his find, stories of its silver trove still raise the pulse of treasure-seekers.
The rock was also the reputed scene of battles between local Algonkian
and raiding Iroquois tribes for control of the once-rich fishing grounds
between the Mississippi and Madawaska watersheds. However, archaeological
digs at the Rock do not indicate any long-term aboriginal settlements.
One of the most interesting features of Bon Echo is the dedication 'to
the democratic ideals of Walt Whitman' carved into the base of the
rock face in the summer of 1920 at the command of Flora MacDonald Denison.
She was born Flora Merrill in 1867, of Scottish-Canadian parents, in a
logger's shanty on the Skootamatta River in Frontenac County, not
far south of Mazinaw Lake. As Flora Denison, she went on to become a journalist
in Detroit and Toronto and to operate a successful dress-making business.
A theosophist, spiritualist, feminist and Whitmanite, she played a major
role in the winning of votes for women in New York State and Ontario.
In the course of her campaigning travels, she met with the likes of Emmeline
Pankhurst, Susan B. Anthony and the American novelist Charlotte Perkins
In 1910 Flora and her husband, Howard Denison, purchased the Bon Echo
Inn from its Cleveland based builder and owner, Dr. Weston A. Price, a
successful dentist originally from Belleville. Price and his bride had
fallen in love with this remarkable place during their honeymoon in 1899
and formed the idea of building a 'fresh-air' resort for smoke-choked
city-dwellers. Their rustic inn, designed by a Cleveland architect, was
completed by local artisans within two years. Charlotte Perkins Gilman
was a guest at the inn in August 1911, staying in a cottage that was afterwards
named in her honour. Flora Denison also enticed the prominent Toronto
landscape and portrait artist F.M. Bell-Smith to Mazinaw Lake in the hope
that he would be inspired to capture the grandeur of Bon Echo in paint.
History, legend and archaeology aside, the Bon Echo Rock is an object
of impressive grandeur, particularly in the rays of the setting sun. Among
the other well-known artists who sketched at Bon Echo during the Flora
Denison period (though not necessarily as her guests) were the political
cartoonist J.W. Bengough, C.W. Jefferys, best known as an historical illustrator
and muralist, and J.W. Beatty, who taught several generations of Canadian
painters at the Ontario College of Art.
Unlike these two younger artists, Bell-Smith returned to Bon Echo on several
occasions. He was present in August 1919 to witness the dedication of
the Rock in honour of Walt Whitman on the centenary of his birth.
Both Flora and Merrill Denison, her American-born son, were devotees of
this poet and champion of democracy. Flora tried to emulate Whitman's
ideals by creating a colony at Bon Echo modelled on that of her friend
Elbert Hubbard's Roycrofters, an arts-and-crafts community he operated
as a successful business at East Aurora in upstate New York. Other models
included the Spiritualist summer camp at Lily Dale, New York, where Flora
visited as a speaker, séance participant and librarian, and the
camp that still runs each summer at Chautauqua, also in upstate New York.
She hoped to attract like-minded writers, artists, architects, musicians
and theatre people, as well as fellow feminists, socialists, spiritualists
and advocates of free love, to her Bon Echo Inn retreat.
To realize her dream, Denison founded the Whitman Club of Bon Echo in
1915, the same year that she joined the newly established Canadian branch
of the Whitman Fellowship. The following year she held the first meeting
of the Whitman Club and launched the first of six issues of the 'house'
magazine, The Sunset of Bon Echo, a curious blend of promotional
and inspirational prose and poetry in which she advertised her resort
and her favourite causes with equal enthusiasm. For a time she even managed
to persuade the Canadian Pacific Railway to distribute the journal through
its travel agencies. The attractive front-cover design was the work of
a talented young illustrator and painter named Frank H. Johnston, who
had met Merrill Denison at the University of Toronto and later renewed
his acquaintance in Pennsylvania. Johnston, one of the original members
of the Group of Seven, would later design some handsome advertising brochures
The culmination of Flora Denison's efforts at Bon Echo was the celebration
she organized there in August 1919 for the Whitman centenary. Although
she had even more ambitious plans for her property, including a Whitman
library, she did not live to realise these idealistic schemes. She died
on 21 May 1921 of pneumonia, which was blamed on an unseasonable snowstorm
during her last visit to Mazinaw Lake. Merrill Denison inherited the inn
and its debt-load. He and his fiancée, Muriel Goggin, whom he appointed
as manager, immediately began setting in motion their own ideas about
what Bon Echo could be. His work as a playwright-in-residence at the University
of Toronto's Hart House Theatre and his membership in the Toronto
Arts and Letters Club brought him into contact with a younger generation
of painters and writers, many of whom accepted his invitation to stay
as guests at the inn. In exchange for free or reduced room and board,
Denison acquired artwork for promotional materials from several of these
colleagues, who bought time to paint by working weekdays as commercial
artists and designers in Toronto. The authors of the letterpress for these
brochures and pamphlets were Denison and Muriel Goggin, herself a journalist
who later became a successful writer of children's books. Other members
of the Group of Seven who accepted this offer, besides Frank Johnston,
were Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael and A.J. Casson.
Group of Seven founding member Arthur Lismer (1885-1969), his wife and
daughter paid two artistically productive summer visits to Bon Echo in
1921 and 1922. In honour of their stay, the Denisons named one of their
guest cabins the Lismer Cottage. Although he moved on to other, more rugged
Ontario landscapes, Lismer remained closely associated with Merrill Denison,
acting in his play From their Own Place at its 1922 premiere and
designing the sets for his Mazinaw-based The Weather Breeder in
1924, again at the Arts and Letters Club.
Jackson spent several weeks during the winter of 1924 at the inn with
Denison, painting a number of snow-bright oil landscapes in his characteristic
manner, as well as helping his host lay out some advertising materials.
On his return to Toronto he began work on a commissioned poster, which
was printed by Rous and Mann from a tempera design, using the new silk-screening
process introduced to Canada by the firm of Sampson-Matthews. The result
is one of the most striking examples of applied graphic design produced
by a Canadian artist during the 1920s. Ironically, this brilliant publicity
stroke was to hasten the downfall of the inn as a business, for the Denisons'
inability to pay the printer's bill led to a lawsuit that resulted
in bankruptcy. This did not prevent Merrill Denison from begging a brochure
and letterhead design from Jackson, who by then had largely abandoned
commercial art for full-time painting.
In that same winter of 1924, Denison also enjoyed the company of the wildlife
painter-illustrator Arthur Heming, who fancifully incorporated aspects
of the Mazinaw landscape in his popular survivalist yarn, The Living
Forest, published in New York and Toronto in 1926. At one point in
the 1930s Heming, who exhibited widely, could boast of being the best-known
Canadian artist outside Canada.
The last and perhaps most effective brochure was designed for Bon Echo
Inn by the youngest member of the original Group of Seven, Franklin Carmichael,
an extraordinarily gifted hand-letterer and designer, as well as one of
Canada's best practitioners of the exacting medium of watercolours.
Produced in 1928 by Sampson-Matthews, this publicity piece features interior
line drawings by Carmichael and a dramatic nocturnal impression of the
Rock in stencil-like blues and blacks.
The summer of 1924 also saw the return to Mazinaw Lake of Doris Huestis
Mills, a self-taught woman painter from Toronto, who had visited the previous
year without trying her hand at any landscapes. Buoyed by the encouragement
of her friends Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald, two senior members
of the Group of Seven, Mills used her stay at the inn to fill a small
sketchbook with simple, schematic drawings, which she worked up into oil
panels, canvases and linocut prints in her studio. Though clearly the
work of a gifted amateur, her images convey something of the spiritual
dimension of the landscape. Her poster-like flattening of forms illustrates
the degree to which the bold palette and radical simplifications of the
Group had come to dominate Canadian landscape painting by the mid-1920s.
Another Toronto-based artist who responded to the visual stimulation of
the Mazinaw landscape was the Scottish-born Charles F. Comfort (1900-1994),
who emulated Harris, Carmichael and others not only in depicting northern
subject matter but in financing his painting career through commercial
art. Comfort may first have visited Mazinaw Lake in 1927 with the objective
of producing a poster or brochure for his friend Merrill Denison, but
for some reason — possibly the forced closure of the business in
the Crash year of 1929 — his two art-deco-style designs went no further
than the maquette stage. However, Comfort had fallen in love with Bon
Echo and its mysteriously compelling cliff, the subject of his intensely
coloured Great Rock, Bon Echo.
Mazinaw Lake remained in Comfort's thoughts over the next few years,
though he was unable to revisit the site of his first 'northern'
sketching trip. He even evoked the place in a studio canvas in 1932 entitled
Young Canadian, a portrait of his painter friend Carl Schaefer
as a victim of the Depression, and one of the iconic images of the 1930s.
Close examination of this powerful work reveals a stylized version of
the Great Rock looming in the upper right.
In 1936, the year of the inn's destruction by fire, Comfort returned
to Bon Echo with his wife, Louise, his studio-partner and sketching companion,
Will Ogilvie, and the painters Bobs Cogill Haworth and Peter Haworth.
Mysteriously, no sketches or canvases by any of these artists have come
to light from that visit, but the trip is recorded in colour photographs
taken by the Comforts.
Although unable to paint again at this locus of inspiration until fifty
years after his discovery of the lake, Comfort resorted to memory and
imagination in painting Promontory, an unlikely nude-in-the-landscape
against the Big Rock, which he later destroyed. But first he used it in
1938 in the background of a portrait of his sculptor friend Emanuel Hahn.
Comfort chose to edit out the frame around the painting by cutting down
the canvas, which in effect placed Hahn in a landscape he seems never
to have visited in person, but with which he would have been in tune.
In 1966 Comfort made another visit to Bon Echo. Following this, he had
slides printed from the roll of colour film he had shot at the lake in
1936. This led to an attempt to salvage more of the memories evoked by
this exercise through a painting entitled Whitman Monument, based
on his 1927 sketch panel Bon Echo Rock. In making this version he 'heated
up' the cool blue hues of the source image to create a dreamlike
vision of the cliff swimming in sunset glow. Ten years later Comfort and
his wife would make a nostalgic last pilgrimage to Mazinaw Lake on the
fiftieth anniversary of the painter's first exposure to this memorable
A.J. Casson (1898-1992), who replaced Frank Johnston when he quit the
Group of Seven in 1924, followed the pattern of his older studio-mate,
Franklin Carmichael, in coming to Bon Echo in 1927 as a commercial artist.
He was not able to return until the summer of 1932, but then he made up
for lost time by executing a number of ambitious, highly structured watercolours.
The unusual vantage point of Lake Mazinaw places the viewer dizzily atop
the cliff, looking straight down and out across the windswept water. A
more conventional composition, but strong and subtle in colour, is an
oil-on-canvas from 1960 entitled Bon Echo Rock.
Frederick Hagan (b.1918), who first came to Mazinaw Country in 1945, was
an even more ardent returning visitor. The following year he was appointed
instructor of arts and crafts at Camp Mazinaw, an 'alternative'
summer boys' camp before its time. This northern-Ontario native,
strongly influenced by German Expressionist painters and printmakers,
ranged over the local landscape, making lithographs, watercolours and
ink drawings more varied in subject than any other interpreter of this
terrain, its inhabitants or its often-ignored history of fur-trapping,
lumbering and mining. Hagan last painted at Mazinaw Lake in 1978. In August
1993 the painter, by then in his early 80s, was on hand for the unveiling
in Bon Echo Park of an Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque honouring the
artists and writers who helped put the place on the cultural map.
The English-born Eric Aldwinckle (1909-1980), another versatile and multi-talented
member of the Toronto Arts and Letters Club, visited Bon Echo in 1960.
