Homer Watson History & Archives

Homer Watson: Early Life

Homer Watson’s grandfather James was of Scottish descent and came to Canada from New York State around 1800. His grandmother’s side of the family were the Coles, who were of Dutch and German ancestry.[1] Born on January 14th, 1855, Homer was the second eldest of five children. His siblings were Jude, Washington, Phoebe, and William. His father Ransford was a quiet man who enjoyed playing with his children, as well as a musician who would play the concertina and bass viol on Sundays while his wife Susannah sang.[2]

The family owned a woollen mill business, and Homer’s uncle Graham took it over when Ransford died in 1861 from typhus fever. Graham didn’t have the same skill set as Ransford and the business was closed shortly afterward, the sale of the machinery buying the family only $100.00.[3] Homer’s mother Susannah used the leftover wool to make clothes and shoes for her children,[4] and according to Phoebe the family was undeterred regardless of their financial situation:

‘“We were happy,” remarked Miss Watson in later years, “in spite of these handicaps.”’[5]

In 1867 more death affected the family when Homer witnessed his brother Jude die in a brickyard accident, where they both had been working to supplement their income.[6]

Photograph of Homer Watson’s childhood home. The building still stands at 1021 Doon Village Road in Kitchener, Ontario. HWHG Permanent Collection.
Unknown Photographer, Homer Watson at Age Fourteen, c.1869, in Frank Page, Homer Watson Artist and Man (Kitchener: Commercial Printing Company, 1939), 137.

Despite the Watsons’ troubles, Homer’s love of the arts was evident from a young age. In one family story, the young artist created pictures out of food before eating it:

“It seems that even as a baby, Homer Watson was interested in pictures.  ‘Can’t eat! Can’t eat!’ he used to whine in his high chair.  Then he would take up his spoon and make a picture in his food. After this, forgetting his dislike for the food, he would eat his picture and enjoy it immensely.”[7]

“An old nurse maid of his, liked to pass the story along that no one had the artist’s first drawings because he ate them. Often he would say while sitting in his chair at the table, ‘Can’t eat’, and then make pictures of his food which generally then made it fit to eat to his young mind.”[8]

As “paper was scarce,”[9] he was furthermore known to draw on fenceposts, board fences, and scratch pictures onto stones.[10]

Homer ended his education around the age of 12[11], but during his school years he often got into trouble for drawing unflattering caricatures of his teacher during lessons. His earliest works were done only in pencil[12], and it was the teacher, however, who went on to gift Homer with his first set of watercolours.[13]

“Master told him after discovering that Homer had done an unflattering drawing of him ‘I thought I told you Homer,’ he roared in his nasal tone, ‘that you might draw the railway and all those newfangled steamcars you liked, but the human form divine YOU MUST NOT TOUCH!’”[14]

His first set of oil paints were later gifted to him by his Aunt Amelia Putnam, who encouraged him to pursue the arts. More support came from another teacher, William Biggs, and Moses Perine, who commissioned Homer to paint a copy of his mother’s portrait.[15]

An example of Homer Watson’s early portrait sketches. HWHG Permanent Collection.
The portrait commissioned by Moses Billings Perine of his mother Hannah. Homer Watson, Hannah Billings Perine. c.1872, Oil on Canvas. HWHG Permanent Collection.
This painting of his sister Phoebe and neighbour Ed was completed when Homer Watson was approximately 15 years old. Homer Watson, The Swollen Creek. c.1870, Oil on Board. HWHG Permanent Collection.

Homer was primarily self-taught and didn’t receive any formal arts education. His studies started by copying pictures from his father’s issues of the Penny Magazine and the Aldina Magazine, as well as Gustave Doré’s illustrations in the Lives of the Martyrs.[16] He would later make trips to Toronto, where he received further encouragement from Thomas Mower Martin, met with Lucius O’Brien while working at the Notman-Fraser photographic studio, and was able to view the reproductions of classical art held at the Toronto Normal School.[17]

By 1878 at the age of 23, Homer made his first professional appearance at an exhibition when he submitted three paintings to the Sixth Exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists. He was subsequently granted membership.[18] The following year the sale of The Pioneer Mill to Princess Louise as a gift to Queen Victoria marked a new phase in his artistic career.

[1] Frank Page, Homer Watson Artist and Man (Kitchener: Commercial Printing Company, 1939), 2
[2] Muriel Miller. Homer Watson the Man of Doon 2nd ed. (Toronto: Summerhill Press 1988), 21
[3] Miller, Homer Watson the Man of Doon 2nd ed., 22-23
[4] Page, Homer Watson Artist and Man, 3
[5] Ibid., 3
[6] Miller, Homer Watson the Man of Doon 2nd ed., 23-24
[7] Kathryn Lederman et.al, “The Boy Homer Watson- an interview with Miss Watson,” The Echo 3, (1935): 24
[8] Myrtle Bean, “Homer R. Watson, R.C.A. Passes at Doon Canada’s Outstanding Landscape Artist Watson Home as Memorial is Urged,” Independent (Grimsby, ON,), June 3, 1936
[9] Lederman et al. “The Boy Homer Watson- an interview with Miss Watson,” 24
[10] Gerald Noonan, Refining the Real Canada: Homer Watson’s Spiritual Landscape: A Biography (Waterloo: MLR Editions Canada, 1997), 104
[11] Lederman et al. “The Boy Homer Watson- an interview with Miss Watson,” 24
[12] Miller, Homer Watson the Man of Doon 2nd ed., 22
[13] Page, Homer Watson Artist and Man, 5
[14] Lederman et al. “The Boy Homer Watson- an interview with Miss Watson,” 24
[15] Miller, Homer Watson the Man of Doon 2nd ed., 27-30
[16] Ibid., 24-25
[17] Ibid., 28-32
[18] Ibid., 33-341

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