Homer Watson History & Archives

Phoebe Watson: Early Life

Phoebe Amelia Watson was born on June 16th, 1858 and was the only daughter of Ransford and Susannah Watson. When Ransford Watson died in 1861, her older brothers Homer and Jude split their time between school and work over the next couple of years while their mother worked as a seamstress. When she was old enough, Phoebe also assisted with supplementing the family’s income by working at a tile factory.

“I received the magnificent sum of ten cents per hundred rolling tile,” said Miss Watson. “I took a great pride in making them nice and round. The method was to take them off the apron of the machine, put a rolling pin through them, and roll and put them on racks to dry.[1]

Professor Gerald Noonan emphasised that the “impoverished Watson children enjoyed a rich togetherness”[2] through a recollection from Phoebe’s diary. She recalled being around six or eight years old and going to school after a heavy snowfall in which “Jude carried me through the drifts on his back”[3]. Alongside her brother Homer, she also took great joy in browsing the family’s “only art treasures”[4], copies of the Penny and Aldina Magazines. The Penny Magazine was considered a pioneer in bringing art to the masses, particularly the working-class as those who were previously unable to access art now could at a small cost.[5]

Unknown Photographer. Phoebe Watson (seated), c.1875. HWHG Permanent Collection.

Religion in the Watson household had a strong presence as Phoebe grew up. Susannah Watson was deeply religious and was a member of the Society of Christadelphians.[6] As a result, Susan Watson had strong morals tied to the Bible and wanted to impose those beliefs on her children. Fairy tales and fantasy were barred in the sect, and in one instance a friend of Phoebe’s brought a book about fairies over to the Watson home where Susannah threw it into the fireplace.[7] Though some resistance was demonstrated in Homer’s frequent visits to his grandfather to avoid religious meetings held in the family home[8], no outright rejection of the religion was made obvious by Phoebe. Whether this indicates Phoebe’s reserved nature or her actual beliefs, it is hard to say. Phoebe did regularly attend the Doon Presbyterian Church in later years, but was also somewhat involved with her brother’s forays into the world of Spiritualism and seances.[9]

After the tragic death of Jude in 1867 from a workplace accident, Homer was left as a main provider for the family. This position was short-lived and in 1872 Homer decided to quit working and devote himself entirely to his art career.[10] Phoebe was the one to step up, ending her schooling and taking a up another local job at Perine’s Mill store wrapping parcels as a clerk.[11]

Although it was not unusual at the time for women to be a part of the labour force, particularly before marriage, it was viewed as controversial by some of the villagers that Phoebe worked and Homer did not. A recollection by Phoebe demonstrates her devotion to her family, wit and strong will when a villager confronted her: ‘“How is it that you work while your brother loafs about with a drawing pencil or a brush?”’[12] to which she replied ‘“If it does not bother me, I cannot see why it should concern you”’[13]. Phoebe did not shy away from hard work and was clearly very family orientated as she supported the aspirations of her brother at the cost of her own education. She also proved that she was capable and unafraid to stand up for herself and what she believed in.   

Phoebe would continue the role of “surrogate millstore clerk”[14] and would witness the first of Homer’s successes in 1880 with the purchase of his painting The Pioneer Mill by Princess Louise and the Marquis of Lorne. By 1881, with the earnings from the sale, Homer presented Phoebe with a gift of “a locket set with pearls and rubies”[15]. He also used his newly acquired funds to marry his sweetheart, Roxa Bechtel. Phoebe was listed as a witness[16] in the wedding and played a role in the ceremony. A letter from a sister-in-law described Phoebe’s face as “red-hot …when you stood up with Roxa.”[17] From this point on, a close and supportive relationship was formed between the three family members and would continue until Roxa’s death in 1918.  

The newlyweds proceeded to move into the family home with Phoebe, her mother and youngest brother, William[18]. This would last only a few months before the couple rented the third floor of the Ferrie House in Doon, which they later purchased entirely. According to Professor Noonan, Phoebe and her mother moved into the house with Homer and Roxa in 1883[19]. However, Phoebe would not stay there long as she would soon begin her education in the arts.

[1] Frank Page, Homer Watson: Artist and Man (Kitchener: Commercial Printing Company, 1939), 4
[2] Gerald Noonan, Refining the Real Canada: Homer Watson’s Spiritual Landscapes: A Biography (Waterloo: MLR Editions Canada, 1997), 102
[3] Ibid.
[4] Jane Van Every, With Faith, Ignorance, and Delight (Aylesbury: The Homer Watson Trust, 1967), 9
[5] Patricia Anderson, “Pictures for the People: Knight’s ‘Penny Magazine’, an Early Venture into Popular Art Education” Studies in Art Education 28, no.3 (Spring 1987):133-140
[6] Page, Homer Watson: Artist and Man, 4
[7] Ibid., 5
[8] Muriel Miller, Homer Watson: The Man of Doon, 1st ed. (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1937), 25
[9] A “spirit card” written by a medium using automatic writing in the collection of Homer Watson House & Gallery is addressed to Phoebe Watson, and it is noted by Noonan in Refining the Real Canada (272) that Phoebe had accompanied Homer on trips to Lily Dale.
[10] Ibid., 30
[11] Noonan, Refining the Real Canada: Homer Watson’s Spiritual Landscape: A Biography, 3
[12] Page, Homer Watson: Artist and Man, 64
[13] Ibid., 65
[14] Noonan, Refining the Real Canada: Homer Watson’s Spiritual Landscapes: A Biography, 115
[15] Ibid.
[16] [Certified Copy of Marriage Certificate, 1 January 1881], Homer Ransford Watson fonds, Queens University Archives, Kingston
[17] Bede Dobbin (Bechtel), [Letter from Bede Dobbin, 3 April 1884], Homer Ransford Watson fonds, Queens University Archives, Kingston
[18] Noonan (1997) states the couple moved in with Homer’s immediate family (115) however, Miller (1937) states that the couple moved in with cousins (38)
[19] Noonan, Refining the Real Canada: Homer Watson’s Spiritual Landscapes: A Biography, 126

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