He too painted the Rock from various angles, chiselling its declivities
into severe, geometrical planes that reflect a knowledge of Cubism as
well as the influence of Lawren Harris and Charles Comfort. (Though a
close friend of Merrill Denison, Harris seems never to have stayed at
The Bon Echo property entered a new phase in its cultural history when
Merrill Denison transferred the deed to the Ontario Department of Lands
and Forests in 1959 to preserve it from development. Certain buildings
and lakefront were reserved for the use of the Denisons until their death.
By the late 1950s landscape painting was not favoured by younger artists,
who had switched their allegiance to the New York-based Abstract Expressionist
School. Since then, Bon Echo has largely escaped the attention of image-makers
other than amateur photographers, though there are welcome traces of reviving
Mazinaw Country began its return to the literary map when Stuart MacKinnon,
a poet and librarian, 'discovered' the Mazinaw story while sorting
the Merrill Denison Papers at Queen's University. In 1980 he published
a poetry collection entitled Mazinaw — another remarkable example
of the power of the Rock to inspire artistic production.
For a concluding image to this survey of the art of Bon Echo, Robert Stacey
approached the American-born, Toronto-based photographer, writer and multi-media
artist David Hlynsky in the hope that he would agree to visit the lake
to record his own impressions. When he learned about the Big Rocks pictographic
picture gallery, he leaped at the challenge of adding to his recent series
of photo-generated northern-Ontario landscapes by creating two virtual
'pictomyths'. Design for Crystal That Catches Good Echoes
and A Lake Is Not Where it Seems Before and After Newton evolved
from a doodle drawn on a hotel napkin, which he redrew in ink for digital
scanning and then digital blending with a colour photograph he shot on
the ice of Lake Mazinaw in March of 1993. Hlynsky and Stan Bevington,
the genial doyen of Toronto's Coach House Press, modified the resulting
image so as to create a twentieth-century version of the primitive, mysterious
picture language of the first inhabitants of this land. Hlynsky describes
his computer-drawing as
|an electronic map: a diagram for a simple
crystal radio whose essential parts could have been fashioned from
stone similar to this one. With this truly magical assemblage I
might hear the disembodied voices of distant friends and the echoes
of ancestors...I am certain that they are always here...always
speaking someplace underneath this silence.
The tradition of art at Bon Echo continues into the present through the
activities of the Friends of Bon Echo Provincial Park. This group of dedicated
volunteers, committed to telling the natural and cultural story of Bon
Echo, was convened in 1988. Over the years it has promoted artist-in-residence
programs — one recent beneficiary being the Ontario landscape painter
John Mortensen — and, beginning in the summer of 1996, has organized
an outdoor art show in the park. The Friends have also arranged readings
from Whitman, public presentations of relevant research, and outdoor productions
of some of Merrill Denison's plays with local settings.
With the impressive lichen- and pictograph-mapped Bon Echo Rock and the
looming presence of 'Old Walt', Mazinaw is layered with multiple
meanings. Like the growth rings of the ancient cedars that tell a 900-year-old
story to modern scientists, the Rock bears the incremental record of generations
of human contact and response. It has inspired canvases that have carried
its message to the art galleries of Canada, to the boardroom walls of the
corporate elite and, through reproductions and photographs, to the living-rooms
of the general public. This book hardly scratches the surface of the Bon
Echo phenomenon. In the pages to follow, you will find visual reflections
of this unique landscape, accompanied by short historical sketches. The
authors hope that you will want to know more about Mazinaw Country, will
visit these sites, will pay them due reverence — and will move beyond
them in the quest to live their lesson and carry forward their spirit.
| Pictographs and Petroglyphs, prehistoric
paintings executed with the finger in red ochre (pictographs), and
carvings (petroglyphs) incised, abraded or ground by means of stone
tools upon cliff walls, boulders and flat bedrock surfaces. They
have been discovered throughout Canada. "Rock art" constitutes
Canada's oldest and most widespread form of artistic expression,
and is part of a worldwide genre of prehistoric art which includes
the cave paintings of Spain and France. No foolproof method for
the precise dating of rock art has been discovered, other than speculative
association with stratified, relatively datable archaeological remains.
While the tradition of rock art was no doubt brought into Canada
by the earliest Indians some 25,000 years ago, it is most unlikely
that examples of antiquity will ever be found.
Rock art in much of Canada is linked with shamanism, a widespread
religious tradition in which the shaman's major tasks are healing
and prophesy, along with the vision quest; and with the search for
"helping" spirits. ...Although sites at Bon Echo Provincial
Park in southern Ontario and at Lake Superior Provincial Park near
Wawa, Ont., are well known, the majority of pictograph discoveries
have been made in Quetico Park and at Lake of the Woods in northwestern
— Joan M. Vastokas in The Canadian Encyclopedia,
THE MAZINAW PICTOGRAPHS
J.S. Harper, a government land-surveyor based in Bytown (Ottawa), was the
first to map the Mississippi headwaters scientifically and was probably
the first to describe Mazinaw Lake, the Big Rock and its mysterious pictographs.
In 1847 he recorded that the now-faded images were colourful enough to be
visible several miles away, and that aboriginal peoples in the area 'suppose
the paintings were executed before any Indians existed, probably by the
presiding spirit of the rock, as they place pieces of tobacco, [pine or
spruce] gum etc. in the cavities aspresents to his supernatural holiness.'
The rock art in the Bon Echo 'gallery' of about 260 images is
the finest such grouping in Ontario, and perhaps in eastern North America.
In an 1879 article, A.J.B. Halfpenny of Renfrew, Ontario, tried to decipher
these mysterious 'writings':
|Animals, men, deer drawing sleds, hunting scenes, and various
devices are clearly depicted in red, to a scale of one-fifteenth
the original size. But what seems strange is that one of the pictures
is that of a veritable camel, bearing armed men; ahead of the camel
is a dead-fall; and to one side are some armed men waiting in ambush...There
are some other odd pictures, but they were submerged by water at
the time we visited the rock in June, 1878.
Other visitors came and went, but there to see some special shape...,' as he himself
admitted, the Boyle drawings are a valuable early record.
In August 1895 R.J. Drummond, manager of the Perth branch of the Bank
of Montreal, and William 'Clyde' Caldwell, a prosperous mine-owner
and Liberal politician, paddled up the Mississippi River to Bon Echo. Drummond,
an amateur watercolourist, must be credited with the first artistic rendering
of the Big Rock on Mazinaw Lake.
The two men set out in birch bark canoes and after three painful days
of paddling and portaging finally arrived at 'Missanogo', the
headwaters of the Mississippi River. Their reaction to the great rock
was published after their trip:
|Through a little current and over four miles of that lake we
sped with eager dip, and an overcoat for a sail. The steamer was
puffing at Billiard Snyder's portable mill and a large heap
of sawdust showed that it had some business to do. Johnnie Bay's,
the Indian's house, and Gilmour's lift for logs was on
our left, and away to the north, on the right, with the blue hills
beyond it, was the rock. The water washed merrily past our birch
bark canoe and the boys sang in the other, and the rock grew higher
and broader as the locomotive enlarges approaching a station. We
felt now, not victims of the paddle, but holiday seekers with our
pleasure ground in view. And the rock grew higher still, till at
the camp at its foot we felt its imposing grandeur. The frosts of
a thousand years had fractured out of its face rifts from summit
to base, debris to make a city of stone, but the silent water lapped
yet on a wall with no shore, and the summers of a hundred years
had nursed the few cedars on its face, but yet they were baby trees
and the rampikes on the summit were like a few grey hares scared
at the tales the rock could tell.
Drummond's untitled watercolour view presents the Big Rock from the
north shore of the 'Narrows' with a suspender-wearing canoeist
— Caldwell? the artist himself? — in the right foreground. The striations
and mineral discolouring of the gneiss and granite escarpment are tellingly
rendered, but Drummond chose topographical accuracy over artistic effect
in recording such telling data as the lowered lake-level indicated by
the horizontal waterline running along the base of the Rock and the charred
rampikes at the top — both legacies of the intensive lumbering activities
that by the mid-1890s had done their damage, and which had sent the industry
into irreversible decline.
Tourist operators were already moving in to occupy the vacuum left by
the departing lumber trade, but five years would pass before the construction
of the Bon Echo Inn, an event that coincided with a new century and a
new focus on outdoor recreation and the cult of the North.
THE BON ECHO INN AND THE DENISONS
Mazinaw Lake witnessed a range of activities in the nineteenth century.
Silver and other semi-precious minerals were mined nearby. In exploiting
the dense stands of red and white pine along its shores, lumber barons
had devastated the region. The thin soil of the cleared land was depleted
through inappropriate agricultural settlement. By the late 1890s the Mazinaw
area had been abandoned to subsistence farming.
The modern history of Bon Echo began soon after with Dr. Weston A. Price,
a young Canadian who had trained as a dentist in Cleveland. As a boy he
had camped on Mazinaw Lake, and years later he and his schoolteacher bride
came upon the site while canoeing up the Mississippi River on their honeymoon.
Despite the ravaging impact of clear-cut logging on the shores of the
lake, the couple were so taken with the majesty of the Rock that Price
immediately bought the remote lakeshore frontage from the original settlers
and named the spot Bon Echo for the acoustic effect. A year later he began
the construction of an inn and several free-standing cottages, which were
open for business in time for the next summer season. In 1901 Flora and
Howard Denison and their young son, Merrill, were among the guests staying
at the inn. 'I remember many of the details as vividly as if they
had happened yesterday,' Merrill Denison wrote many years later:
|There was the drive over the bald mountains...surely bald
at that time, almost as bald as the glaciers left them except for
the bleached stubs of ancient pines that rimmed the horizon like
a giant's picket fence.
Then came the drive through the old villages of Northbrook and Cloyne
to Snider's Depot at the foot of Lake Mazinaw with its huge
empty log warehouses left to rot by the Canada Lumber Company...I
remember too...the impression made on me by the first sight of
the Big Rock, bathed in golden sunlight...
I had heard from my mother about the Rock and the legend of a treasure
cave of silver...My mother knew the Skootamatta well and grew
up with its legends for she was born in the midst of a February
blizzard in 1867 in a lumber shanty about two miles north of Bridgewater...
To return to Bon Echo itself: ...my father, mother and I first
saw the glorious panorama at sunset...in July, 1901 when we rode
up through the narrows and were welcomed at the immense (or so it
seemed to me) north dock by Dr. Price himself. Father had reserved
the royal suite: the tower room commanding a magnificent view of
the Rock and the entire lake...
The doctor...employed an architect to design a hotel similar
to those to be found in the Adirondacks and along the coast of Maine.
The result was a quite imposing...frame structure providing for...sleeping
rooms on the second and third floors, with lounges on the first
and second floors and the dining-room, kitchen, storerooms, and
an apartment for the doctor and his wife on the first...the Inn,
as built, contained about twenty-eight bedrooms on the two upper
As I recall the story told me by the outdoor workmen, the Inn was
built during the season of 1899, a feat which never could have been
accomplished without the indomitable persistence of Dr. Price...
Consider, too, the actual location of Bon Echo itself — twenty
miles from the nearest railroad and forty miles from the nearest
market town in which meat, vegetables and building materials could
be obtained. However, mileage alone does not fully tell the story
because of the condition of the Addington road between Kaladar station
and the site chosen by the Prices to build Bon Echo Inn. Such roads
were maintained for only a few years by the government after which
they were left to the settlers who had taken up lots along the road...
I have always found it impossible to piece together the succession
of events between 1899 when the Inn was reputedly begun and 1901
when I came to know it as a fully developed summer resort.
