Mr. MacDonald's Garden
Background facts: J. E. H. MacDonald (1874-1932) was part of the
"Group of Seven:" Canadian artists who painted landscapes of their countryside and created a feeling for their own brand of nationalist art. MacDonald lived in a small town north of Toronto. The Tangled Garden is based on what he saw in his own yard. The painting was exhibited in Ontario in 1916, and the critics hated it. MacDonald defended it, but was never able to sell it. Members of his family donated the painting to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa seven years after his death, in 1939. There it remains, on display.
Click here to see the painting.
I met him, you know. What? Have I never shared that story with you, my friend? Here, please, pour yourself another cup, and I'll tell you about my remarkable encounters with the man.
I moved into this neighborhood in the spring of that year, as I recall. By late summer, I had established a daily routine of which I was especially fond. After attending to the usual obligations that each morning required, I then made a point of setting out to saunter along the gritty sidewalk, for a distance of perhaps say, oh, a half kilometer. (I employ the term "saunter" here, as it appears to be the local alternative to "stroll," which I soon discovered was an activity that far too few of the residents practiced.)
My destination was the most delightful eatery you could hope to find, in a town such as this. The tea was always piping hot, the pastries were as rich and as luxurious as they would be in any similar shop in London, and the very air carried a delicious veil of flour, sugar, and admirable spices. I say, it was a marvelous room in which to sit and spend time with the Times, so to speak. There were precious few tables and chairs arranged in that tiny space; but the generous owners always allowed me a chance to reside there for an hour or two each day. And yes, I'm afraid I've unfortunately used the past tense to describe the place. The couple that ran it back then -- she in the kitchen, he at the counter -- put all they had into the business, and none into the production of progeny, you see. When they passed away years later, just days apart from one another, and without a single heir to come forth and take command, the barristers locked every door and window. I admit that I rarely pass by that block now. I believe the storefront has since been turned into some sort of apparel shop for women. Pity.
Nevertheless: back then, it was their fine tea and pastries that I sought. I strode along in those days with my wonderful walking stick at hand -- yes, yes, thatís the one, you see it over there in the corner! Bring it here so that you can get a closer look at it. That's a good man. I had purchased it a while earlier from a talented old woodcarver in a small village up in the Alps. Haggled a good deal before he and I came to an agreement on the price for the piece, too. It seems the man not only had the gift of craftsmanship, you see, but also the ingenuity of commerce. Uncommon to find such perception in that remote location, but there you have it. Of course, that was a trip I could only have made in the days before Germany and France Ė well, you know. I sometimes wonder what fate might have befallen the chap in the interim.
What? Oh, no, no, no. The land around here is as flat as the crown of my old silk hat, as you can fairly see. The walking stick was merely used as an accompanying adornment, of course, and never for support in scaling any mountains, for we have none here. What? Oh, no, no, no. My gait at the time was as regular as the second hand on a tightly-wound pocket watch. I required no additional assistance for any lengthy sojourn. It's been only in recent years that this leg of mine has given me a bit of trouble. I will say, however, that although this has always been a relatively pleasant and quiet area in which to live, one never knew when some stray mongrel hound might nose its devious way through one of the alleyways and lunge out at one with its teeth bared, without provocation. I believe it is always best to be thusly armed. Besides, I cut quite the striking image back then, I should say. A resplendent cane could make all the difference in the announcement of a gentleman.
My route in those days was a circuitous one, you see. It was full of left turns, right turns, and more left turns in order to arrive at that bakerís heaven. My return trip followed another set of streets that eventually led me back here. I found it to be a more interesting method of traversing the town, you see, and one that provided a fuller examination of its activities. There was forever a change of scenery, of course. No need for one to see the same sights going out, as one did coming back. It was for me a far more memorable journey, when conducted in that fashion. I soon grew so accustomed to the pattern that I could have navigated it blindfolded, should I have ever had the need to.
