Lindsay’s forgotten artist: Rediscovering W.A. Goodwin

By Ian McKechnie

Our Camp on Crab River, 1898, by W.A. Goodwin.

Autumn is perhaps my favourite season. The palette of hues which grace the Kawartha Lakes between September and mid-November have inspired both outdoor enthusiasts and artists for generations. One such artist was W.A. Goodwin, who, though a Lindsay resident for three quarters of a century, has largely faded into the mists of history.

Well, not entirely.

Lindsay’s forgotten artist: Rediscovering W.A. Goodwin
Columnist Ian McKechnie.

Motorists crossing at the intersection of Cambridge and Peel Streets are no doubt familiar with the badly-neglected frame building on the northwest corner. For years, this once-picturesque structure was home to “Wm. A. Goodwin Room Papers & Picture Frames” ‒ essentially, the ‘Scott’s Decorating Centre’ of its day.

Pedestrians walking north along Cambridge regularly pass the pretty little house with (until recently) yellow shutters across from the Baptist church.  It was here that the Goodwin family made their home for just over a century.  Boaters making their way through the Trent-Severn Waterway hurry past the ancient Upper Wharf at Sturgeon Point, where W.A. Goodwin maintained a cottage and enjoyed the company of family and friends.

W.A. Goodwin’s built heritage is something with which most of us are vaguely familiar. Yet, the extraordinary story of Goodwin the man remains largely unknown. Born in 1840, William Alfred Goodwin spent the first eight or so years of his life in the milling town of Spalding, in eastern England. He later crossed the Atlantic with his parents, Richard and Elizabeth, arriving in New York and eventually settled in Rochester, N.Y.  A machinist by trade, Richard Goodwin worked at a flour mill in nearby Batavia before moving once again, this time to Newcastle, Ontario.

The family eventually settled in what is today known as Northumberland County, where young William Alfred launched his career as a painter and decorator.  Around 1860, Goodwin journeyed up to Lindsay and spent a few years working with a James Winters, travelling on foot as far away as Fenelon Falls, Little Britain, and Oakwood to do various painting and paper-hanging jobs for local farmers and businessmen.  Goodwin returned to Cobourg in 1862, where he married Emma Clements, a soldier’s daughter.  They in due course found themselves back in Lindsay

Lindsay’s forgotten artist: Rediscovering W.A. Goodwin
W.A. Goodwin.

where they began a family that grew to include six children: Bessie, Frank, William Evans, George, May, and Amy Matilda, or “Tillie,” herself an accomplished artist in her own right.

By 1867, W.A. Goodwin had opened his own painting and decorating shop in Lindsay, which would remain in business for another 75 years. With a young family and a growing business, things looked promising for W.A. Goodwin. Then, illness struck and he had to put his painting career on hold.  In those days, people working with paint were easily susceptible to lead poisoning brought on by that substance’s presence in virtually all commercial paints. Goodwin was one such victim of what he called “painter’s colic,” and he travelled to Battle Creek, Michigan, to “take the waters” at the famous Seventh-Day Adventist sanitarium there.

While being treated here, Goodwin was exposed to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church’s belief in a fruit and vegetable-based diet, and he would become an enthusiastic promoter of a vegetarian lifestyle for the remainder of his earthly existence.

“Health for all is best for all,” he wrote in a 1927 essay recounting his inspiring journey from illness to recovery.

Given his belief in healthy, active living, it comes as no surprise that Goodwin was one of this community’s pioneering outdoorsmen. During the last quarter of the 19th century, he spent many a happy autumn in a canoe, venturing up into the wilderness surrounding Coboconk, Haliburton, Minden, and other frontier settlements, often in the company of friends.  Like the voyageurs of old, they would camp, fish, and hunt for days on end. These trips inspired many of Goodwin’s drawings and paintings for which he was best remembered.

What was it about those drawings and paintings that has inspired us to shed light on Goodwin’s story? Why is his art, obscure though it may be, so significant to our community?

Through his many drawings, oil paintings, and watercolours ‒ in which camping, canoeing, cottage life, and hunting are major themes ‒ W.A. Goodwin left us with a prolific picture of this area’s emerging outdoor recreation industry, which began almost 150 years ago and continues to be a key part of the local economy to this day. In a world before Kodak, Facebook, and Instagram, Goodwin provides a glimpse of how our forbearers “captured the moment,” as it were, of their experience in the great outdoors.

MP Maryam Monsef admires ‘Our Camp on Crab River’ by W.A. Goodwin.

Goodwin was known for more than just his art, however. He dabbled in different religious traditions, calling himself an agnostic and joining the Rosicrucians, a California-based secular humanist organization, when he was in his 80s.  At a time when this community was generally divided between Conservative and Liberal politics, Goodwin ran as a candidate for the “Socialistic Party of Canada” in the 1908 provincial election…and long before it became a taboo topic, he was stirring marijuana into his tea. W.A. Goodwin was ahead of his time!

A lifetime of counter-cultural creativity came to a close on January 28th 1940, when W.A. Goodwin died five months short of his 100th birthday.  His story went largely forgotten for three generations, until four of his paintings were unearthed at the Lindsay museum in the spring of 2014. Conversations with his only-surviving descendent ‒ a great-granddaughter living in British Columbia ‒ ensued, and our journey of rediscovering this extraordinary gentleman’s life story began in earnest.

Over the last few years, we have held an exhibition of Goodwin’s surviving artworks and organized plein air painting events at Cherry Tree Lodge, the charming little cottage he built at Sturgeon Point in 1887.  We have brought his story to the attention of dignitaries such as Member of Parliament Maryam Monsef, and the Prince of Wales. Future plans include digitizing the Goodwin collection and making his story available to an online audience.

W.A. Goodwin, forgotten for years by local historians, has a bright future!

— Ian McKechnie is a graduate of Trent University and a lifelong resident of Lindsay. He works as an assistant manager at the Olde Gaol Museum and is secretary of the Kawartha Lakes Heritage Network.

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