At that time, a main building had been constructed and along with
it, five cottages, a separate staff house, several tent platforms
together with several service buildings. There was a boathouse in
which a fleet of twenty-five rowboats, canoes and launches spent
the winter, a laundry, an icehouse, a combined water-tower and workshop
with quarters for the staff on the upper floors. In addition to
all this, Dr. Price had found time to build a rustic bridge across
the narrows and an iron stairway to the top of the Rock, string
a telephone line from the Inn to Kaladar station and construct two
large docks, flanked by covered pavilions on the lower and upper
How did Price manage to do all this in two seasons and at the same
time manage to conduct a successful dental practice in Cleveland?
So far as I was able to discover, one of the very first steps was
to locate a portable sawmill and move it to Bon Echo...The Inn
itself, the cottages and service buildings were constructed mainly
of undressed pine lumber sawn at the portable mill from the great
quantity of logs left on the property by the lumbermen. The main
building was finished in dressed lumber, which had to be brought
in. The same applied to every article of manufacture needed, stoves,
kitchen equipment, plumbing fixtures, glass and china. There was
even a piano, which fell off a lumber wagon on the Bald Mountains
and spent a night in the ditch.
Denison recalled that in 1910 he and his parents
|ventured into the backwoods of Ontario with the first motor
car ever driven north of Bridgewater [now Actinolite]. We reached
Bon Echo to learn of the death of the Prices' ten-year-old
son a week or two before. The Doctor and his wife were anxious to
sell and my mother bought the property. Weston Price used the money
he received from the sale of Bon Echo to embark on a research project
that later won him world renown in the pioneer study of dental caries
[i.e., cavities] among aboriginal children.
Flora Denison bought Bon Echo in the hope that the
remarkable site would attract writers, artists and progressive thinkers
who would form an inspired, if ultimately short-term, community. But for
some years she was too busy running her dress-making business in Toronto,
editing a weekly page on labour issues in the Toronto Sunday World,
and fighting for women's suffrage, fully to develop her vision. Once
the First World War had ended and women had won the privilege of full citizenship,
Flora Denison was eager for further affirmations of democracy. The works
of Walt Whitman, the radical American writer, gave voice to her deepest
beliefs about human freedom and fellowship, life and death. She dreamed
of making Bon Echo a memorial to this great poet and humanist, seeing in
the granite mass of the Rock the same elemental, ageless qualities she found
in his autobiographical epic, Leaves of Grass.
In the summer of 1919 Flora Denison invited the late poet's biographer
and friend Horace Traubel and other lovers of art and liberty to gather
at Bon Echo to dedicate the Rock to the spirit of Walt Whitman by naming
it 'Old Walt'. The following summer, an inscription from Whitman's
poem Song of Myself was carved on the face of the Rock about six
feet above the waterline by two stone-cutters brought from Aberdeen, Scotland:
|My foothold is tenon'd and mortised in granite,
I laugh at what you call dissolution
And I know the amplitude of time.
Merrill Denison had designed the giant lettering. Overgrown until recently
with decades of lichen and moss, the now-cleaned chiselling is visible
today from the far shore of the lake, though not legible with the naked
John Robert Colombo tells us in Mysterious Canada that Bon Echo
was allegedly visited by the spirit of Walt Whitman on several occasions
at the time of the dedication. While sitting with a friend on the inn
veranda, Horace Traubel claimed to have seen the head and shoulders of
the dead poet rise above the Rock and to have heard Whitman invite him
to 'Come on.' Less than two weeks later, Whitman's ghost
appeared, in company with the apparitions of his literary executor, the
Canadian Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, and the American free-thinker Robert
G. Ingersoll, and again invited Traubel to join him. To complete the image,
a screaming eagle circled the Rock.
Traubel, who had been in poor health, accepted Whitman's invitation
by taking to his bed and dying. An eye witness reported that, just before
the moment of death, a faint light appeared, grew in intensity and engulfed
both men. Traubel's body was transported to New York City for a religious
funeral service, in spite of his well-known rejection of Christianity for
humanism, and his warnings that disaster would befall if his wishes were
ignored after his death. During the service the church caught fire and his
body had to be rescued from the flames. It then received a peaceful burial
in New Jersey beside the Whitman grave.
After Flora Denison's death in May 1921 at the age of fifty-four,
Merrill Denison and his fiancée, Muriel Goggins, began active management
of Bon Echo Inn. They operated it until 1928, when financial difficulties
forced its closure. From 1929 to 1934 the property was leased to Camp
Mazinaw, a boys' camp operated by Kenneth Ketchum, who later became
headmaster of St. Andrews College. Then in 1936 a lease was arranged for
Leavens Brothers, an aviation company whose members were long-time summer
residents of the area. That year the main inn building erected by Dr.
Price burned down. Even after their move to New York, the Denisons continued
to summer at Bon Echo, which they hoped to convert into a conference and
study centre for professional foresters, conservationists and nature-lovers.
Unfortunately, they could not raise the necessary funds to operate this
facility according to plan.
The Ontario Department of Lands and Forests took over the Bon Echo property
in 1959, combining it with Crown and purchased land. Bon Echo Provincial
Park was officially opened in 1965 with the unveiling of a bronze plaque
mounted on the Point, which honours Merrill Denison and his second wife,
Elizabeth, and which also commemorates Flora MacDonald Denison and Muriel
Goggin Denison, Merrill's first wife.
During the time of the Denisons' active management, the grounds
of the Bon Echo Inn sported a number of rustic summer cottages and cabins
rented out to guests. Some carried the names of famous people who had
stayed there, such as the Arthur Lismer and Charlotte Perkins Gilman cottages.
One by one, these buildings have disappeared. Now only three structures
from the Denison days are left in the park. Dollywood, a log cabin built
for rent or lease by Merrill Denison, now serves as the interpretive centre
for the Ministry of Natural Resources. The small cottage high on the bluff
behind Greystones may still be rented from the Ministry. Greystones itself
is the most interesting of the three.
In the opinion of Lisa Horowitz, a graduate student who has been researching
the history of this cottage in the course of a planned restoration, solid
facts are often hard to come by. She explains that the original log structure
that makes up most of Greystones Cottage is said to have been built by
Jimmy Deline, who lived across from Bon Echo on the shores of Campbell's
Bay. The one-room log building was apparently intended to serve as a schoolhouse
for his family of eighteen children from three marriages, but no teacher
could be found for his isolated homestead. According to oral history,
Merrill Denison bought this log building for $25, dismantled it and took
it across the ice in about 1921 for use by the Bon Echo Inn. However,
the extensive Denison Papers at Queen's University in Kingston make no
reference to the relocation of what is clearly the oldest component of
The second-storey bedroom was likely the first addition to the log section
of the present building, with other elements added over time. In its present
form, Greystones Cottage exhibits a distinctive blend of regional and
outside influences. The Denisons and their friends brought the ideas and
attitudes of urban North America to an isolated part of Ontario, but the
physical labour was provided by local tradespeople whose ideas and skills
would also have influenced the built form. These two distinct perspectives
mingle in an unpretentious structure that overlooks the majestic Mazinaw
cliff from its rocky, tree-covered site. As the epitome of the Canadian
rustic retreat in harmony with the natural environment around it, Greystones
justly deserves restoration.
JOHN WILSON BENGOUGH (1851-1923)
J.W. Bengough was a caricaturist with an established reputation for the
political cartoons that skewered politicians in the satirical journal
Grip and in newspapers such as the Toronto Globe. His best-known
publication was the two-volume Caricature History of Canadian Politics
In later life Bengough was famous for illustrated 'chalk-talks'
on a wide range of economic, social and political topics, such as women's
suffrage and temperance. As a supporter of progressive causes and a participant
in the artistic life of Flora Denison's Bon Echo Inn, he would have
been a welcome guest. His pen-and-ink portrait of Horace Traubel appeared
in The Sunset of Bon Echo for May and June 1920, accompanying a
poem in celebration of Traubel's visit to Bon Echo to take part in
the dedication of the Whitman memorial.
Bengough has left us with one of the most detailed descriptions of an
artist's first visit to the Bon Echo Inn, which was published in
The Sunset of Bon Echo (April 1920). The usual route to the inn
was by the Canadian Pacific Railway's passenger service to the station
at Kaladar. There, guests were met by the inn's driver and handyman,
Johnnie Bey — 'a man mighty economical of words and hopelessly
bankrupt in laughter.' As Bengough learned later. Bey was a local
Iroquois who had fought heroically in the First World War, excelling as
a sharp-shooter. However, as an ambassador for the inn he made a bleak
first impression throughout a silent, bone-shaking drive of two hours,
which ended at the foot of Mazinaw Lake. J.W. Bengough describes the rest
of the trip:
|From the hands of the taciturn John I was passed to those of
another young man who was not silent but cynical. He was a finely
formed chap wearing Khaki breeches and an air of the educated back-woodsman,
but his outlook on life was not cheerful...However, he landed
me safely at the Bon Echo Inn wharf...I had imagined a summer
hotel of quite up-to-date pattern; a roomy sort of cottage with
broad verandahs around it, something of the bungalow order, with
slippery floors of hardboard, the sort I heartily detest, oak-finished
modern finishings. I had seen myself going up to the polished counter
and putting my name in a new-looking register as an addition to
a small company of guests — for I supposed not many people
knew even as much as I about this remote resort.
Well, I was charmed at the very first glimpse to see the whole pictured
anticipation vanish away. As I walked up the little hill from the
landing place, passing between the two restful old arbours that
overlooked the water, I found myself following a beaten path through
a delightful grove of beech and maple trees. Every tree standing
straight and lofty as though conscious of its own beauty. Enough
of those beauties had been sacrificed, however, to make space for
a tennis court and a croquet ground; and a quoiting crease had been
provided also — a playground that had a charming look of amateurdom.
But here was the Inn itself, for the path was only short and my
pleasure was great to see a big, roomy, straggling, old frame building,
instead of the artificial hotel of my dream. The spacious verandahs
were there, on three storeys, but they had a home-like look of weather-beaten
wear and tear that no polish could match. And there was no disillusion
on the inside. A large room with a wide, hospitable fire-place and
a homey atmosphere; that of the days of the old settlers, created
by the pillars and joists of rough birch logs and the wall-papering
of birch-bark, instead of the waxed chancing surface I had apprehended.
So it was throughout the whole house — the rusting, camping-out
idea, with freedom and comfort as the prime consideration.
FREDERIC MARLETT BELL-SMITH (1856-1923)
Bell-Smith was a lively and liberal-minded lover of people and a friend
to all the arts. A British-born painter, illustrator, photographer and
art teacher, he was also admired as a co-founder of the Society of Canadian
Artists, and as an amateur actor and producer.
His visits to Mazinaw Lake in 1911, 1912 and later, resulted in a series
of large, atmospheric landscapes, such as Silent Sentinel of the North,
Highlands of Ontario, the hit of the 1912 Ontario Society of Artists'
annual spring show; Bon Echo Rock, Hazy Morning, included at the
Royal Canadian Academy's exhibition the same year; and Grey Day,
Highlands of Ontario (Bon Echo Rock) at the 1912 Canadian National
The Denisons bought at least four of Bell-Smith's Mazinaw pictures.
The Silent Sentinel, a favourite painting of Flora's, was
acquired in 1916 for the main hall of the Bon Echo Inn. She spoke of this
work in The Sunset of Bon Echo: 'The hanging of the massive
picture gave us great satisfaction. Mr. Bellsmith [sic] has painted many
pictures of Bon Echo, but this splendid masterpiece of "Old Walt"
will take a premier place in the Whitman Hall that is to be built in days
to come.' Unfortunately, this picture and the other three by Bell-Smith
had to be sold over time to deal with financial problems, and the Whitman
Hall and library were never constructed.
Bell-Smith's life interacted with Flora Denison's in other ways.
The two may well have become friends through a joint acquaintance. Dr.
