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First Nations Works of Art – The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario

First Nations Works of Art – The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Toronto, December 8, 2008. Ken Thomson's unparalleled collection of Canadian works of art includes an important group of First Nations objects which span two millennia, from around 200 BC to the late 19th century. It was his passionate love of ivory carving and admiration for skilled craftsmanship that led Ken to this field. As with the European ivories, the First Nations pieces are of the highest quality and, while handling them, Ken felt he could in some indefinable way connect with their makers and the history of Canada. The First Nations works were integral to his Canadian collection and he focused on finely detailed objects such as amulets, dagger hilts and combs carved from ivory which came from orca or sperm whale teeth or, more rarely, walrus tusks.

One of the first pieces he bought is the earliest in the collection, a walrus ivory Okvik head that dates from 200 BC to 100 AD, while one of the last pieces he acquired before he died is a Haida wood and walrus ivory carving of a Sea Captain from Queen Charlotte Island, British Columbia, dating from circa 1860. (figs. FN1 & FN2) The Okvik culture flourished around the Bering Sea of Alaska, Okvik meaning ‘the place where walrus come on land', and their art is concerned primarily with the representation of the human figure, as with this fine, near abstract rendition of a female head.

The Okvik head brought Ken to Shamanic objects. The Shaman is a spiritual leader in traditional First Nations communities who has the special capacity and knowledge of ritual to communicate with the spirit world in order to negotiate with the forces of good and evil. One of the first of these objects Ken acquired was a Tsimshian Shaman's amulet from Northern British Columbia, circa 1840. (fig. FN3) Exquisitely carved from marine mammal ivory, it is in the form of an embryonic anthro/zoomorphic figure with abalone shell inlaid in the eye socket and in two ovoids along the back. This piece ‘spoke' to Ken as it obviously had to one of its previous owners, George Ortiz who formed an important collection of tribal and oceanic art and shared with Ken a passion for such objects. Another early acquisition was a Tlingit Shaman's charm from Southeast Alaska, circa 1840, carved from sperm whale tooth and also inlaid with abalone shell. (fig. FN4)

One of the most important pieces in the Thomson Collection is a Haida portrait mask from Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, circa 1840. It was one of the first pieces Ken bought that was not ivory but he was intrigued by its realism and its link with Canadian history. The extraordinarily life-like carved and painted mask with real hair was probably made to represent the spirit of a revered ancestor and would have been a powerful prop when used in dramatic storytelling around a fire. Haida face painting, as shown on this mask, may be seen in a photograph taken in 1890 at Skidegate by the Reverend Charles Harrison. This major work of art was formerly in the collection of the renowned dealer of fine and tribal art Leendert Van Lier (1910-1995) of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. (fig. FN5)

Two fine examples of rattles in the Thomson Collection are of great interest. The sound of rattling is said to be pleasing to the spirits and numerous types of objects have been created on the Northwest Coast to produce variations of that sound. Hollowed wood rattles in globular or bird and animal forms are common. One of them is a Tlingit raven rattle (fig. FN6) from Southern Alaska, circa 1840, carved in the form of a bird with a raven-like head which would have been a chief's dancing rattle while the second, a Nuu-chah-nulth salmon rattle from Vancouver Island, BC, circa 1900, is one of only five examples known. The engaging cage-like object is perhaps the rarest form of Northwest Coast rattle. Precisely how these were used and in what ceremonial context is not known but they may be related to First Salmon rituals when the first salmon of the new spring run was caught and treated as a ceremonial guest. The bones of this fish were deposited in the stream in a sacred manner in order to ensure the return of the salmon which was essential to the livelihood of the local population. The salmon rattle was collected by the Reverend Myron Eells who arrived at Skokomish Indian Agency in 1874 joining his brother Edwin who was the US Indian agent there. Myron Eells worked as a missionary on the reservation until his death in 1907 and recorded in great detail the life of the native peoples of the area. In this whimsical sculpture, the multitude of fish collide when shaken, perhaps imitating the act of spawning, while creating a musical rattling to delight the ear and eye. (fig. FN7)

Once he had decided to give his collection to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Ken wanted to broaden the scope of the collection to show how the First Nations' skills survived into the 20th century. He therefore bought pieces by one of the best-known First Nations artists, Charles Edenshaw (1839-1924), one of the few recorded by name. He was a prolific carver, creating works in wood, argillite (a type of soft, black shale), ivory, silver, and gold. His early works were traditional, such as bent-corner chests, boxes and bowls, houseposts and masks but as Haida culture changed in the late 19th century following colonialisation, Edenshaw created works for outsiders who valued traditional native art. The two bracelets and the elaborately carved cane in Ken's collection exemplify his masterful sense of composition and his clean, detailed style of engraving. (figs. FN8 & FN9)

Ken Thomson started acquiring his First Nations pieces in the 1990s from the pre-eminent dealer in North American Indian art Donald Ellis who shared his passion for these objects. The dealer and collector had a ritual when Don would show Ken pieces one at a time in complete silence. Ken would handle the piece and examine it minutely and Don would know immediately by the twinkle in Ken's eye whether he was going to buy it. However, a number of major works was acquired after Thomson's death from the Dundas collection that Ken knew well and which was important not only for its size and comprehensiveness but also for the unusually early and precise date of acquisition.

The Reverend Robert J. Dundas of Scotland went to British Columbia on the gunboat HMS Grappler and spent the morning of 26 October 1863 on the shores of Metlakatla where he acquired a group of Northwest Coast American Indian artefacts assembled by William Duncan of the church mission at Old Metlakatla. The collection remained in the Dundas family until its sale in New York in 2006. The most important object acquired at the sale was a Tsimshian portrait mask, one of the finest of its kind, from Northern British Columbia, circa 1820-40. A masterpiece of Tsimshian art, it sold for a record US$1,808,000. Another, earlier, Tsimshian piece from the Dundas collection is an antler club formed from caribou antler, circa 1750, which was also acquired by the Thomson family and is now on view at the AGO. (figs. FN10 & FN11)

There are nine major language families and cultural groups that constitute the First Nations of the Northwest Coast: the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka'wakw, Oowekeno, Nuxalk, Heiltsuk, Haisla, Haida and the Tsimshian speaking groups, individually known as the Gitk'san, Nishga'a, and the Coast Tsimshian proper. These shared certain general traits of culture, adapted to the marine environment, and each possessed a flourishing heritage of sculpture, painting and dance that represented rich mythologies and cosmologies. The Thomson Collection comprises some 80 objects and features pieces from all these groups.

These exceptional pieces greatly enrich the Art Gallery of Ontario's holdings of historical First Nations art. The development of this aspect of the collection has been a high priority of the Canadian Department for two decades now. The Canadian Wing - both the Thomson Canadian Galleries and the rest of the Canadian collection presented in the J.S. McLean Centre for Canadian Art - now offers to the public a narrative in which First Nations and the "newcomers" are understood to be equally committed partners in the unfolding history of Canadian art.

For further information and images, please contact:

AGO Press OfficeAntonietta MirabelliTel. +1 416 979 6660, ext. 454, The Thomson CollectionSue Bond Public RelationsTel. +44 (0)1359

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