Now along the way, I would pass a certain residence, one street over and several blocks down from here. You may be able to find the place later, if you wish; though, of course, there must be a new owner there by now. Perhaps even the man's son, for all I know. The house itself was rather nondescript, as I recall. Fairly similar to those built throughout the rest of the neighborhood during the same decade. Toward the rear of the property was a brown clapboard carriage house, left over from the old days. You know the kind, I'm sure. People seem inclined to fix up such outbuildings these days and rent them out to paying tenants. I must admit that the same thought has occurred to me from time to time. I wouldn't mind the additional income that such an arrangement would bring. An ad, carefully placed, might even lead potential renters fairly clamoring to my front doorstep and ringing the bell. But where would I put my collections, then? What? Oh, yes, yes. They're all still set up in the attic over the garage. Yes, of course, I would be more than happy to show them to you again. Perhaps on another visit, my friend, when my leg is more up to the challenge that the stairs seem to present today.
But back then: what made this other property most noticeable was the magnificent garden that had been hoed and planted in the half acre plot that reached from the street to the stable. And as summer became autumn, I noticed the differences almost daily during my walks. We had a good season then, I should say, with enough rain and sunshine to cause every green and growing thing to climb as wide or as high as it possibly could, toward the very clouds, if it wished. And this garden grew fuller and more colorful as the weeks went by. What? Oh, mostly flowers, as I recall. Mere ornamentals. No vegetables to speak of: at least, none that I could recognize. I especially remember seeing a number of sunflowers, however; and they grew taller and taller until their heads became so heavy with seed, that they had no option but to lean over the rest of the plantings, with their heads fairly parallel to the ground. Other than a few birds, though, I never witnessed anyone harvesting their fruit.
In any case, I had once heard that an artist lived in that house. Can you believe it, sir? An artist, here? The structure was certainly big enough that it could have held a garret under the eaves, where I supposed an artist might want to work, to some effect. My informers had never mentioned what sort of artwork the man might be attending to, you see. I assumed that whatever his tasks might entail, they were ones that took precedence over his duty -- or his wife's, for that matter -- to see to the needs of the garden. For at its height, perhaps in the week before the children were due to head back to their desks, the plot had become rather unruly. I for one would have been hard pressed to tell what was weed and what was not. Then again, I consider myself to be neither a farmer nor a botanist. But some authority surely was in need to take charge of the thing.
That was about the time when, one morning, I came upon a man standing there on the sidewalk, looking back at the property. I assumed he was a fellow saunterer, as was I, and that he had been temporarily sidetracked by that fanciful lawn. So I nodded a "Good day" and stepped around him to continue my journey. But when I made my usual turn at the next corner, I glanced back and saw that he had not budged one meter since I had passed him. He merely stood and stared at the sight. It was as if the flowers had somehow mesmerized him, and had cast a certain spell upon him: one that he could not or would not easily shake off. I have to say that I was both slightly amused and momentarily worried. Nevertheless, the tea and pastries beckoned, as they always did, and I continued on my way.
The following morning, the same man was there again, at that very spot. This time he held a notepad and a pencil in his hands. I thought then that he might be a journalist, assigned to write one of those gardening features that occasionally appear in our local sheets. I don't read such columns, of course, since I have no need to. I do notice such articles in passing, however, whenever I page through the news. They appear to be aimed at a more feminine audience, being as flowery in their descriptions as in the topics at hand. In any case, I again nodded to this stranger and made my way around him. And once again, when I turned at the end of the block, I saw that he had remained rooted in place. Over my tea that day -- oh, I can still summon the flavor of the wonderful blend that was served in that establishment! -- I considered that the man might instead be a surveyor. Perhaps the artist was indeed starving, as I hear such men often are, and the entire property would soon be put up for auction. I might even have been interested in placing a bid on it myself, then. Real estate investments were not among my usual occupations, you understand, but they were not outside the realm of possibility. I alerted myself to watch for a posting.
