I fell in love with Homer Watson in the spring of 1988. Irrevocably, passionately in love. At the time, I was a teacher at Waterloo-Oxford Secondary School in Baden, Ontario. I’d first seen several of Watson’s moody landscapes while on a tour, with two of my students, through the Victorian mansion, Castle Kilbride, down the road from the school.
Kilbride had been constructed in 1877 by the one-time “Flax King of Canada” James Livingston. Over the succeeding three generations, the 15-room
“great house” had been filled to the rafters with Victorian treasures: furniture, glassware, china, and assorted other collectibles.
The Kilbride legend told that the Livingstons threw nothing out. When a new furnishing came into the house, the old it had replaced was just moved to the attic.
Art was also a commodity to fill Kilbride. James Livingston’s tastes, and after him, his son and heir J.P’s., ran to landscapes. One of their favourite artists was Doon’s Homer Watson.
As our little tour party enters the Kilbride parlour, I stop to admire large oil, prominently placed behind a magnificent grand piano. “It’s beautiful; the colours are exquisite,” I remark to our host, Kilbride owner Harris Veitch. Harris and his wife, the former Laura Louise Livingston were the third generation to occupy Kilbride.
“It’s called ‘Old Mill and Stream’ and was painted by Homer Watson around 1880,” says Harris. He continues: “The companion piece, called “The Pioneer Mill” hangs in Windsor Castle.” My curiosity is immediately piqued.
Harris continues with the story. “Two of Watson’s works were purchased by the Marquis of Lorne who’d seen the paintings in an art exhibition of the day. The Marquis was not only the Governor of General of Canada at the time but he was married to Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria.”
“So both Watson paintings ended up in the Royal Gallery at Windsor Castle,” adds Harris. “The sales made Homer Watson the star of Canadian art of the day. And they remain as part of the present Queen’s collection today.”
I thank Harris for my artistic history lesson.
On our departure from Kilbride, my head swimming with visions of fine Krug library tables, Limoges china and crystal candelabra, I promise myself that I’ll own a Homer Watson myself one day. In the meantime, I’ll brush up on Watson history.
Homer Ransford Watson was the unlikeliest of painters. Born in 1855, in the decidedly provincial settlement of Doon, now part of Kitchener, Homer’s family background was decidedly working-class.
His lot in life was surely manual work in his father’s woolen mill. But young Homer chafed at this prospect. He daydreamed at school, preferring to sketch in his notebooks. Legend says that young Homer (to the despair of his mother) drew sketches of his suppertime food before he ate it.
The death of Homer’s father put an end to any artistic dreams the youngster may have had. He was forced to leave school in the 6th grade and worked in a brick mill to help put bread on the table.
Surely Homer’s days there were torturous. He took to wandering the woods and meadows along the slow-moving Grand River near his home. In his diary Homer revealed that he “struggled against a dream-like effect …a romantic notion…” during these wanderings.
Supportive of his artistic temperament, a kindly aunt gave the 15-year-old Homer a set of paints. The gift would change the dreamer’s life.
There was certainly no money in Mrs. Watson’s budget for art lessons to complement her son’s set of paints. So Homer set about to teach himself. He began by copying pictures from a book. A small financial windfall allowed him to quit the brick-yard and move to Toronto to study art.
Too poor for lessons in the big city, Homer set up his easel in the foyer of the Toronto Normal School (Teacher’s College). His days were spent copying the reproductions of the Great Masters which adorned the school’s walls.
A later painting excursion to upper New York State saw Homer coming under the influence of the American “Hudson River School” of landscape artists. His subsequent romantically- themed rivers, forests, hills and valleys bear the distinctive mark of the Hudson River School.
Watson later returned to Doon, determined to make a living from his brush. His setting would be natural world around his rural home—the forests, the streams, the mills and the grazing cattle. His influences would be the great Romantic poets and painters of the day.
By 1878, Homer was ready to mount his first exhibition. His debut was at the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA) show. Unexpectedly, the response to his work would change his life.
Touring the show was none other than the Marquis of Lorne. The grand visitor held the position of Governor-General of Canada. He was also the nephew of Queen Victoria.
So taken was the Marquis with Watson’s work that he purchased the large oil, “The Pioneer Mill.” A second Watson oil called “After the Drought” also went home to England.
This serendipity changed the fortunes of the largely self-taught Doon painter. Now lauded in art circles as a gifted new artist, Homer Watson would soon have his second moment in the artistic spotlight.
Famous British playwright Oscar Wilde was on a tour of Canada at the time, and had occasion to view Homer Watson’s work. Wilde dubbed him “The Canadian Constable,” a reference to British landscape artist John Constable.
The publicity and subsequent sales of Watson paintings after these two serendipities allowed him to marry. He and his bride Roxanne purchased a Doon home that would serve as Homer’s studio and the couple’s personal living accommodation.
Alas! Watson’s popularity was not destined to prevail. The “rough and tumble,” “paint the raw Canada” art revolution, led by the Group of Seven had made Watson’s work outdated. He had become an anachronism.
More pain was to follow. Homer had been left virtually penniless after the crash of the Stock Market in 1929. And as The Great Depression tightened its grip, his financial plight worsened.
Phoebe Watson, who kept house for her brother after Roxanne Watson passed took to painting porcelain china to supplement their meagre income.
A 1933 letter to his former patron J.P. Livingston of Castle Kilbride gives sorry insight into Homer’s desperate financial situation.
“I am in rather tight straits for want of money,” he writes. “The reason is the winter has been altogether a knock-out for no one could come as expected to buy…This has been a deuce of a time.”
Homer Watson died on May 30th, 1936 at the age of 81. He was a broken and largely forgotten man.
After Phoebe’s death in 1948, the Watson home was re-invented as the Doon School of Fine Arts. In 1980 it was purchased by the City of Kitchener and later opened as the Homer Watson House and Gallery. It remains in this capacity today.
Named a National Historic site in 1995, Homer Watson House serves as a home to exhibit Homer Watson’s paintings. As well, it regularly mounts exhibitions of contemporary local artists.
Throughout year, Homer Watson House offers workshops to aspiring artists, including children. A popular summertime program offers a wide variety of kids’ art camps.
The studio where Watson worked remains preserved, with his palette, brushes and easel on display. Some the finest of Watson’s paintings fill the walls.
Tour guides invite studio visitors to look up in Homer’s former studio. Various letters of the alphabet, with a corresponding artist’s name: “C for Constable,” “R for Renoir” encircle the ceiling. Images painted in the various “Great Masters’’ style accompanies the name. Painted by Homer Watson himself, it is his tribute to the great artists who inspired him.