Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”

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Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”

It’s a delicious spring day and the Silcox National Historic Site bus is on the road. We’re heading to Brantford—the First Nation Reserve of Oshweken to be exact. Our destination is Chiefswood, the ancestral home of poet and performer E. Pauline Johnson.

As we approach the Site on the banks of the slow-moving Grand River, snippets of Pauline’s  best-known poem “The Songs my Paddle Sings,” are called up from the depths of my six-decade-long memory.

West wind, blow from your prairie nest,

Blow from the mountains, blow from the west

The sail is idle, the sailor too;

O wind of the west, we wait for you!

Now you remember her from your own school days, don’t you—this half First Nation princess; half proper Victoria lady. And your memories aren’t that favourable are they? Like me, you were forced to study her poetry in high school and we found it sickly sentimental and flowery.  Too bad the English teachers of the 1960’s didn’t tell us about the woman herself.

“Pauline Johnson was before her time,” I remark to my chauffeur. “She lived generations before social media, but still Pauline knew how to get attention.   She was mysterious; she was beautiful; she had talent; she had chutzpa; but more than all this, Pauline Johnson knew how to court the media,” I add.

My driver,who doubles as navigator, dog-handler and purser agrees whole-heartedly.

We’re both hoping to get more insights into her larger-than-life character before we leave Chiefswood for home.

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Born in 1861, Emily Pauline Johnson was the child of a mixed marriage. Her English mother, Emily Howells had married Mohawk George Henry Martin Johnson.  Four children including Pauline were eventually born.

Now George Johnson was no ordinary mortal.  Descended from the great Hiawatha, he was known in diplomatic as circles as Teyonhehkon, (some sources name him Onwanonsyshon)  the esteemed Chief of the Mohawk Confederacy. As such, he was afforded the respect that few of First Nation blood achieved.

As the children of “royalty,” Pauline and her siblings were educated at home in the English tradition. Her diary entries detail her growing infatuation with the romantic poets– Keats, Byron and Shelley. She began to write poetry herself and in her teens, her verse was published in the literary journal Gems of Poetry.

Much to her parents’ chagrin, by her early 20’s, Pauline had begun giving recitations of her poems.  But no run-of-the-mill Victorian poetry readings were these. The first part of the evening’s entertainment would see the night’s attraction  reading poems in her persona as the finely-bred English lady, Pauline Johnson.

Audiences politely applauded but remained restrained. They were waiting anxiously for the main act!

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After a quick wardrobe change–out of hooped skirt and demure long sleeves into buckskin, beads and feathers, the main event returned as Indian princess Tekahionwake. Her verse reflected her altered persona. Birch-bark canoes and brave warriors had replaced flowers and singing birds. Crowds cheered and begged for more.

Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake was soon in demand across Canada, the United States and Great Britain. She became a veritable celebrity and enjoyed the status that this gave her. This included rubbing shoulders with the literary and artistic crowds of the day.

Two of these luminaries were artists Carl Ahrens and Homer Watson. The artistic trio had also been drawn together as spiritualists who met regularly at séances (usually at the Watson Kitchener-area home) hoping to  seek contact with those who had moved on to the afterlife.

One spiritual tall-tale tells of  Johnson and Ahrens on an evening canoe outing paddling down the Grand River.  Suddenly they are ambushed by a war canoe carrying a vengeful Iroquois hunting party. Only Tekahionwake’s skilled canoeing skills save them from losing their scalps to the vengeful foe.

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Sadly Pauline Johnson’s life was to be a brief one. In 1913, she died of breast cancer in Vancouver where she had relocated in the early 1900’s. she was only 52. 

Time has not been a friend to Pauline Johnson, poet. The writer of 13 books of verse, she is now rarely studied in school. Her name is more associated with overwrought emotion and Victorian angst than outstanding verse. Critics have also dismissed her performance legacy, calling her  nothing more than a savvy “entertainer;” one whose fame was based more on “showmanship” than literary talent.

Still, some with broader perspectives, treat Pauline Johnson with  more respect. She’s lauded as the woman who opened the door for succeeding female Canadian writers and performers.

In 1992, Chiefswood was designated a National Historic Site. Set on a hill overlooking the Grand River, the property is well worth a visit. If only to see the photographs displayed of the Mohawk Princess in buckskin, feathers and beads.

 

Nancy’s Expensive Love Affair with Homer Watson

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

James Livingston’s Testament to Opulence, or All the Finery that Money Could Buy

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Cast the clock back to 1988. At Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School in Baden, Ontario, just west of Kitchener-Waterloo where I teach, two students come to me with a problem to solve.
They need to do a research report on a historic building in their town. With the one-time “Flax King of Canada,” James Livingston’s Victorian mansion, Castle Kilbride, just down the road from the school, they’ve selected it as their study.

“Do you think there’s any way we could see inside it, Mrs. Silcox?” the kids ask me. A carpe diem type of educator, I answer: “we’ll see.” Then I pick up the phone and call Mr. Hap Veitch, the Castle’s current resident.
“I’d be delighted to give the kids a tour,” says the congenial Hap. “You come along too,” he invites. “But count on being here a couple of hours at least, to go through all the rooms. Three generations of ‘collectors’ lived here, and there’s a lot to see.”

Little could I imagine, at the time, how our adventure that day would open a new world to me—a world of history, art, architecture and fine furnishings. It opened my eyes also, to a compelling “Horatio Alger” story of ambition and power.

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In 1854, James Livingston, only 16, late of East Kilbride, Scotland and his brother John crossed the ocean to make their fortune in Canada. Finding their way to Wilmot Township, west of the bustling town of Berlin (Kitchener), the brothers set their sights on the flax plant to make their mark.

