The Doon School of Fine Arts

The Doon School of Fine Arts was operational for 19 years due to the high caliber of instruction the students received that resulted in approximately 200 students on an annual basis.

Doon School of Fine Arts | 1948 - 1966

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 and Gallery is undoubtedly an historic landmark in terms of national and regional importance; both in light of its standing as the construction of the influential Scottish Ferrie family and later as the home of the regionally and nationally acclaimed landscape artist, Homer Watson. This site is also a marker of historic significance recognized from its period as the Doon School of Fine Arts. The Doon School was established in the years following the death of Homer Watson and it was attended by students from all around the region and surrounding areas to learn a love art and their own individual artistic abilities.

Following upon Homer Watson’s ownership of the house which he had maintained since the early 1880’s to his death in 1936, Ross and Bess Hamilton, close friends of Watson, took over the deed in order to maintain the integrity of the home and also to realize their own personal dreams for the historic home.

From the time that Ross and Bess Hamilton first purchased Watson’s home after his passing, the couple shared an idea for the house and the surrounding property. Immediately following the acquisition of Homer Watson’s property, Ross and Bess Hamilton formed the idea of re-establishing the house as one of the finest art schools in the area and also in the country. Situated in the historic hamlet of Doon, steeped in the artistic importance associated with the era of Homer Watson, it was not difficult to see this as an attainable goal.

The first year that the Doon School of Fine Arts was opened, students from all over the surrounding area were drawn to the modest hamlet of Doon to take summer classes. When some of the alumni of the school have been asked what drew them to take classes, the response most frequently given was the desire to learn from some of the great artistic names of the late fifties and early sixties. For example, Frederick Varley, most widely known for his status as one of the original Group of Seven, was an instructor at the school for the first two summers following its opening.

Students of the Doon School found it useful and engaging to have instructors who were artists in their own rights. With the relatively small class sizes, students were able to interact in one on one dialogue with their instructors and so further their own learning as they would share new ideas about art and about the world.

Due to the success of the Doon School of Fine Art in the first few years and from the promise the institution showed from the enthusiastic students who would return summer after summer and come from as far as Quebec, Ross and Bess Hamilton began the process of creating cabins on the three-acre property.

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

At its peak, there were a total of fifteen cabins and a bath house as well as an art supply shop that provided accommodations as well as satisfying all the material needs of the student.

Gone were the days of boarding with local families or staying at the Red Lion Inn in town; the Doon School of Arts had reached a state of comfortable subsistence in which students were receiving first class instruction from truly talented artists while experiencing the world of Homer Watson. During these years, young artists tied together historicism and modernity. Through the historic landscape of Watson’s time and with the sometimes meticulous and stringent tutelage of the instructors, young students were able to form their own respective styles. 

The constant rotation of instructors at the Doon School ensured that students were continually exposed to a variety of styles and themes and the relaxed atmosphere encouraged personal interaction between teachers and students. The courses in and of themselves were rigorous – both physically and mentally taxing as students would carry their supplies and tools for distances to reach a specific site and then be faced with the careful scrutiny of their instructors.

In March of 1963, an 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. A further testament to the Doon School’s high level of instruction, it was possible for individuals to receive their teaching certificates in Arts and Crafts by attending courses at the school.

The Doon School of Fine Arts was operational for 19 years due to the high caliber of instruction the students received that resulted in approximately 200 students on an annual basis. Surviving past the death of Ross Hamilton and the changing social clime, it was in 1966 that the school finally closed its doors due to a lack of consistent funding; once Bess Hamilton’s funds had been exhausted as well as the city grant the school had received, there was no alternative means of keeping it alive. And so, in 1966 the Doon School, after having been in decline for several years, was sold to Earl Putnam who was consequently one of the last private owners of Homer Watson’s home.

However, the closure of the Doon School of Fine Arts did not mark an end to teaching that had gone on over the previous two decades. The Doon School provided its students with an appreciation for art that extended beyond a superficial hobby and into a state of being. Some graduates of the school went on to become notable artists within their communities and in surrounding areas. The reasoning for this is torn between the exceptional guidance that was provided to student of the Doon School but also to the freedom that was provided to students. The Doon School of Fine Arts represented a safe location in which artists could nurture their own budding abilities with the help of some of the greatest artists of the time. The school offered a unique opportunity for both students and instructors to learn from one another in a comfortable and laid back environment – the likes of which could not be found anywhere else.

In modern times, the work of Ross and Bess Hamilton has been honoured through the Homer Watson programs offered at the Gallery and the supportive instructors who encourage their students to wholeheartedly fill themselves with a love of art surrounded by the warm presence of Homer Watson’s historic homestead.

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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