Cross-curricular resources: International Mountain Day

2nd December 2011 at 00:00
A new exhibition transports the wild landscapes of Canada to the English suburbs. Jerome Monahan is smitten
  • International Mountain Day, 11 December
  • St Nicholas Day, 6 December
    • Trappers, gold miners and evangelists are familiar occupations for the intrepid adventurers who opened up the great continents of the globe. Following in the footsteps of the early explorers, they sought their fortunes, fame, or simply a better life, in a brave, usually unchartered and challenging new world.

      But there is a hitherto neglected group of pioneers, only now being truly celebrated, which played its part in showcasing the wilderness - particularly Canada and North America - and helping the growing immigrant population to think about the future of their vast and still wild land: artists. And they are being highlighted in an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.

      Famous in their homeland, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven are little known outside Canada, and this is the first major appearance of their work in the UK since the mid-1920s when some of their canvasses featured in two British Empire exhibitions and won the admiration of British critics. (The response was in contrast to the snooty dismissal they encountered at the time in Canada, where more conservative members of the contemporary art establishment preferred European-style pictures of more sedate landscapes and picturesque peasants.)

      Now, with International Mountain Day almost upon us, how wonderful to find a group of artists who not only fervently disagreed, but embraced Canada's mountains as subjects through which they could explore the sublime. As one Canadian critic put it at the time, the Group of Seven was "tree mad, lake lunatic and river ridden . and, this year . mountain mad".

      Tom Thomson embodied the venturesome principles underlying the visits of the artists to the wild and bleak landscapes of deepest Canada, a country which, at that time, had a population of just over seven million, no larger than a sizeable European city.

      The Jack Pine is now known to most Canadians due to reproductions on display in schools and other public buildings. It came to symbolise the country's untamed origins and became emblematic of a kind of rugged Canadian spirit, especially in the aftermath of the First World War.

      An expert canoeist and occasional national park guide, Thomson's mysterious death in 1917 - still subject to conspiracy theories - was to provide the impetus among his like-minded friends and painting companions for the creation of the Group of Seven in 1920, a loose association that would last a hugely productive decade.

      Dulwich Picture Gallery has appointed a Canadian artist in residence, landscape painter Liz Charsley-Jory, to work with schools and youth groups over the next year. And like the Group of Seven, she admits to preferring vistas free of humanity.

      Although this show is largely devoted to pictures of lakes, woods and mountains, free of any evidence of "civilisation", these artists were not conservationists. Far from condemning the aggressive logging that often preceded their arrival, they generally welcomed any activity that opened up views and left the occasional lone tree to provide a poignant focal point.

      And it is true that the group - Lawren Harris (1885-1970), JEH MacDonald (1873-1932), AY Jackson (1882-1974), Franklin Carmichael (1890-1945), Frederick Horsman Varley (1881-1969), Frank Johnson (1888-1949) and Arthur Lismer (1885-1969) - were not the first to set foot in these wilds. Algonquin, north of Toronto, had been a national park since 1893. And when the painters ventured into the remoter Algoma Park, straddling the north shores of lakes Huron and Superior, the artists travelled in some style. Financed by the independently wealthy Lauren Harris, they rode aboard a specially adapted boxcar, which the local rail service would obligingly haul to a chosen location, detach on a siding, and then collect when the painters were ready to leave.

      Harris, as a committed theosophist, adhered to a religious philosophy about the nature of the soul based on mystical insight into the nature of God. Indeed, his oils of mountains and Arctic wastes are profoundly spiritual. But his creations also represented a significant geographical purpose in depicting the far north of a country that few of its population, then as now, were ever likely to experience for themselves.

      These largely unknown and tough landscapes were sketched by the artists at speed, either to beat the perishing cold of winter when temperatures dropped to -20 degC or, in summer, to defeat maddening clouds of mosquitoes and blackflies.

      One of the prize exhibits in the London show is Thomson's sketch box with neat divisions into which he was able to safely slot his 21 x 26cm sketches to preserve them from the elements.

      The artists were also adept self-publicists, arranging shows and creating cheap prints to show their work in schools.

      How appropriate, then, that British schoolchildren, so far from the wilds of Canada and so many decades after these works were first created, can now travel a short distance to see these powerful paintings for themselves.

      Jerome Monahan is a former English, drama and media studies teacher. He now runs teacher workshops in Britain and internationally. "Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven" is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until 8 January.

      WHAT ELSE?

      Painting Canada

      The exhibition Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven has a children's trail offering a route through the show to take in the pictures' main themes. Dulwich Picture Gallery's new artist in residence, Liz Charsley-Jory, will conduct courses and workshops for schools and youth groups until September 2012.

      International Mountain Day It takes places this year on Sunday 11 December. Mark the occasion with your class.

      RECOMMENDED

      Resources for learning about mountains

      Key stage 1: What is a mountain?

      A Widgit resource useful for young pupils and SEN classes, shared by Widgit_Software.

      Key stage 2: Our world scheme of work

      A project based on geography units on mountains, rivers and water, with cross-curricular links, shared by elmsdale1.

      Key stage 3: Mount Everest glacial retreat

      Watch a report on the Himalayas from Greenpeace, in a video from Green TV.

      Key stage 4: Plate tectonics

      Explore phenomena with a scientific twist.

      IN THE FORUMS

      If you are looking for musical accompaniment to your lessons, read a conversation from the music forum about songs featuring mountains.

      Join a contentious debate on the geography forum about which is the most mountainous country in Europe.

      In the art and design forum, teachers look for activities and specific artists to cover in a project on mountains.

      All links and forums are at www.tes.co.ukresources012.

      Original headline: Pioneers with palettes

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