Legacy 75: Celebrating the Doon School of Fine Arts
“His main objective was to waken their vision to actually see what they were looking at: to become aware of rhythms and counter-rhythms of movement among the fields and tree forms, to begin to sense space, earth and sky, the totality of form within form, the shaping of growth by the winds, reaching to the sun.”
Peter Varley on his father’s teachings at the Doon School
As of 2023, the Doon School of Fine Arts marks its 75th anniversary. Its students and staff forged unique paths through the Canadian art world, on both large and small scales. By the time of its closure, the Doon School of Fine Arts had grown into a community where artists of all ability levels might learn from the life and legacy of Homer Watson.
To promote learning to “see like an artist”, the School provided instructors and students alike with the opportunity to experiment with a variety of styles and techniques. Students received high quality instruction while still enjoying a social experience, participating in costume parties, dances, movie screenings, and more.
“To paint nature as the artist sees it is the test. If he gets it photographic he is not artist but mechanic; Anyway in his struggle for beauty he gets his own convention and among sincere artists no two paint alike so that after all personality is the only new thing under the sun. “
Drawing on Watson’s fascination with nature, students ventured into the world and made the outdoors their “studio”. Plein air (painting outside) and other painting techniques were taught by talented artists including Frederick Varley, Jack Bechtel, Carl Schaefer and many others.
Faculty Book Introduction
This booklet contains information on the instructors who were a part of the Doon School of Fine Arts from 1948 to 1966. Some instructors only taught at the Doon School for a year or two, while others returned again and again. Others started out as students and loved the experience so much they got jobs teaching!
In the 1930s, Ross Hamilton and Homer Watson would meet through unfortunate circumstances. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 had left Watson in dire straits. Turning to the Waterloo Trust & Savings Co., Watson gave the company control of his mortgage and estate in return for a small annuity, and to continue living in his beloved home. Then a relatively new inductee to the company, Ross Hamilton became Watson’s estate agent and soon proceeded to develop a friendship with the family.
After Homer’s death in 1936, Phoebe Watson continued to live in the home, acting as a curator for “The Watson Art Gallery” – but her passing saw no one available to follow her footsteps. Having worked closely with the family for the past fifteen years, Hamilton felt it was his responsibility to do the Watsons justice. Taking over the Watson’s mortgage personally, Ross Hamilton decided to turn the Watson property into an art school. Working closely with his wife Bess, the Hamiltons opened the Doon School of Fine Arts in June 1948.
Ross Hamilton’s death in 1952 saw his wife Bess take over as director of the Doon School. She worked hard to bring it to its most popular era, introducing many new classes and teachers. She helped form a partnership with the University of Waterloo in 1963, which opened the way for the new courses, administrative assistance, and grant opportunities.
Despite the popularity of the School alongside the partnership, money was still an issue. By the end of 1966, the funds received from a $15,000 Ontario Council of the Arts grant were running low and there were still costs left behind by the borrowing done by Ross Hamilton to open the school in the first place.
That year, the property was purchased by a local entrepreneur, Earl Putnam. Though the home remained as a museum and some classes were run under the ownership of Putnam, the Doon School as it had been known was no longer in operation.
In 1969, the artist Tom Cayley and his wife Ruthe purchased the Watson House property from Earl Putnam, devising a plan to reopen the Doon School of Fine Arts. Though they knew it wouldn’t been the same as it had been, they still had high hopes.
One of the ways the Cayleys followed the previous iteration of Doon School was to make use of the historical legacy of the house and the natural beauty of the area. Their goal was to enrich locals with art and recreate the fun, summer camp atmosphere that had driven creatives to Doon.
Artists such as Jack Reid and Glen Urquhart joined Tom Cayley in teaching students. Ruthe took over the business side of the School, all while providing visitors with engaging historic tours, homemade snacks, and fresh coffee. Though they took a slightly different approach than the Hamiltons, they still wanted to provide students with quality instruction. Their unique personal stylings made the Doon School once again a popular place to be.
They operated the museum and School without the support of grants, and tours were always free – though this led to similar financial troubles that had plagued the Hamiltons. When Tom Cayley unexpectedly passed away in 1975, Ruthe began to finalize the decision to sell the property. After several years of difficult negotiations, the Watson House was sold to the City of Kitchener in 1981. By 1988 it reopened as we know it today, as Homer Watson House & Gallery.