Benjamin Fish Austin, who was a central figure in Flora's life. Austin
was the first principal of Alma College for Women in St. Thomas, where
Bell-Smith was the director of fine arts from 1881 until 1901. Austin
had been a fellow-student of Flora's psychically and mathematically
gifted sister at Albert College in Belleville. A convert to Spiritualism,
Austin experimented with spirit communication at Alma College. After he
preached a sermon directing his parishioners to keep an open mind about
psychic phenomena, a sensational trial brought about his excommunication
from the Methodist Church. Later, in Los Angeles, California, he became
a leading figure in the North American Spiritualist movement. His friendship
with Flora led to his publication of her book Mary Melville: The Psychic
(1900), which described the strange life and death of her sister, thinly
disguised as fiction. Austin also published What Converted Me To Spiritualism
(1901), which included personal testimony from Flora, whose commitment
to Bon Echo was based on visions of her dead sister and of a Whitman-like
union of the inner and outer life.
No evidence exists that Bell-Smith was a believer in spirit communication,
but he did join Flora's Whitman Club of Bon Echo and participate
in its activities. Through his friendship with Austin, the London-based
Bell-Smith may also have met Richard Maurice Bucke, Walt Whitman's
literary executor, who founded the School of Medicine at London's
University of Western Ontario.
FRANK HANS JOHNSTON (1888-1949)
Toronto-born Frank Johnston apprenticed as a jeweller before studying
art at the Central Technical School and the Central Ontario School of
Art and Design. After a first job at the engraving firm of Brigden's,
he joined Grip Engraving in 1908. At this time he and Merrill Denison
seem to have met through common friends or Johnston's technical work
on plates for Torontonensis, the University of Toronto's student
magazine, to which Denison contributed some graceless cartoons.
Soon after, Johnston went to the United States to study art at the Pennsylvania
Academy. By 1914 he was sketching with Denison, who was now at the University
of Pennsylvania's School of Architecture. Flora was seriously annoyed,
as perhaps she was intended to be, by Merrill's next birthday gift
— an oil study of her cherished boy as a piratical, cigar-chomping
voyageur in a red bandanna, which Merrill had encouraged Johnston to paint,
possibly as a gesture of independence.
Both young men moved to New York City, but when it became apparent that
World War I would not end quickly, Johnston returned to Toronto, while
Merrill went overseas with the American Ambulance Corps. During this period
Johnston visited Mazinaw for the first time, in the winter of 1916 or
1917. One of his most important early works, dated 1917, A Northern
Night, has only now been identified as a view of the Narrows painted
from a South Lake vantage-point at about the same angle selected by C.W.
Jefferys at about the same time.
Once Merrill had returned to Canada in 1919, Johnston began to receive
commissions from the Bon Echo Inn. The earliest seems to have been the
front-cover design for The Sunset of Bon Echo, which was used on
all six issues, alternately printed on buff or pale blue paper. Although
the illustration is unsigned, it can safely be attributed to Johnston
on the basis of the bookplate he designed for Merrill Denison in 1919.
Showing a section of the Bon Echo Rock just as it appears on the Sunset
cover, it is initialled 'F.H.J.' on the lower left. Johnston
chose to treat the subject by illustrating the title with an enormous
sunset cloud billowing up behind a line drawing of the Big Rock. (However,
the escarpment runs almost due north, and even in high summer the sun
goes down much further to the west, almost directly behind the eastward-facing
Two brochures advertising the inn also feature Johnston's work. The
first dates from about 1921, the year of Flora's death. Printed on
brown paper in two different formats under the title Bon Echo: A Summer
and Autumn Resort, it features ink drawings of the inn, the cliff
and the views from the point, looking north and south. The cover of the
second brochure, printed in 1927, is a handsome art-deco illustration
in vivid scarlets and blues, which suggests the name of Bon Echo through
the device of an Indian brave who has risen in a canoe to throw his voice
against the cliff face on which his shadow falls.
After his split with the Group of Seven, which became formal in 1924,
Johnston taught art in Winnipeg and in Toronto, where he continued to
work as a book and magazine illustrator. Although, as a popular landscape
painter, he became associated with the conservative, pastoral side of
Canadian art, he also created bold arctic works and imaginative pieces.
In painting thesd to life and work in the intense
social atmosphere of the Bon Echo Inn in Flora Denison's day. Nevertheless,
he found his way to Mazinaw Lake, and two watercolours and a graphite
sketch record his visit.
As one of the older pioneering generation that began to paint 'clear,
northern light' and Canadian subjects in the 1890s, Jefferys was
eager to explore the pictorial possibilities of the Ontario Shield country.
From 1892 to 1904 he regularly contributed to the annual Toronto Art Students'
League calendars, which impressed Tom Thomson and the future Group of
Seven with what could be done in the way of exploring distinctive national
themes. Starting in 1901, Jefferys visited the wilds of Muskoka, the Lake
of the Woods, the Kawarthas and Lake Temagami on canoeing and sketching
expeditions, and made occasional painting trips to the prairies. As a
commercial artist, he designed resort and railway posters and brochures
that incorporated typical lakeside scenes.
His only visit to Mazinaw took place in 1916 as the guest of Robert Glasgow,
the owner of a cottage near Bon Echo on Mazinaw Point and co-publisher
of the Chronicles of Canada series, for which Jefferys was the
picture-editor and principal illustrator. At this time the Glasgows subscribed
to The Sunset of Bon Echo and occasionally dined at the inn, although
relations worsened later, owing to the predictable tensions between cottagers
and resort owners.
A transitional figure in the history of Canadian landscape painting, Jefferys
sought lucidity and clarity above all, avoiding what he saw as the excesses
and garish palette of the Group of Seven, while dissociating himself from
the growing conservatism of the Royal Canadian Academy. The watercolours
and single drawing he produced at Bon Echo give a cooler, more distanced
interpretation of the Rock than most of the Mazinaw images. This effect
is partly due to a vantage-point on the western side of the lower lake
looking north-west, near the site of what used to be Camp Mazinaw. This
angle sets Jefferys apart from the inn-based painters of the Big Rock,
who were forced into a more immediate confrontation with the looming cliff.
Instead of concentrating on the rock-face, he focused on the play of sunlight
and cloud-shadow on nearby foliage and the brow of the headland far up
the lake. In his meticulous graphite drawing Mazinaw Point, Jefferys
managed to avoid the Rock altogether as his focus shifted from close-up
detail to middle-ground silhouettes to distant outlines. Like all of his
landscapes, these are reticent in their avoidance of romantic excess and
their preference for facts over fancy. They are Flora Denison-era pictures
only by virtue of their date.
A sceptic, Jefferys did not follow in Bell-Smith's footsteps by joining
the Whitmanite rites at the inn. Although he admired Whitman in his own
way, and his name appeared on the Sunset of Bon Echo's subscription
list, he was never a believer in Richard Maurice Bucke's theory of
Cosmic Consciousness. In the 1920s Jefferys would extend his range to
Muskoka's Peninsula Lake and to the Haliburton Highlands around Bobcaygeon
and Gull Lake, but he never returned to Bon Echo.
JOHN WILLIAM BEATTY (1869-1941) & ALICE AMELIA INNES (1890-1970)
J.W. Beatty, of Toronto, was strangely impervious to influences, apart
from those of the Canadian north and the fellow artists, usually younger,
who loved it. While seizing every opportunity of learning more about painting
and drawing, he survived in his early years by working as a house painter,
a bugler in the l0th Royal Grenadiers, and a fireman. In fact, as one
of his friends observed, the aggressive and irritable Beatty 'was
always a fireman, forever rushing away to some new blaze.' Even when
he had given up painting houses and blowing bugles, if not rushing about,
Beatty survived, like most artists, through a patchwork of teaching and
commercial art — largely illustration for the Canadian Magazine
— and the occasional sale of a painting.
He studied art with F.M. Bell-Smith and at the Central Ontario School
of Art and Design, beginning the new century with a Paris year at the
Academie Julian. Later, he returned to Paris for more study, then went
to London, and then toured Europe.
Beatty's first painting excursion to northern Ontario occurred in
the spring of 1909, when he sketched in Haliburton with Lawren Harris.
The following October he headed for Fort Mattagami on the Abitibi River,
and in March 1914 sketched in Algonquin Park with J.E.H. MacDonald and
A.Y. Jackson. Later that year he moved into Lawren Harris's Studio
Building, and painted in the Canadian Rockies with Jackson. These acquaintances
and expeditions did more than all his European studies to modernise his
style, but, as Jackson observed, he could never fully free himself from
traditional ways of painting.
The time of Beatty's sole known visit to Bon Echo is uncertain, but
his one recorded Mazinaw picture is thought by its owner, the Glenbow
Museum, to have been painted between about 1916 and 1920. It was strongly
influenced by the style of Tom Thomson, who drowned at Canoe Lake in the
summer of 1917. However, Beatty's name does not appear in the inn's
guest registers or cards. No evidence exists for a winter visit, except
the painting itself.
Beatty would have known Merrill Denison through the Arts and Letters Club
in Toronto, and may have received an invitation to stay at Mazinaw Lake
and paint the scene in its winter aspect. Or perhaps, like Jefferys, he
was a guest of the Glasgows, or some other cottagers. Whatever the explanation
for his presence at Bon Echo, it seems likely that the visit took place
before the 1920s, when his style became more conservative and he reverted
to placid, pastoral themes.
Beatty did not visit Bon Echo alone. He was accompanied by Alice Amelia
Innes, who was his pupil, disciple and chauffeur. Her Northern Rocks
in December, on a small birch panel, clearly dates from that trip
and must have been painted by his side.
Born near Woodstock into comfortable circumstances, where the arts were
appreciated as accomplishments for ladies, Innes commuted to Toronto for
a weekly piano lesson at the Royal Conservatory of Music and used the
opportunity to take private art training. Refusing to study nursing, she
entered the Central Ontario School of Art and Design in 1911.
About 1913 she began to help Beatty in his summer classes and painted
with him at the Studio Building, where she also became a friend of A.Y.
Jackson's. Innes's independent income allowed her to join artists'
societies and take sketching trips across Canada. Her work was accomplished
enough to be included in the Canadian Pavilion at the 1939 World's
Fair, but, like her mentor, she was an old-fashioned painter, sticking
to landscapes and floral studies in a lyrical manner, when others were
exploring ideas from abroad. After Beatty's death in 1941, she dropped
out of the Toronto art scene.
Innes made a clean break by moving to British Columbia in 1950, where
at last she developed her own style, expressing her emotional response
to the mountains through profound blues and warm pinks laid on with her
usual free and fluid brushwork. Forced back to Ontario about 1955 by her
arthritis, she settled in Woodstock, where gradually she sank into depression,
losing faith in her own talent and destroying much of her work. She died
in the St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital, a victim of the barriers that
stood between gifted women and full accomplishment, but a few of her pictures
survive in private collections.
DORIS HUESTIS MILLS (1894-1989)
According to a Bon Echo Inn guest card, Mrs. Doris Mills rented the North
Cottage from 5 to 19 July 1923. A note adds, 'Paints, recommended
by Jackson and Lismer.' Another card indicates that Mr. Gordon Mills,
his wife and sister-in-law spent two days at Bon Echo during the summer
of 1924, but fails to give the month.
Doris Huestis Mills was born in Toronto, the second daughter of Archibald
Huestis, manager of the Methodist Publishing House (later named the Ryerson
Press), and Florence Gooderham Hamilton Huestis, a member of Toronto's
established, non-conformist upper class. Born out of wedlock, Doris's
mother had been reared by her grandparents, which gave her a special perspective
on the life of privilege. Like her mother, Florence became a social activist,
fighting alongside Flora Denison for women's rights, a better life
for poor people and improvements in public health.
