Long unseen, Radium Mine painting by Group of Seven great A.Y. Jackson has nuclear significance

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

When you think of the Group of Seven it's usually those iconic impressionistic images of windblown trees and rocky lakeshores painted in a striking colour palate.

A.Y. Jackson's Radium Mine certainly touches all those bases but its subject matter also has wider historical resonance, giving us a glimpse of Canada at the dawn of the nuclear age.

The painting, held in a private collection for more than seven decades, is going up for sale at the Nov. 22 Heffel fine art auction in Toronto, Randy Boswell of Postmedia News reports.

Jackson painted the work, along with one other now hanging in the National Gallery of Canada, during a 1938 visit to the Northwest Territories mine owned by his friend Gerald LaBine. The operation was on the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake, about 440 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife.

It was exhibited publicly once in 1939 but otherwise stayed in the LaBine family's hands as a prized memento of Jackson's visit to the mine, Postmedia News said.

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Heffel estimates the value of the work, which measures almost a metre wide and 71 centimetres tall, at between $200,000 and $300,000.

"Not only is Radium Mine one of Jackson's finest works," says Heffel's catalogue entry for the painting, "it is also historically significant.

"At its heart is the story of two exceptional Canadians — a gifted artist and a bold entrepreneur — linked by their thirst for adventure, imagination and love of their nation."

Jackson travelled a lot and made his first trip to the Arctic by icebreaker in 1927 with Dr. Frederick Banting, co-discoverer of insulin. He visited Great Slave Lake and a decade later returned at the invitation of LaBine, a prospector who had discovered pitchblende, a form of uranium.

"Jackson was left to himself to work as he pleased — which suited him perfectly — taking only the mine manager's dog with him for company," says Heffel's account of the visit.

"He wandered the rolling low hills, settling down for more detailed sketches on wood panel in oil, making annotated pencil drawings and gathering material for the works that would be painted later in the studio.

"In Radium Mine, Jackson's characteristic earthy palette captures the rugged natural beauty of the Canadian Arctic in the fall."

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But as Boswell's story points out, there's a darker element to the painting that Jackson certainly couldn't know at the time.

Just a few years after his visit, uranium from what became known as the El Dorado mine was used in the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in August 1945. It was Canada's principal contribution to mammoth Manhattan Project.

Port Radium's miners and native Dene workers who transported the radioactive ore would suffer high rates of cancer. The mine site itself has undergone years of government-funded environmental remediation, the Postmedia News story notes.

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