By the third day, the man and I were no longer unacquainted. I approached and nodded in his direction. His demeanor seemed to acknowledge my presence kindly, but without any noticeable demonstration. Granted, he'd not spoken one word to me up to this point, you understand. We were merely two ships on a narrow sea, passing by each other at a scheduled hour, with no similar trade to engage in. But this time, my curiosity caused me to stop. Unabashed, I peered over his shoulder and deigned to peek at his open page. Imagine my surprise when I saw that it contained, not paragraphs or measurements or calculations, but drawings! Sketches of the garden as a whole, and of many of the plants in particular. The sunflowers, the other bushes and weeds and whatnot, had been accurately mirrored by this man's own hand. He was the artist after all, you see! It was his garden! He had grown his own landscape, to be later depicted in oil on a canvas. Quite ingenious an arrangement, once you think on it.
My astonishment at both the revelation of the man's identity and the quality of his sketches had rendered me speechless, I'm afraid. But he knew that I knew, for he turned toward me, and some sort of exchange was now necessary. Decorum of the day required at least some politeness on my part. I could hardly ask the man why he permitted his yard to bear more resemblance to the jungles of Borneo or to those forests overhanging the Amazon, than to any habitats found in this quiet town, or even to any others on the entire North American continent. Nor could I offer any judgment on the quality of his paper tracings, naturally; for as we all know, I have never sought employment as a reviewer or a critic. Yet I knew that I had to choose my words wisely. I would not want it to be later said that I had a hand in dressing down or stifling the creativity of a burgeoning and perhaps, eventually, noted artist. No, no, that wouldn't do at all. But my mind and my tongue seemed to be disconnected at that very moment. The best response I could come up with was to wave my walking stick in the direction of the flowery mess and quip, "I say, it's all a bit tangled, wouldn't you think?"
The man turned back toward his home, and to the garden; and I saw a sly smile begin to lift one edge of his mouth. Soon his eyes began to sparkle, and he nodded in agreement and excitement. "Indeed!" he fairly bellowed at me. "Indeed, it is! Thank you, sir! Thank you!" He clutched his notepad and pencil to his chest with his left hand, and held out the other for shaking purposes. I, in turn, switched my cane to my left, and took the offer. His was a firm and slightly moist grip, and I still remember that it was brimming with energy. I'm not sure I have ever met with a more enthusiastic person, before or since. I found myself drawn to him, and comfortable in the knowledge that I liked this artist immensely. An artist! Can you imagine that, my friend? And yet, he'd been a complete stranger to me, not ten minutes earlier. We'd no time to even introduce ourselves properly. I never gave him my card. That, I know.
Alas, some bad weather descended upon us, soon after that meeting, I believe. And it was not long before I took ill with some unknown malady. Was in bed for a full fortnight, and was still housebound for yet another. By the time I felt strong enough to resume my pedestrian ritual, that man's garden was essentially dead. We'd had a frost or two in the meantime, you see, and the air had chilled. Everything had withered. Where those sunflowers had been standing, and where the other striking flowers had grown in their shadows, there was now simply a pulpy organic mass, covering the entire plot. No vibrant colors remained. All was dusky green or moldy brown. It was as if Old Man Winter himself had come and stolen not only the beauty, but also the very breath that had been holding everything up. He'd pulled the plug on the whole scene, as one might do with the tire on a bicycle or on an automobile. It was raw devastation, right in front of me. I could not quite get over it. I remember changing my stride and walking on the other side of the street, along that block, until the snows came. I had to avert my eyes from the horror. And never again did I come upon that man -- the owner, the artist.
Later -- and from this distance of time, one never knows how many months might have passed in the interim -- I heard of a sizable art exhibit going on, down in the city. And one of the entries was a remarkable painting called The Tangled Garden. Well, that name got my immediate attention, I can tell you! It called me back to the very day when I met that artist: when I used that very term to describe his property. What? Oh, no, no, no. I unfortunately had no opportunity to attend the exhibit myself. You see, other obligations drew me away and elsewhere for a span of a few weeks. Today I cannot recall exactly where I was needed back then. But before I withdrew, I ensured that all of the papers would be kept for me as usual, in my absence. And when I returned, I scoured them for news about the event. I was not disappointed in that task, though I grew to regret overall, the fact that I had not witnessed the display in person.