Doris Huestis was educated at Havergal Ladies College in Toronto, which
she entered in 1902, one year after Muriel Goggin. She took 'Special
Drawing' at the age of sixteen from a teacher who informed her that
she would become an artist. Illness brought her formal education to an
end in 1915, but she continued her education through serious reading at
home. Though drawn to her mother's social activism, she responded
more to her father's literary milieu, resolving to become a writer.
Her interest in art had been kindled by her visits to museums and galleries
during a tour of Europe in 1912. In 1916 she married Gordon Mills, an
amateur writer, musician and member of the Toronto Arts and Letters Club,
whom she had met on a train. An accountant by training, Gordon Mills eventually
joined the T. Eaton Company and moved rapidly into its upper offices.
In 1918 the young couple joined the First Church of Christian Science
in Toronto, where they met members of the Group of Seven and their friends
and families. As part of this cohesive circle, the Millses developed an
appreciation of the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.
Around 1923 Doris Mills received private instruction in the academic discipline
of drawing plaster casts and fruit in charcoal. She became eager to try
her hand at painting and, on the advice of A.Y. Jackson, she bought supplies
and set to work at home and on sketching trips in the summer. That fall,
her friend J.E.H. MacDonald invited her to share space with him in the
Studio Building, clearing out his storage area for her use. She also took
twelve private lessons from F.H. Varley before his move to Vancouver in
Thus launched, Mills ventured off on the sketching excursion that took
her to Bon Echo in July 1923. The only record of her first stay at Mazinaw
Lake is a letter on Bon Echo Inn stationary to a cousin, telling him that
she was enclosing a few miscellaneous poems, mostly written by her husband.
She also sent a sample of her own free verse. If she did sketch or paint
during the 1923 stay, no results have surfaced. If, as the second guest
card indicates, Mills spent only two days in the summer of 1924 at the
Bon Echo Inn, her seven recorded Mazinaw Lake oil panels, six linocuts
and twenty small sketchbook drawings were a remarkable output. It seems
more likely that her second visit was longer. Years later, she remarked
to a friend: 'At Bon Echo we had a cottage...Every evening Merrill
Denison, the writer, would come and sit on the step. "Let me see
everything you've done today," he would say.'
Though strikingly hued and reduced to basic abstract forms, Mills's
Sunset Light shows her lack of training in its failed perspective.
Her linocuts are more successful, especially those that present the cliff
in total or partial silhouette, for this inexpensive medium makes a necessary
virtue of simplicity, flatness and lack of halftones. These interpretations
of the essential theme of cliff, reflection and tree are the most openly
modernist of the entire Mazinaw Lake picture gallery.
ARTHUR LISMER (1885-1965)
Another native of England, Arthur Lismer received his art training at
the Sheffield School of Art, but also studied in Antwerp at the Academie
Royale des-Beaux-Arts. On his arrival in Toronto in 1911 he found a position
at Grip Engraving, where he met and worked alongside J.E.H. MacDonald,
Tom Thomson, F.H. Johnston and Franklin Carmichael. Liking the job, the
people and the landscape, he encouraged Frederick Varley, an art-school
friend from Sheffield, to come to Canada.
His career as an art educator began when he accepted the position of principal
of the Victoria School of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where
he also worked for the Canadian War Records by recording images of returning
troopships in the last years of World War I. After the war he came back
to Toronto to become vice-principal of the Ontario College of Art and
a founding member of the Group of Seven, along with Varley and some of
his old companions from Grip.
As an occasional contributor to The Canadian Theosophist, a lover
of Whitman's poetry, a member of the Arts and Letters Club and an
active collaborator at Hart House Theatre, he could have met Merrill Denison
through any of these interests, but his first to visit Bon Echo took place
in August 1921. 'Arthur Lismer came up today,' Denison wrote
to Muriel Goggin, 'and I took him out under the Rock...a great
artist's reaction. He looked and looked and could do nothing but
gurgle uneffectual nothings. He is one of the elected because Old Walt
silenced his tongue.'
Lismer's second visit a year later bore fruit in December 1922 when
he exhibited three Bon Echo subjects at the Art Gallery of Toronto. In
Grey Rocks the effect of eliminating all foreground foliage is
to remove the implied presence of the artist or any other human being.
The rock face has been flattened by distance into a sheer stone wall with
diagonal faultlines in the rock face that draw our eyes to the centre
of the picture without forcing the painter's skill on our notice.
The Big Rock is simply there, needing no further emphasis.
We can learn something about how a real artist works by examining the
way Lismer created his major canvas Big Rock, Bon Echo, now at
the National Gallery of Canada. He started with two rough planning sketches
on a notebook page inscribed 'The Big Rock — Bon Echo.'
These concentrate on the section of the Rock known as 'Egyptian Head',
where the Whitman memorial had been carved on a smoothed-off surface.
Based on the upper planning sketch, the first oil sketch, probably executed
on the spot, roughly blocks in the basic forms, including the clouds in
the upper left; the band of pollen just above the waterline; the shadowed
headlands; and the large patch of sunlight.
Next comes a detailed panel of the same size with the clouds more defined
and the rock shapes built up with shading or bright touches of colour
to give them depth. This is a finished work, but Lismer took the process
even further. The final version, was exhibited in the annual show of the
Ontario Society of Artists in 1922.
According to Norah McCullough, a smaller 1923 version of The Big Rock,
entitled Bon Echo Rock, is a studio painting, possibly done for
the newspaper owner and art collector, H.S. Southam. Here, both the blues
and the greens are more intense, but Lismer has brought back some of the
lightness and freedom that give the original sketches their charm.
A.Y. JACKSON (1882-1974)
Like many artists of his day, the Montréal-born A.Y. Jackson received
his basic artistic training from a combination of part-time lessons and
on-the-job experience with commercial lithography firms in Montréal
and Chicago. In 1907 he travelled to Paris, where he studied for several
years at the Academie Julian. By 1913 he was sharing a studio in Toronto
with Tom Thomson and developing friendships with the artists who were
to form the Group of Seven in 1920. Between 1915 and 1918 the strongly
nationalist Jackson served in the Canadian Army as an artist with the
Canadian War Records but, once back in Toronto, he returned to his life-long
interest in painting northern landscapes.
Jackson likely met Merrill Denison at the Arts and Letters Club, possibly
through Frank Johnson or J.E.H. MacDonald, but his autobiography, A
Painter's Country, records only that his first visit to Bon Echo
took place on 24 January 1924. He agreed to design a poster, brochure
and letterhead for Merrill Denison as a special concession to a friend,
for by this date he had suspended his career as a commercial artist. After
his return to Toronto from Mazinaw Lake, in the spring of 1924, he personally
oversaw the production of a handsome five-colour poster at Rous and Mann,
based on his wild, bright original painting. This was the most ambitious
assignment he ever undertook for Denison, who hoped that the poster would
be extensively circulated by the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Bon Echo Inn on the Mazinaw Lakes is one of the finest Canadian
artist-produced posters from any period, a rare example of the happy marriage
of design and state-of-the-art technology. The parasol-shaded passenger
in the canoe adds an oriental touch to an otherwise robustly posterish
treatment of the Mazinaw Rock, giving a human presence to the landscape
while indicating the scale. The flat patterning of the sunlit and shaded
areas of the cliff and the angular trunk of pine in the foreground suggest
that Jackson was familiar with Japanese woodblock prints.
At Denison's request, Jackson also designed a brochure and letterhead
for the inn, featuring the great rock, with a stippling effect achieved
by flicking paint on to the drawing with a toothbrush. Like the brochure
featuring F.H. Johnson's drawings and lettering, the folding brochure
is mainly illustrated with photographs depicting the inn's setting
Jackson's work at Bon Echo shows the Big Rock's seldom-painted
winter face just at the point of spring's arrival. 'I'm
very glad the place is to be painted in its winter garb by a fine painter,'
wrote Merrill Denison to Muriel Goggin in February 1924, shortly before
Jackson's arrival at the inn. It is clear from this letter that Merrill
found Jackson a good companion. 'Jackson's a joy,' he observed.
'An ample man who has read, who grasps life and is a profound painter.
His influence is...stimulation. He is really painting the place for
the first time and will get some notable canvases.'
Surprisingly, Jackson's small but interesting body of work from Bon
Echo has not received much notice. The most important Mazinaw painting,
a dramatic night view of the cliff called Bon Echo, Lake Mazinaw, Ontario,
cannot now be located, and only two pieces from his one visit have entered
a public collection. Of the eight Mazinaw Lake oils by A.Y. Jackson, seven
are sketch panels, probably painted out-of-doors as was his custom, even
on the bitterest winter day.
The artist's eye was also drawn to the distant vistas of the South
Lake, as viewed from bare ice out in the bay or glimpsed from behind a
barricade of stumps or through a lattice of slender birches. More than
most interpreters of the place, Jackson looked beyond the Rock to other,
less dominant features, such as woodland interiors. Birches, Bon Echo
gives full expression to his love of fat ice-creamy snow against aquamarine
skies and patches of meltwater. His masterly use of colour brings out
birches in purest white against faintly blue-green ice and snowdrifts.
DOROTHY STEVENS (1898-1966)
Born into a conservative Toronto milieu, Dorothy Stevens received her
education at an English boarding school until the age of fifteen, when
her obvious artistic talent and her parents' blessing got her into
the Slade School in London and then the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere
in Paris. Although she won prizes for drawing and painting, her etchings
were most admired, and were exhibited in both London and Paris. On her
return to Canada she turned to oil painting, specialising in portraits
and figure work.
Stevens, who was prominent in Toronto's upper social circle, did
not mingle much with the Denison crowd of radical artists and thinkers.
As a woman, she could not have been a member of the Arts and Letters Club,
and although she was elected to the Ontario Society of Artists in 1914,
this was a practical organisation focused on affording its members opportunities
to show and sell their work. It may be that she was courted by the Denisons
because of her connection with the moneyed world of potential patrons
Although her name does not appear in any Bon Echo guest register, a 1926
on-the-spot photograph by Brigden's (our frontispiece) shows her
smiling over her shoulder, elegantly self-possessed beneath the deep brim
of her hat. In front of her stands an easel bearing a now-lost oil sketch
of a shingled building. Her three Mazinaw paintings that we know of are
undated and enter the record in November 1931 at a 'little pictures'
show of the Ontario Society of Artists, where Stevens exhibited a pair
of oils, both called Bon Echo. A small painting now entitled Bon
Echo Rock may be one of these. Obviously painted at the site, it shows
a free and radiant view of the cliff at the Narrows, with a deep-blue
canoe front and centre, in contrast to the touches of unmixed crimson,
green and black on the rock wall behind.
Nudes on Rocks was the third Mazinaw piece in the 1931 exhibition.
Stevens had made a daring speciality of sensuous female nudes in outdoor
settings, but social attitudes in Ontario at the time would have meant
that such pictures could only be studio work. Here the bathers are posed
with their backs to the viewer in front of the rock, which darkly sets
off the pale bodies.
For a portraitist and figure artist like Stevens, the Bon Echo Rock
was not the draw that it was for a landscape painter, and the bohemian
atmosphere of the inn may not have been to her taste, although she would
have concealed this at the time with her ready wit and charm.
No mere social butterfly, she taught portrait painting at the Doon School
of Fine Arts, near Kitchener, and at other classes through some of the
many associations of which she was a member. Stevens also held office
or was otherwise active in women's organisations, including those
concerned with classical music and the broad cultural life of Toronto,
as well as fine art. Women of talent may well see Stevens as a role model,
for she lived without sacrificing her art to her life or her life to her
FRANKLIN CARMICHAEL (1890-1945) & A.J. CASSON (1898-1992)
The Orillia, Ontario-born Franklin Carmichael received his earliest training
in industrial design as a boy working with his father, a carriage-maker.
