2024 AGM is June 25th at 6:30pm

Doon School of Fine Arts | 1948 - 1975

Students at the front steps of the Doon School of Fine Arts
Students at the front steps of the Doon School of Fine Arts

The Homer Watson House is widely known as being historically significant due to its connection celebrated landscape artist Homer Watson. However, the site continued to be a home for creatives long after his death with a second life as the Doon School of Fine Arts, a unique community hub for artistic practice. 

Following the death of Homer’s sister, Phoebe Watson, the house was purchased by Ross and Bess Hamilton. The Hamiltons were friends of the Watsons and were keen to preserve the property as a place to embrace and celebrate the arts. They set up the Doon School of Fine Arts in 1948, modelling it after the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta. 

In its first year of operation, students from across the region were drawn to the modest hamlet of Doon to participate in summer classes. The school was host to many influential instructors including Frederick Varley of the Group of Seven, Charles Comfort, Dorothy Stevens and Jack Bechtel.  The connection with such important names in the Canadian art world helped cement the school as a reputable place for artistic learning and ensured its success. The school welcomed an average of 200 students annually.

The Hamiltons added cabins around the property to house the many students who participated in the well-loved summer program. At its peak, there were a total of fifteen cabins, a bath house and an art supply shop. Prior to the addition of the cabins, students would often lodge at the Red Lion Inn on Pinnacle Drive.  

To learn more about the Red Lion Inn, check out our historical walking tour of Lower Doon.

The rotation of instructors at the Doon School ensured that students were exposed to a variety of styles and themes. The courses were rigorous – both physically and mentally. Students often participated in plein air painting, carrying their supplies and tools for long distances to reach a location where they were then faced with the careful scrutiny of their instructors.

In 1963, a collaboration agreement was made between the University of Waterloo and the Doon School of Fine Arts with the hope of generating future gain for both parties. As a result, ballet was offered at the Waterloo Campus and students of the Doon School could receive their teaching certificates in Arts and Crafts. 

Doon School of Fine Arts Booklet c.1950s
Doon School of Fine Arts Booklet c.1950s
One of the Instructor Pages from the Doon School of Fine Arts Booklet c.1950s

After 19 years of operation, the school finally closed its doors in 1966 due to a lack of consistent funding.  Ross Hamilton had passed away in 1952 and Bess’ funds were exhausted. The Doon School was then sold to a local business entrepreneur, Earl Putnam, who shortly thereafter sold it to Ruthe and Tom Cayley in 1969.  

The Cayleys decided to continue the legacy of the Doon School in their own way. They held summer camps, art classes, and tours at the historic house until Tom’s untimely passing in 1975. Ruthe then went on to campaign alongside the local community to ensure that the property would be preserved for future generations.  

The closure of the Doon School of Fine Arts did not mark an end to the artistic community that had evolved around it. The Doon School provided its students with an appreciation for art that extended beyond their classes, and several graduates went on to become notable artists within their communities. 

The foundations of artistic learning established by the Hamiltons and the Cayleys have been honoured to this day through the programs offered at Homer Watson House & Gallery.  The site continues to be a place of arts education, supporting artists of all ages in their creative endeavors. 

A group of students and their instructors enjoying a lesson by the Grand River
A group of students and their instructors enjoying a lesson by the Grand River
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The Loch Doon area was memorialized in celebrated Scottish poet, Robert Burns piece “Ye banks and braes O’ bonnie Doon”

Ye banks and braes o’ bonny Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care?
Thou’lt break my heart, thou warbling bird,
That wantons thro’ the flowering thorn:
Thou minds me o’ departed joys,
Departed, never to return.

Aft hae I rov’d by bonnie Doon,
To see the rose and woodbine twine;
And ilka bird sang o’ its love,
And fondly sae did I o’ mine.
Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose,
Fu’ sweet upon its thorny tree;
And my fause lover stole my rose,
But, ah! he left the thorn wi’ me.

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