Of course, I speak of MacDonald, the man and the artist. He had evidently taken the few outlines I had spied and had transformed them into a tremendous work in oil, on a canvas nearly as large as the original plot itself, it was said. Now, as I've told you, my eyes were unable to rest upon the finished piece. But from what I gleaned from the stories I both read and heard -- for the news had this town a-twittering, after the local gallery visitors had recognized the genesis of the work -- I believe he must have documented quite faithfully that view from the sidewalk. I shall never forget the words of one critic, who described his work as "an incoherent mass of colour." Well, I must tell you, sir, I had a chuckle or two over that line. An incoherent mass of colour, indeed! You should have seen where it came from, my boy! In fact, I averred that the artist might have had to take Nature's first hues and tone them down a bit. I cannot imagine that a similar scene, depicted merely on a flat board with the help of heavy pigments, could do justice to the sight that I came in contact with daily, in a real world requiring three full dimensions. If he succeeded in that? Well then, I must tell you, he is indeed the genius that some say he is. Was, rather. I understand that the man has since passed on, a few years back.
What? Oh, no, no, no. I never revealed myself as the originator of the title. I cannot say that the thought had never crossed my mind, of course. For I had no doubt that it was my chance remark that caused MacDonald to bestow that particular title upon the piece. But I did take the time to study the situation. I followed the various threads of the idea and contemplated what ramifications might come about as a result. It would not matter if I merely stormed up to his doorstep, or if I instead filed a formal claim and launched an attack in the press. Such matters of ownership in this regard are tenuous at best even today, as you well know. Back then, no one gave much consideration to that sort of thing. It certainly would have been difficult to attach a monetary value to a simple word now, wouldnít it?
What? Oh, no, no, no. As I mentioned earlier, I never saw the man again. And when I pondered my possible options, I asked myself, "What would be gained?" And gradually I came to realize that the answer was, "Nothing. Nothing at all." In fact, as you and I both know, a full series of retributions would undoubtedly have arisen with the institution of such a complaint. And before you could have said, "Bob's yer uncle," the fingers would no longer have been pointing at him, but at me. I surely could not bring that kind of distress down upon this house now, could I? I must admit that, in the end, I found myself somewhat pleased with keeping the delicious secret, you see. The conversation had taken place with just the two of us, and no additional witnesses. I determined that if he could keep the issue quiet, so could I.
As for MacDonald: he showed them all that he was made of stronger stuff. Though the critics hammered him, he still had the considerable vigor to fight back. Wrote a letter to the editor and proclaimed the benefits of what he called "a living Canadian art." I believe that was the wording. But you can read all of those articles for yourself, if you wish. I clipped and saved them all -- for what reason, I cannot even say that I know for certain. Each column -- from the critics, to MacDonald himself -- has been carefully preserved and archived in one of my record books, back in my collections. I can have that volume retrieved at this very moment for you, if you wish. What? Oh, no, no, no. It would be no inconvenience at all. Let me call it up. What? Oh, very well, then. Perhaps another time. But can I tell you? I still recall the grip of that manís hand, and the power that appeared to simmer behind it. It did not surprise me in the least that he had what it took to face his accusers, head on.
Do you know? I'd heard that he placed a $500 price tag on The Tangled Garden at the time. Five hundred dollars, man! Can you imagine? Oh, no, no, no. Naturally not! How could I possibly summon up that sum for such a purchase? Now, of course, I cannot say that the thought had not crossed my mind a time or two. First of all: if I were to acquire the piece, and have it hung in the hallway, it would be as if I were walking to the bakery, every day, in any weather or in any season, without even leaving my home! Some joy and satisfaction could be found in that activity, wouldnít you say? Indeed, the image would have also reminded me of the artist himself, and of our exchange that day, and the very fact that a certain amount of wildness could be fostered on what was previously a relatively unusual, in-town lot. An intriguing idea, that.