For more formal instruction he turned to Toronto's Central Ontario
School of Art and its successor, the Ontario College of Art. He apprenticed
at Grip Engraving but spent his weekends on sketching trips with MacDonald,
Thomson, Lismer, Varley and other older but like-minded painters of Canadian
subjects. By 1913 he had saved enough money to sharpen his technique with
a year's study in Europe — like Arthur Lismer before him, at
the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts at Antwerp.
On returning to Canada he shared workspace in Lawren Harris's Studio
Building with Tom Thomson until Carmichael's marriage and move to
north Toronto. Never a full-time painter, he supported himself and his
family as an art director at Rous and Mann and then at Sampson-Matthews.
As a graphic designer, he specialized in lettering and illustrating, ending
his life as head of graphic and commercial art at the Ontario College
After his parents' move to Hamilton, Ontario, the young A.J. Casson
studied at the Hamilton Technical School, then apprenticed at Laidlaw
Lithography in the same city. He returned to his birth-city, Toronto,
to work as a freelance illustrator by day and take classes by night. Carmichael
became his mentor and major influence during a seven-year period as the
older artist's assistant at Rous and Mann. In 1927 he followed him
to Sampson-Matthews, where he eventually replaced him as art director.
The two artists arrived at Bon Echo Inn late in August 1928 for a working
family holiday at reduced rates. At this time they were painting mostly
in watercolours, but they returned to oils for their Bon Echo assignment
of creating a series of sketches in tones of black and white for advertising
purposes. If they fulfilled their commission, Carmichael and Casson each
painted ten pictures during their four days at Bon Echo, but only a few
of these paintings can be located today.
Carmichael's Bon Echo Camp was bought by its present owners at an
exhibition of forty small oils and watercolours from the artist's
estate in October 1964. The Toronto Globe and Mail had dated
the painting to 1926, but Casson corrected this misinformation, explaining
that the oil had been painted in sepia tones so that it could be used
in a two-colour brochure. Carmichael had arbitrarily added the dark silhouette
of a hill on the far right to balance the composition.
As described by Stuart MacKinnon in his poem, 'Mazinaw, Mazinuhigun,
Mazzinabikon,' quoted as this book's epigraph, the robust oil
sketch, Bon Echo, is a loose and confident revelation of Carmichael's
grasp of tonal relationships in nature. It was painted from an unusual
angle, looking down on the inn buildings from the heights of the Rock.
Carmichael's hand-drawn map, with its streamlined lettering and suggestion
of pirate treasure, shows the international manner he adopted earlier
in the 1920s.
Best of all is Carmichael's coloured cut-out image for the back and
front cover of the one published brochure that resulted from this visit.
The starlit Big Rock in black, pale green and three shades of blue
embodies the artist's idyllic vision of Canada as the landscape of
inspiration. It is an outstanding example of advertising art, as pure
and passionate as any Carmichael painting.
Where are the rest of Carmichael's and Casson's now-dispersed
series? As the sale value of these pieces at the time of production would
have been minimal because of their lack of colour, the artists may not
have felt they could afford to keep them around. If so, or if they were
dissatisfied with their quality, they would have scraped them down or
painted over them, since prepared art board was expensive during the 1930s.
Although they would have seen each other at the Arts and Letters Club
over the years, Casson's next artistic connection with Merrill Denison
did not come until 1949, when he designed Denison's first 'corporate
biography', Harvest Triumphant, the history of the Massey-Harris
farm implement manufacturer. This project may have led to an invitation
to stay at Bon Echo in 1951 and again in 1952. At any rate, Casson returned
to paint the landscape on a number of occasions throughout the 1950s and
1960s, producing a sizeable body of Mazinaw Lake watercolours, including
the 'cool high windy' one praised by Stuart MacKinnon. Casson's
reputation has suffered as his later work became increasingly predictable.
Continually described as the last surviving member of the Group of Seven,
he had become a kind of icon of establishment art by the end of his long
CHARLES FRASER COMFORT (1900-1994)
Charles Comfort, born in Edinburgh, Scotla he won first prize in watercolours
and an invitation from Frederick Brigden, the contest judge, to apprentice
at the Winnipeg branch of Brigden's Ltd. In his spare time, Comfort
studied art, winning the T. Eaton Company's 1919 country-wide competition
for catalogue covers. His prize money paid for a trip to Toronto, where
he joined the Arts and Letters Club and was inspired with the goal of
breaking out of commercial art by the works of the Group of Seven, which
he first saw at their exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto. A year
of study in New York and a presence in several exhibitions at the Winnipeg
Art Gallery moved him a few more steps on his way.
In February 1926 Comfort, now settled in Toronto, heard Merrill Denison
read one of his plays at the Arts and Letters Club. He would also have
encountered him in May of the same year at the Toronto Whitman Fellowship's
celebration of the poet's 107th birthday. Through the literary editor
of Saturday Night, William Arthur Deacon, Comfort was introduced to the
Toronto Writers Club, where once again Merrill Denison was a member, along
with the leaders of the Toronto literary world.
Comfort first visited Bon Echo towards the end of July 1927, accompanied
by his wife and William A. Ogilvie, a colleague at Brigden's. Since,
in 1926, Brigden's had sent two photographers to Mazinaw to document
the inn, Comfort and his friend may have been there to design a never-published
In his unpublished autobiography, Comfort notes that he and Ogilvie set
out for Bon Echo in his Ford Tudor while his pregnant wife made the trip
by train to Kaladar, where the motorists met her. The road to the inn
proved to be one of the roughest and most primitive ... we had ever driven
over. It heaved across igloo-sized boulders and twisted through hazardous
rocky denies in an endless succession of bone-shaking lurches. I was terrified
throughout that phase of the journey.... I did want my child to be born
at the scheduled time and not on a Lennox-Addington County road.
Only three Bon Echo views are definitely recorded in the Comfort inventory
for 1927: Bon Echo Rock, a small oil-on-panel; and The Great Rock, Bon
Echo, which formed the basis for the large and more muted The Great Rock,
with a greater focus on the surface of the cliff. After being included
in the sixth exhibition of the Group of Seven in February 1928 and at
the art gallery of the Canadian National Exhibition the following August,
the larger canvas become lost and was recovered in bad shape, years later,
from a Salvation Army store. The Great Rock, Bon Echo, in the most vivid
colours, shows a solid, simplified rock form, haloed at the top with bands
of deepening blue, with a rush of white-capped waves in the lower right
After his successful, if rainy and mosquito-ridden, visit Comfort wanted
to return to Mazinaw, but the Depression had closed down the inn. In July
1936 he visited Bon Echo with his wife and the husband-and-wife painting
team of Bobs Cogill Haworth and Peter Haworth, but by then the inn had
burned down. Although no paintings made during that visit have come to
light, Comfort took colour photographs, which inspired a new round of
studio-painted Mazinaw images when he had them developed thirty years
On a nostalgic visit to Bon Echo in 1977, Comfort and his wife had to
correspond with Bon Echo Provincial Park in order to find the site of
the inn, so much had the trees grown up. In order to get a clear view
of the Big Rock across the bay, he was forced to place his easel on the
north beach, but the result was a fine painting, Whitman Memorial Rock,
ERIC ALDWINCKLE (1909-1980)
Eric Aldwinckle, a painter and designer born in Oxford, England, showed
an early aptitude for art and music which his family encouraged, but with
the death of his father in 1921, the boy was sent to Canada to live with
an aunt. He was apprenticed at the lithography firm of Rolph-Clark-Stone
in 1923, moved through a number of firms in Toronto, and finally ended
up at Sampson-Matthews, where he worked under Frank Carmichael in 1928.
Beginning in 1929, he described himself as a freelancer. Despite being
self-taught in art, his diverse abilities must have impressed his old
supervisor, since he assisted Carmichael as an instructor in design at
the Ontario College of Art from 1937 to 1942.
Aldwinckle's early paintings reflect the influence not only of Carmichael
but of Lawren Harris, Bertram Brooker, Charles Comfort, Frederick Varley
and an eclectic range of American and European masters, most notably Rockwell
Kent and Charles Burchfield. Naturally curious, enthusiastic, and a ceaseless
experimenter with materials, Aldwinckle mastered not only oil painting
but egg tempera, watercolours, charcoal, graphite, pen-and-ink and scraper-board
drawing. As a natural man of the theatre, the dashing and elegant artist
participated in dramatic productions as an actor as well as a designer
in plays at Hart House Theatre and other venues.
Merrill Denison appears to have met Eric Aldwinckle through the Arts and
Letters Club, which owns a prized cartoon by Arthur Lismer depicting a
judicially bewigged Denison conducting 'Interview Stuff,' while
an over-eager Aldwinckle leans forward from the crowd to get a word in.
During the 1950s and 1960s the gifted Aldwinckle's versatility found
new outlets in mural painting, calligraphy, typography, illustration,
heraldry and the design of medallions and coinage (including the Great
Seal of Canada in 1952, and the swan symbol of the Stratford Shakespearean
Merrill Denison may have played host to Aldwinckle on his one visit to
Bon Echo in the 1960s as much because of his interest in the stage as
because of his painting. Perhaps because the topography is so different
from that of the Killarney area where he had painted previously, Bon Echo
did not bring out the best in Aldwinckle. The landscape lacks the anthropomorphic
qualities of the La Cloche 'mountains,' with their fleshy mounds
and curves, and he presented it straightforwardly as an assemblage of
pleated planes and volumes highlit with dabs of brilliant red. In Bon
Echo, Haliburton [sic] the crisp, short brushstrokes are built up
in a precisely textured fashion reminiscent of the Winnipeg painter /
teacher L.L. FitzGerald's backyard vistas and still lifes of the
1930s. It is clear that a certain amount of artistic license also went
into an untitled oil-on-board in which the cliff, viewed head-on, is foregrounded
by a rocky peninsula airlifted from Georgian Bay.
Now housed in Greystones at the Bon Echo Provincial Park is a brown-ink
(or perhaps felt-tipped-pen) sketch by Aldwinckle of a boulder-strewn
woodland interior, simply entitled Bon Echo. If the medium is felt
pen, as the uniformity of the width and saturation of the strokes suggests,
this is an unusually early use of this now-common drawing instrument.
Trapped in an increasingly anti-figurative era, Eric Aldwinckle was a
decorative realist with skills and abilities for which the mid-century
had no appreciation. His arts-and-crafts technique and his romantic idealism
worked against the once-handsome and self-assured artist, who died in
1980 as a near-recluse embittered by a lack of recognition all too characteristic
of his generation.
FREDERICK HAGAN (b.1918)
To find work, Fred Hagan's cabinet-maker father had to leave the
land his grandparents had pioneered in Muskoka, but in summer he and his
family exchanged Toronto for the district of his many stories. On school
trips to the Art Gallery of Toronto, Hagan found in the titles of paintings
by the Group of Seven such familiar names as Algonquin, Georgian Bay,
Algoma and Temagami, which were already part of his life and his own attraction
to 'rock country.'
In 1931, when Hagan was thirteen years old, his father's death forced
him, like Jefferys, Lismer, Comfort and Aldwinckle before him, to work
to put food on the family table. Four years later, he built a studio in
his garage and, after studying drafting in the evenings at Central Technical
School, he entered the Ontario College of Art, graduating from the night
course in the spring of 1940. When he was rejected for military service
in the Canadian Army, he tried to fill the gap with a few more months
of training in printmaking at the New York Art Students League.
In 1941 Hagan had been teaching arts and crafts at Pinecrest, a YMCA camp
near Bala in Muskoka, when the camp's distinguished director, C.R.