Flax was a versatile commodity—not only used for cloth fibres, but the oil from the seed of the plant was a component of paint products. The Livingston boys were soon renting land and sewing flax seeds.
Within a couple of years, the Livingston-owned Dominion Linseed Company was formed. Both the brothers were well on their way to financial success. Eventually, their company would become the largest of its kind in North America.

Ambitions Beyond Business
But James Livingston’s ambition went far beyond business. In 1877, work began on his new home, situated prominently on Snyder’s Road, the main street of little Baden. It would be named “Castle Kilbride” after Livingston’s ancestral Scottish place of birth.

But no ordinary house would Kilbride be, either in size or composition. James and his German-speaking wife Louisa would go on to produce 10 living children. Fifteen rooms would do just fine for a large family and the requisite servants.

Kilbride was designed in the elegant Italianate style, adorned with ornate bay windows, cornices, gracious porches and a sweeping verandah. And like a tantalizing cherry sitting atop a tasty cupcake, Kilbride boasted a towering belvedere or cupola, atop its roofline.

Legend says that Livingston enjoyed his belvedere for more than aesthetic purposes. He used the vantage point to watch over his flax fields, staying alert to any malingering flax harvesters.

Riches for the Interior
“Glorious” best describes Kilbride’s interior. Livingston was a literate man, a great reader, with art, architecture and fine furnishings books high on his reading list. And so only the finest of interior design and workmanship were incorporated into Kilbride’s inner rooms.

Enter a mysterious itinerant painter named Henry Scharstein, who painted much of the elaborate artwork on Kilbride’s walls and ceilings. A master of the trompe l’oeil or “fools the eye” three-dimensional art, Schasstein was given full rein to create.

And what treasures unfolded under Scharstein’s practiced brush! Kilbride’s ceilings and walls are resplendent with classical scenes—musicians, cherubs, warriors and gods—in glorious gold, reds, greens and blues.

The most skilled of woodcarvers also found work at James Livingston’s Kilbride. Using only the finest of woods, they painstakingly carved rosettes, swirls and other intricate motifs in door trim and window valances.James imported from Italy several fine Carrera marble fireplaces, intricately carved like the wood trim. They were functional as well as decorative and would provide draughty warmth during the long Canadian winters.

Fine Art Too
Livingston travelled widely, collecting fine furnishings and art for his stately mansion. He was an early patron of acclaimed Victorian artist Homer Watson and added several of Watson’s landscapes to his home. One, “The Old Mill and Stream” was “twin” to Watson’s “The Pioneer Mill” which had been purchased for Queen Victoria’s art collection.

Yet not all of Livingston-watchers were complimentary of his efforts. An article in the Berlin Gazetteer of the day called Kilbride a “testament to opulence.”

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James Livingston’s reign in his Castle ended with his death, from pneumonia in 1920. Despite his accomplishments as a businessman, builder and politician (he served as a Cabinet Minister in Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government) James’ life had not been one without heartache.

Illness plays no favourites between ordinary mortals and the wealthy and powerful. Five of Livingston’s children predeceased him. Three daughters succumbed to the virulent Spanish Flu epidemic after the end of the First World War.

J.P. Takes Up Residence
James Livingston’s fortune and home was inherited by his eldest son, J.P. With money still flowing from the various Livingston industries, now spread across Canada and into the U.S., J.P. and his wife Laura pursued an extravagant lifestyle.

Parties were legend at the Baden home, with the “who’s who” of society in attendance. They often included whiskey king Joseph Seagram. Rumours had it that the interior shutters on the ground floor were installed to keep the local Constabulary’s prying eyes away. It was, after all, Prohibition times!

The 1929 Crash of the Stock Market and the resulting Great Depression did the Livingstone empire no flavours. Add to this, the development of synthetic fabrics and water-based paints to drastically cut the flax markets, and the Livingston fortune began to dwindle.

By the time J.P.’s only child, Laura Louise, and her husband Hap Veitch inherited Castle Kilbride in the early 50’s, the Livingston fortune was gone.

To make matters more financially perilous, Kilbride was a money-eating white elephant. Ever-present house repairs—leaking roof, peeling paint, or broken-down furnace stretched Hap and Laura Louise’s means to an extreme.

Years of Decline
And so began Kilbride’s years of decline. By 1988 when my students and I visited, Hap and Laura Louise, now in poor health, lived in only two downstairs rooms, at the back of the home. “We can’t afford to heat the whole house,” confided Hap.

The prized Scharstein paintings were flaking and peeling. The once-gleaming oak floors and carved wood trim had warped. The fine Persian carpets were threadbare.

It was time to sell. In June 1988, James Livingston’s showpiece ended up in the hands of developer. A massive four-day auction, one that brought serious antique collectors and art dealers from across North America, was held as Kilbride was stripped bare of its finery.

While the prices of most of the Livingston treasures were beyond my modest means, I was determined to acquire one memory from our pre-auction visit. A fine 1930’s era leather handbag came home with me on that memorable day.

After the deal to purchase the Castle fell through, Livingston’s testament to opulence remained empty for a number of years. Vagrants moved in and lit fires in the marble fireplaces to warm themselves. Vandals defaced the walls and a fire destroyed the home’s coach house.

Fearing for the Castle’s Survival
Wilmot residents feared for the Castle’s survival. In 1993, after five years of ruin, James Livingston’s mansion was purchased by the Township of Wilmot. It would be restored as a museum, with an addition on the back to house the Township’s civic offices.

In 1994, primarily on the strength of artist Henry Schasstein’s wondrous artwork, Castle Kilbride was designated a National Historic Site. It is called “one of the finest examples of such art in Canada.”

Today Castle Kilbride remains a glorious testament to the spirit of one of Canada’s nation makers, James Livingston.

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