Then again, I had something else to consider. And it was this: would such a work complement the rest of the household dťcor? You've had time to admire the other pieces I've got around here, havenít you? The few in this room alone represent only a partial number of procurements made over the course of my extensive travels. Here I can sit and be reminded of journeys to two or three continents, simply by turning my head one way or another. What would be the effect on the entire ensemble if I added a local landscape to the mix: one that in reality was just several minutes away? In the end, I could not come to a proper decision regarding the painting, and whether or not I should ever bid on it. And of course, there was the problem of the price, as well.
In any event, it is my understanding that The Tangled Garden -- the painting, of course, and not the parcel itself! -- was never sold to a private owner. I suspect that explains why it has landed at the National Gallery. Alas! When it was exhibited in a hall just an hour away from here, I had no chance to see it. By the time I had rallied myself to make the trip, you see, the show was over. You have done well, with your plans to include the museum in your forthcoming visit to the capital, my friend. You will then have the benefit of the thing that I never had. What? Oh, no, no, no. I could not possibly get away this week. Far too many responsibilities have saddled me here, I'm afraid. And then there is the matter of keeping up with the news from Europe, since Germany and France are once again Ė well, you know. I thank you indeed for the invitation, and must decline. But do, you go. You are still young enough to be up to the task. I havenít been to the capital in, oh, many years, Iíd say.
What? Oh, no, no, no. Perhaps that is the saddest part of the tale. You see, that garden was never planted again. I imagine that it was due to the negative response that MacDonald received, that he ordered the plot to be cultivated as a common lawn. Every year afterward, it grew merely grass. Not one flower was permitted to rise from its soil. No border of shrubbery of any sort was installed to soften the edges. Come to think of it, perhaps he himself did the work. Perhaps he thought he and his family would not be able to bear the sight of it. For it would have been a living, continual reminder of that "incoherent mass of colour," now wouldnít it? I must say that I got quite a shock when I turned that first corner the following spring, and I saw that the artist's property fairly blended in with all of the others on that block. I could barely tell which one it was, at first.
What? Oh, no, no, no. I saw no one there during any of my subsequent walks past the place. Not the artist, and not any member of his family. All was quiet. And that was my ritual for years, mind you, until the bakery closed down and -- well, I believe I told you about that. Oh, on occasion I would catch the sight of a shadow moving behind a window or two. It always gave me pause, and I would ponder the activities of that artist lurking beyond that glass and frame. I did manage to follow him in the papers, though. He and that group of fellow artists should indeed be rightly praised for creating and promoting the art of the country, as I heard they did. I never actually saw any of their work myself.
MacDonald himself is gone, a few years now. But I understand that his son has become some sort of craftsman as well: an expert with pen and ink, I believe. I saved all of their announcements from the paper, both of the man and the son. The advertisements and articles have all been carefully preserved and archived in one of my record books, back in my collections. We can have them retrieved -- well, perhaps we can peruse them at another time.
I say, you should have a fine visit over there this week. What? Oh, no, no, no. There's no need to worry about me, my friend. I have no requirement to gaze upon that painting. I saw the pure inspiration for it, you see. And that image remains forever vivid in my mind. Whatever imposter may hang in the National Gallery, it is a mere sad substitute for the real garden, I must vow. But please, you should study it yourself. Take a long look at The Tangled Garden, and memorize it completely. And when you return, give me a ring and we shall catch up again. You can tell me every detail of the painting and of your trip, over tea. I wish you Godspeed, sir!
Now, I do believe we have been sitting in this room long enough. Might you pass me my walking stick, and perhaps offer an arm for the other side? Once Iím up on my feet, I'll be good to go. A bit of brisk air would be the perfect thing to take in before you leave, don't you think? I believe with your help, together we could saunter -- I do enjoy that word, donít you? -- we could saunter along the sidewalk as far as the corner intersection. Maybe even proceed around the block and make a full circuit. We'll see how it goes, won't we? I do wish there was still a decent bakery in this part of town. My favorite one has been closed for some time now. Its tea and pastries were indeed something to live for! It's a shame I cannot introduce you to them. But I believe the storefront has since been turned into some sort of apparel shop for women. Pity.
Let us go then, shall we?
© 2012 Corinne H. Smith