Blackstock, recognised his remarkable character and abilities. Through
'Blackie,' he got a similar position at Pickering College in
Newmarket during the school year, and then in 1944 at Camp Mazinaw, the
boys' camp that had been revived on the west shore of South Mazinaw
Lake. For Hagan, Mazinaw was a 'Canadian artist kind of place with
serious painting possibilities' — many of them not noticed by
During the 1946 summer season Hagan concentrated on making quick wash
studies as the basis for later lithographs. He abandoned the familiar
shoreline altogether to show the Mazinaw back country west of the lake
in Swamp Plains, where the road, culvert and telegraph pole remind us
that human contact has altered the landscape. The pattern of sketching
on-site in black ink and sepia wash, and then producing lithographs in
his Newmarket studio, was repeated in 1947. Once again Hagan looked beyond
the lake to the surrounding countryside and its lingering remnants of
settlement, from old swaybacked barns to the dilapidated Kaladar Station,
always choosing the particular over the general, the foreground over the
Hagan did not experiment with wet-wash watercolours at Mazinaw Lake until
1951, after which he alternated that medium with lithographs. These pictures
are evidence that he saw blues and greens, greys and browns, yellow-golds
and orange-reds that no other painter has captured at Bon Echo. From 1951
to 1956 and then again on several occasions in the 1970s and 1980s, he
painted every conceivable aspect of the shoreline, including the Rock
itself, but he also roved inland, where at nearby Buck Lake, for example,
a swamp tangle caught his eye. He found a paintable essence in humble
buildings along the highway near the outlying villages of Northbrook and
Cloyne, subjects never noticed by pilgrims to the Rock.
In the latter 1950s through the 1960s, Fred Hagan's teaching load
at the Ontario College of Art forced him to resign his position at Camp
Mazinaw. He did not return to Bon Echo until the winter of 1970, some
forty-six years after A.Y. Jackson's February-March stay with Merrill
Denison, and then again in 1971 and 1974. Like Jackson, he occupied himself
with snowy shoreline views and woodland interiors, but in loosely painted,
freshly tinted watercolours, rather than the older artist's oils.
In painting snow, Hagan correctly lets the white paper do much of his
work for him, supplying shape and form by means of shadows. In 1974 he
launched a new series of Bon Echo lithographs on such seasonal themes
as Spring Run-Off, Summer's Night and October Hills,
with the last of these airily capturing the fleeting effects of sun and
cloud-shadow on the fir-clad headlands and shoreline of North Mazinaw
Lake, seen, as in earlier views by Carmichael and Casson, from the top
of the Rock.
In 1981 Hagan resurrected the brush-and-ink method of his first Bon Echo
drawings. His most recent Mazinaw watercolours date from 1982, when he
reaffirmed his interest in two favourite motifs: the shoreline woodland
interior and the distanced view of the Rock. On 1 August 1993 Hagan was
rightly in attendance at the unveiling of the Ontario Heritage Foundation
plaque honouring all those who contributed to the cultural enrichment
of Bon Echo.
JOHN MORTENSEN (b.1947)
In 1993 the Friends of Bon Echo Provincial Park decided to establish the
voluntary (unpaid) position of artist-in-residence, awarding this honour
first to the Bancroft, Ontario painter Margaret Ford, and to John Mortensen.
Born in Bismarck, North Dakota, into a cultured household, Mortensen's
painter mother encouraged his early artistic ambitions by arranging some
informal training for him with his uncle, an immigrant artist of the German
Expressionist school. In the course of his travels through Western Europe
and Greece in the late 1960s, the young Mortensen reaffirmed his wish
for a life in art. In moving to Canada in 1969, he consciously rejected
the growing violence of American society, as expressed in popular and
political culture and foreign policy.
Mortensen worked and studied in cities and smaller centres as diverse
as Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Aurora, Ontario, exploring different
media and artforms, grappling with the perennial challenge of buying the
time to make art. He and his wife settled in the town of Roslin, where
he set up Clear Creek Studio in 1988.
Ready for a different experience, he applied for the position of artist-in-residence
at Bon Echo. Looking back over a difficult first year, he reflected on
the challenges of space, light, silence — the otherness of nature
and his need not to impose an interpretation, but to accept whatever nature
has to offer.
His work on this sacred ground is strongly influenced by the Group of
Seven, whom he felt he had learned to know, years before, through his
membership in the Arts and Letters Club. His painting reflects some of
the 'poster-esque' qualities found in canvases by Group members,
but he often chooses the unusual viewpoint favoured by Comfort or the
less-obvious subjects often chosen by Hagan. He hopes to paint at the
park for years to come, alternating his visits with working holidays sketching
in the south of France under different light and in a gentler landscape.
From time immemorial —or at least since the last Ice Age — the
granite face of Bon Echo Rock has risen above the waves of Mazinaw Lake.
With the movement of sunlight and shadow, the cliff's multifaceted
surface changes in mood and message: it broods, it radiates, it remains,
in spite of the levelling forces of frost, rain, snow, wind and, now,
acidulation, which chisel continuously at its resisting face. Tenon'd
and mortised in granite, a footstep on the larger landscape, quietly it
knows the amplitude of time.
The Bon Echo Rock is a stone thrown into water to generate ever-expanding
circles of meaning for the generations that have found spiritual grace
in its gneiss and granite reality.
The first circle of meaning lies in the ancient trees, lichens, rocks
and minerals that form a microcosmic ecosystem unique in itself. Next
comes the circle of Algonkian artists who used its sombre planes as raw
canvases on which to draw mythical forms embodying the spirits of the
place, direction signals, news bulletins, or their own dreams and nightmares.
The circle of exploitation follows next — first, the loggers who
clear-cut the shores and the uplands, herding their logs down Mazinaw
Lake past the cliff into the upper Mississippi watershed. Then came the
prospectors, seeking elusive caves of silver and gold, not guessing that
the real treasure of this hinterland would be cultural.
The next concentric ring encompasses the first 65 years of the twentieth
century. During the Denisons' time, events at the foot of the silent
sentinel travelled far beyond the shores of Mazinaw. Painted images of
the Rock made their way into private homes, public galleries and corporate
boardrooms. Like the unique features of Algonquin Park and Georgian Bay,
the Rock became an icon of 'Northernness,' anchoring an emerging
sense of national identity for Canadian artists in search of a new tradition.
For a brief period the inn across the water from the scarp attracted radical
thinkers who debated such ideas as women's suffrage, free love, equal
rights, cultural nationalism, the evils of organized religion, and the
need to conserve and preserve, to change and move onward. Inspired by
this landscape, Merrill Denison wrote plays about Canada for the Hart
House stage and, later, for the CBC. The inn drew to it those who celebrated
the democratic vision of Walt Whitman and the ideals of the League of
Nations. Things thought, things said, things done at Bon Echo resonated
across Canada and into the northern United States, and beyond.
The last concentric ring emanates from within the boundaries of Bon Echo
Provincial Park itself. Today, Mazinaw is subject to public policy made
at Queen's Park in Toronto and to economic forces that threaten to
tear apart the legacy handed down for safekeeping by the Denisons.
Those who are drawn to the Rock now are more likely to carry cameras than
paint-boxes. They may be members of an alpine club testing their limits
on the climbers' rock-face, scientists struggling to unfold the mystery
of the pictographs - or vacationers in search of a good campsite. But
whatever their purpose, all who come in contact with Mazinaw are compelled
to acknowledge its allure. Campers still troop to the amphitheatre on
summer nights to hear tales of the Rock and to wonder if the ghost of
'Old Walt' might still be stopping somewhere waiting for them.
The message of Bon Echo is centred in the power of place to create cultural
energy. In Canada, much money and effort have been expended in defining
national identity; elections may be lost or won on questions of who and
what we really are. We seek broad national definitions, then try to shoehorn
in all the regions. As defining mythologies, we have tried the Canadian
Pacific Railway, the Constitution, the National Hockey League, the Canadian
Football League and the social safety net. None of them is a custom fit.
Always there is the exception: the province that doesn't sign; the
city without a team; the town that has lost its rail service; those who
want less government, but not fewer amenities.
|Do we contradict ourselves?
Very well then we contradict ourselves,
(We are large. We contain multitudes.)
It is time we turned from broad schemes for nationhood
and focused on the individual regions and communities of Canada, each of
which can be a seedbed for fresh and living culture. If the Bon Echo story
proves anything, it is that culture begins at the grass-roots and rises
to the national level, never the other way around. We need to rediscover
the power of place to shape new visions and common goals. Each region and
community can inspire its citizens to explore where is 'here.'
From those many centres, culture can then move outward, as the growing rings
from the splash of a stone spread to wash against distant shores. The dominant
culture, if it is alert, will appropriate the best of the local vision for
the nation's, and the world's, enlightenment. The concentric circles
around the Bon Echo Rock will continue to expand as this special place inspires
awe, creativity and spiritual renewal in generations yet to come. Here we
must preserve for them the opportunity, as Whitman said, to
|...see the place of sagas,
...see pine-trees and fir-trees torn by northern blasts,
...see granite boulders and cliffs,
...see green meadows and lakes...
A BON ECHO CHRONOLOGY
1848 February: J.S. Harper, a Bytown (Ottawa) surveyor, becomes the
first white man to describe the Mazinaw pictographs.
1854-67 Ebenezer Perry surveys and constructs North Addington Colonization
1858 Mazinaw Lake property described as containing 82 acres patented
to W.H. Elmer.
1864 Elmer property on Mazinaw Lake conveyed to Robert W. Gray.
1866 George Merrill and family settle in Bridgewater (now Actinolite),
February: birth of Flora Merrill, one of eight children, in a logger's
shanty on the Skootamatta River, near Bridgewater (Actinolite).
1879 A.J.B. Halfpenny publishes article on Mazinaw pictographs in
Canadian Antiquarian and Numismatic Journal.
1882 Flora Merrill leaves school, becomes schoolteacher at French
Settlement, North Hastings Township; later moves to Toronto, then Detroit,
1885 December: birth of Muriel Goggin, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
1891 January: George Merrill reports his 'discovery'
of the legendary Meyers' Cave silver mine at Mazinaw Lake in the Weekly
1892 August: Flora Merrill marries Howard Denison in Detroit.
She becomes interested in Walt Whitman.
23 June: birth of Merrill Denison in Detroit.
1895 August: Flora Denison joins Robert Simpson Company as a buyer
and begins writing for Saturday Night magazine.
September: R.J. Drummond and W.C. Caldwell canoe up the Mississippi
River from Perth to Mazinaw Lake. David Boyle examines Mazinaw Lake pictographs.
1896 David Boyle publishes illustrated report on Mazinaw pictographs
in Archaeological Report, 1894-95; Appendix to the Report of the Minister
of Education, Ontario (Toronto: Queen's Printer, 1896).
1899 Bon Echo Inn property bought by Weston Price after he and his
wife visit the area during their honeymoon.
1900 R.H. Gray's Mazinaw Lake property sold to W.H. Reynolds
for taxes. Construction of Bon Echo Inn and several cottages begins. Flora
Denison publishes Mary Melville: the Psychic (Toronto: B.F. Austin,
1901 Inn completed. Late spring: Bon Echo Inn opens (or 1902?); iron
bridge across Mazinaw Lake Narrows and staircase up Mazinaw Rock constructed.
1902 W.H. Reynolds' Mazinaw Lake property conveyed to Dr. Weston
1904 Bon Echo visited by Denison family, who purchased six acres
of land in the area for $90.00.
1906 Flora Denison elected secretary of Dominion Women's Enfranchisement
1909 Flora Denison begins writing column for Toronto Sunday World.
1910 Weston Price sells Bon Echo Inn to Flora Denison, following
the sudden death of the Price's young son.
