The MacDonald House: In the Footsteps of an Artist

By: Valeria Nunziato // 09.26.2020

Among the hustle and bustle of city life in the booming community of Thornhill exists a piece of Canadian history: a heritage house that stands out from the stylish, modern architecture that surrounds it within the community. You may be familiar with Centre Street for landmarks like Promenade Mall or one of the many food establishments that line either side of the busy street. But at 121 Centre Street, tucked away behind sky-scraping trees sits the MacDonald House, a memento of Canadian art history right in Thornhill.

If you’re familiar with the famous Canadian group of landscape artists known as the Group of Seven, then the MacDonald House may be of more interest to you than you initially thought. One of the core group members, J.E.H. MacDonald, purchased the house in 1914 and it stayed in the family until about 1974 under the ownership of MacDonald’s son, Thoreau MacDonald. While the band of artists was known to take inspiration out of Algonquin Park and other scenic areas which are not too far from York Region, having this connection to such a significant part of Canadian history so close to home is almost hard to believe.

The MacDonald House. Photo by Valeria Nunziato.

But it doesn’t stop there. While MacDonald himself and his family occupied the house for just over half a century, the home was known to be a popular hangout spot for the rest of the group. Other famous painters like Franklin Carmichael and Arthur Lismer, also part of the Group of Seven, were known to frequent the home on a regular basis. MacDonald’s own great niece once said in an interview that, “every single member of the Group of Seven has been there at one time or another.” Here they would meet to talk about life and art, and sometimes, even take a brush to a canvas.

The Tangled Garden by J.E.H MacDonald.
J.E.H. MacDonald, "The Tangled Garden," 1915.

One of MacDonald’s most famous paintings is The Tangled Garden and it is known that the garden in the very backyard of this home was the inspiration for this work of art over a century ago. This post-impressionistic painting was first debuted at the Ottawa Society of Artists in 1916 where it received backlash from critics for its bright colours—a contrast to the abstract work that was popular at that time. Today, The Tangled Garden is hailed as one of MacDonald’s best works and was even acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa as part of its permanent collection.

It’s almost unbelievable, if the house weren’t still standing as proof. The MacDonald House is a destination for those who are looking to get more in tune with Canadian culture, having this very real and very accessible tidbit of the past so near to us in York Region.

Photo by Valeria Nunziato.

The home was donated to the City of Vaughan in the 70s, and while it is not open on a regular basis for the public to walk through, it is commonly used as a venue for local art exhibitions and shows. Schedules for exhibitions at the house can be found on the City of Vaughan’s website or by phoning the city. However, as the MacDonald House is a city park, the grounds are always open to the public. There has been extensive work in reconstructing the famous garden and several informational placards are placed around the grounds guiding people to walk in the footsteps of one of Canada’s most famous artistic figures. There is even a station posted where historians believe J.E.H. MacDonald sat while he drew inspiration and painted The Tangled Garden. Guests have the opportunity to put themselves in MacDonald’s shoes as he painted this important piece of Canadian art.

Photo by Valeria Nunziato.

There are benches and seating areas installed for the public to sit on and take in the surroundings, and perhaps gain artistic motivation of your own while on these historic grounds. If you’re simply looking for a serene and peaceful area to get in touch with your own Canadian history, the MacDonald House in Thornhill is definitely a place to visit within York Region. Take a trip down memory lane by walking through the footsteps of Canada’s own J.E.H. MacDonald.

Looking for more?

The City of Thornhill offers a comprehensive self-guided walking tour that allows visitors to peruse the past as it is nestled in with the modern city. Other historical attractions in Thornhill include: Baker House (built in 1853), John Charlton House (built c. 1870), John Arnold House, (built c. 1872), and Armstrong House (built c. 1875).

The walking tour of historic Thornhill includes many more fascinating sites. For more information, visit The Society for the Preservation of Historic Thornhill.