1911 Bon Echo Inn managed by Howard Denison (Flora's husband)
until their divorce. Artist F.M. Bell-Smith and novelist Charlotte Perkins
1912 Flora Denison elected president of the Canadian Suffrage Assembly;
attends International Suffrage Alliance Conference in Budapest and conducts
European speaking tour with son, Merrill. Bell-Smith paints Silent Sentinel.
1914 Merrill Denison moves to New York to study life drawing; fall:
transfers from the University of Toronto to the School of Architecture,
University of Pennsylvania; renews acquaintance with future Group of Seven
member Frank Johnson in Philadelphia. The two sketch together.
1915 Flora Denison founds Whitman Club of Bon Echo, joins newly formed
Canadian branch of the Whitman Fellowship.
1916 Artist C. W. Jefferys visits Robert Glasgow at his cottage on
Mazinaw Lake. Artist J.W. Beatty probably visits Bon Echo in winter in company
with his student, Alice Innes. First of six issues of The Sunset of Bon
Echo is published. Merrill Denison joins the American Expeditionary
Forces in France and serves with the American Ambulance Field Service.
1917 Merrill Denison returns from Europe to enter field artillery
officer training in Kansas; later transfers to Mechanical Transport division.
Flora Denison moves to New York State to work with the Women's Suffrage
1918 Merrill Denison sails for Europe as officer with AEF; becomes
commander of prisoner-of-war escort and labour company at Beau Desert, France
1919 Flora Denison joins Toronto Theosophical Society. Merrill Denison
demobilised in August. 'Old Walt' dedication by Walt Whitman Fellowship
of Canada and the Whitman Club of Bon Echo. Horace Traubel, Whitman's
literary executor, is the guest of honour. The artists J.W. Bengough and
F.M. Bell-Smith are among those present. Traubel dies at Bon Echo after
seeing visions of Walt Whitman. Merrill Denison accepted at the University
of Toronto to complete Bachelor of Applied Science degree.
1920 Merrill Denison invited to join Hart House Theatre as dramaturge
by artistic director, Roy Mitchell; begins first play, Brothers in Arms,
set at Mazinaw Lake, which premieres in 1921.
1921 Death of Flora MacDonald Denison in May. Her property is bequeathed
to Merrill, who soon abandons an architectural career in favour of his writing
and the operation of the Bon Echo Inn.
Summer: artist Arthur Lismer makes his first visit to Bon Echo in
1921, returning in 1922.
1922 Merrill Denison's play, From their Own Place, premiered
at Arts and Letters Club, Toronto, with Merrill Denison and Arthur Lismer
in the cast.
1923 Greystones Cottage is built around an old school-house by Merrill
and Muriel Goggin as their own residence. Publication of Merrill Denison's
The Unheroic North: Four Canadian Plays, with dust-jacket design
by J.E.H. MacDonald.
1924 Artist A.Y.Jackson visits Bon Echo and designs poster, letterhead
and two brochures. Merrill Denison joins Arts and Letters Club, where his
play The Weather Breeder is produced with sets by Arthur Lismer.
Doris Huestis Mills paints at Bon Echo.
1926 Merrill Denison and Muriel Goggin marry. Dorothy Stevens paints
at Bon Echo. Greening family of Toronto takes out 10-year lease on Greystones
1927 Private company 'Bon Echo Inn Limited' incorporated
to sell shares, with Muriel Denison holding 51% and Merrill Denison, Dr.
D.J. Goggin, Oswald Fowler and Donald Moffat holding the remaining 49%.
Artists Charles Comfort and Will Ogilvie make their first visit to Bon Echo.
Publication of Merrill Denison's Boobs in the Woods.
1928 Artists Franklin Carmichael and A.J. Casson visit Bon Echo.
Dollywood Cottage constructed for A.H.C. Proctor of Toronto on l0-year lease
basis. Lawsuit for non-payment of a printing bill forces Bon Echo Inn into
1929 Bon Echo Inn is closed. Property leased to Camp Mazinaw for
Boys, operated by Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Ketchum. Merrill Denison's play
The Prizewinner is performed at Hart House Theatre.
1931 Merrill Denison writing radio plays for CBC's Romance
of Canada series, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, who later became the first
artistic director of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival.
1932 Merrill Denison and Muriel Goggin Denison take an apartment
in New York City.
1934 With defeat of Conservative government in Ontario, Denison's
plan for a 'forestry research centre' at Bon Echo dies a quiet
1936 Bon Echo property leased to the Leavens Brothers, an aviation
training company, who use it as a summer hotel.
July: Charles Comfort, Bobs Cogill Haworth and Peter Haworth paint
at Lake Mazinaw. October: the main Bon Echo Inn building is destroyed by
1938 Mike Schwager hired as caretaker for the Bon Echo Inn property
(to retirement in 1954).
1946 Spring: Fred HagaMerrill and sponsored by Labatt Breweries
of Canada, to determine the future uses of the Bon Echo property. Merrill
Denison moves to Montreal.
1955 Walt Whitman memorial re-dedicated during meeting of the Canadian
Authors' Association at Bon Echo on the occasion of the 100th anniversary
of the publication of Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
1957 A.J. Casson paints at Lake Mazinaw. Merrill Denison marries
Elizabeth Lisa Robert Andrews of Washington, D.C.
1958 Selwyn Dewdney records Lake Mazinaw pictographs.
1959 Bon Echo property transferred to Ontario Department of Lands
and Forests for use as a provincial park, with certain buildings and lakefront
reserved for the use of the Denisons until their death.
1960 Artist Eric Aldwinckle visits Bon Echo.
1965 Bon Echo Provincial Park officially opened to the public.
1970 Winter: Fred Hagan paints at Mazinaw Lake.
1973 June: Dick Macdonald's Mugwump Canadian: The
Merrill Denison Story published.
1974 Belated premiere of Merrill Denison's play, Marsh Hay,
set at Mazinaw Lake.
1975 12 June: death of Merrill Denison, La Jolla, California.
1976 Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa, begins study and recording
of Mazinaw Lake pictographs.
1977 May: Charles and Louise Comfort pay first visit to Lake
Mazinaw in fifty years, returning again the following August.
1980 Publication of Stuart MacKinnon's Mazinaw.
1988 Friends of Bon Echo Provincial Park founded.
1990 Bon Echo Provincial Park Preliminary Management Plan published
by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.
1991 November: Bon Echo: Dreams and Visions exhibition
opens at Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston.
1993 Artist-in-residence programme established at Bon Echo Provincial
Park. Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque unveiled, establishing the site
and buildings as having cultural-heritage significance.
1996 Friends of Bon Echo hold their first outdoor art show in the
1997 Merrill Denison's Marsh Hay presented at Shaw Festival,
1998 Merrill Denison's Brothers in Arms presented at
the Shaw Festival.
FURTHER READING ON BON ECHO AND THE DENISONS
Bon Echo Provincial Park. Toronto: The Division of Parks, Ontario
Ministry of Natural Resources, 1992.
Bon Echo Provincial Park: Facilities, Services and Programmes. Toronto:
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, published annually.
Boyle, David. 'Rock Paintings, or Petrographs: Rock Paintings at Lake
Massanog.' Annual Archaeological Report of Ontario: 1894-95.
Toronto: Printed by order of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, 1896.
Brown, Gene, Nadine Brumell, and Elsie Snider, eds. The Oxen and the
Axe: Collected and Edited by the Pioneers. [Cloyne, Ont.]: The Pioneers,
1983. Third edition.
Brown, Ron. 50 Even More Unusual Things to See in Ontario. Toronto:
Stoddard Publishing Co. Ltd. / A Boston Mills Press Book, 1993.
Colombo, John Robert. Canadian Literary Landmarks. Willowdale, Ont.:
Hounslow Press, 1983.
Cook, Ramsay. The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian English
Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.
Denison, Flora M., Mary Melville, the Psychic. Toronto: Austin Publishing
Co. Ltd., 1900.
—, ed. The Sunset of Bon Echo, vol. I, nos. 1-6 (March
1916-April / May 1920).
Denison, Merrill. 'The Bon Echo Story: From Indian Camp to Provincial
Park.' Tweed News, 6 August 1964.
—. Boobs in the Woods: Sixteen Sketches by One of Them.
Ottawa: The Graphic Publishers, Ltd., 1927.
—. Plays from Hart House, Volume One. Toronto: Macmillan
Co. of Canada, 1926; New York: Samuel French, 1932.
—. The Unheroic North: Four Canadian Plays. Toronto: McClelland
and Stewart, Ltd., 1923.
Dewdney, Selwyn and Kenneth Kidd. Indian Rock Paintings of the Great
Lakes. Second edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.
Drummond, R.J. 'A Canoe Trip to Massanoga.' The Lanark Era
(Lanark, Ont.), 18 and 24 September and 3 October 1893.
Friends' Newsletter. Cloyne, Ont.: Friends of Bon Echo Park,
1990 — (serial).
Gorham, Deborah. 'Flora MacDonald Denison: Canadian Feminist.'
In A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada, 1880s-1920s.
Ed. Linda Kealey. Toronto: The Women's Press, 1979, pp. 47-70.
Greenland, Cyril, and J.R. Colombo, comp. Walt Whitman's Canada.
Willowdale, Ont.: Hounslow Press, 1992.
Halfpenny, A.J.B. 'The Massanog Rock.' The Canadian Antiquarian
and Numismatic Journal 7 (April 1879): 145-48.
Herrington, W.S. History of the County of Lennox and Addington. Toronto:
The Macmillan Co. of Canada, Ltd., 1913; Belleville, Ont.: Mika Silk Screening
High Pines Trail Guide: Bon Echo Provincial Park. Toronto: Queen's
Printer for Ontario, 1988.
Keith, John, ed. MazinawCountry. Boulder, Ont.: Pinecone Publishing,
Kishkebus Canoe Trail: Bon Echo Provincial Park. Illustrations by Gary
Sharman. Toronto: Queen's Printer for Ontario, 1987.
[Mabee, Barbara.] 'Through Artists' Eyes.' Bon Echo Provincial
Park: 1991 Facilities, Services and Programmes. Toronto: Ontario Ministry
of Natural Resources, 1991.
MacDonald, Dick. Mugwump Canadian: The Merrill Denison Story. Montreal:
Content Publishing Co. Ltd., 1973.
MacKinnon, Stuart. 'In the Attic at Greystones.' Friends'
Newsletter (Cloyne: Friends of Bon Echo Park) (19 December 1990).
—. Mazinaw. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1980.
McMullin, Stanley E. 'Walt Whitman's Influence in Canada.'
Dalhousie Review 49 (Autumn 1969): 361-68.
Rayburn, Allan. 'The Other Mississippi.' Canadian Geographic
(March-April 1994): 80.
Rolleston, Bryan, ed. County of a Thousand Lakes: The History of the
County of Frontenac, 1673-1973. Kingston: Frontenac County Council,
Savigny, Mary. Bon Echo: The Denison Years. Toronto: Natural Heritage
/ Natural History, 1997.
The Shield Trail: Bon Echo Provincial Park. Cloyne, Ont.: Published
by the Friends of Bon Echo Park in cooperation with the Ontario Ministry
of Natural Resources, n.d. (1991).
Stacey, Robert. The Canadian Poster Book: 100 Years of the Poster in
Canada. Toronto: Methuen, 1979.
—. 'MASSANOGA: The Art of Bon Echo' In SoftQuad
SGML World Tour (CD-ROM). Toronto: Seybold/SoftQuad, 1994.
—. 'Head Upside Down Between the Legs: The Park as Art Gallery
at Century's End' Alberta Museums Review 23 (Summer 1997):
Unto These Hills, Belleville, Ont.: The Intelligencer, published
by the Pioneer Club, Cloyne, 1978.
from the catalogue published by Penumbra Press Archives
of Canadian Art, 1998
Text: © Robert Stacey and Stan McMullin. All rights reserved.
The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files