The Legacies of Homer Watson and Ralph Connor
Written by Robin Hamel
KWSA Archivist and Historian
Presented to KWSA April Meeting 2019
In his early life, our founder, Ralph Connor, painted with his father, who was an artist, but later on he became one of Homer Watson’s first pupils. By the time The Art Society of Kitchener was formed in 1931, Homer Watson was nearing the end of his life. Born in 1855, he died in 1936.
Let’s take a look at his career. Homer Watson had created an on-going interest in art by 1880 (He was 25). The leading critics and artists of the day as well as journalists and nature lovers enjoyed Watson’s hospitality and the natural beauty of the place Watson chose to call home. By this time Watson had achieved national and international success; his two important early sales were to Queen Victoria. These paintings were hung in Windsor Castle, where they remain today in the private quarters as part of the Royal Collection.
Watson loved nature and through art he wanted to increase our awareness of the spirit dwelling in the beauty of nature. He thought this would make people more spiritual and create a better more beautiful world. Perhaps he was thinking of St.Paul’s words in Romans 1:20: “ For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his external power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
Watson made a commitment to the people of this area to stay and work here taking his chances on local sales and visiting collectors while continually shipping his works to major shows and exhibitions in Toronto, Montreal, the U.S. and Britain. This seemed to work well.
As styles changed over time, so did Homer Watson’s great works. Early in his career, his paintings resembled a photograph with great attention to detail. Later in his life, his paintings began to show a similarity to abstract art with very wide brush strokes. This change in style produced a dramatic change in Watson’s work, giving him freedom to diversify his portfolio.
After the passing of Watson’s wife, Roxanna in 1918, his sister, Phoebe, came to live in the house and eventually took over ownership after Watson’s death in 1936. In the early 30’s, Ross Hamilton, a friend of Homer Watson had been hired by The Waterloo Trust to promote and sell his paintings. After his sister, Phoebe’s death in 1948, Ross and Bess Hamilton took over the mortgage and management of the estate to prevent foreclosure. The Hamilton’s opened the Doon School of Fine Arts there in 1948 to help offset the preservation costs associated with the house. Bess took over as director when Ross died suddenly in 1952.
At the School, people of all ages and artistic status were eager to field-trip with post-Watson instructors, famous artists serving as teachers such as A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, Charles Comfort, Gordon Couling, Peter Goetz and Jack Bechtel. The Doon School of Fine Arts became the most outstanding summer school of art in Eastern Canada.
After the 1966 season, however, the School closed due to financial trouble. Subsequent owners kept it open until 1980. Then the City of Kitchener purchased the property. The Charitable Foundation was established in 1981 and operates the Gallery as it is today.
Watson believed that “art is for all people and not just a few”. HWH&G tries to use this as their motto. To mention just some activities at the Gallery which take place during the year: interactive school and community tours, contemporary art classes for all ages, free lectures and demonstrations. And they exhibit over 100 artists’ work each year in solo and group shows (including our show) and publish a quarterly magazine listing all their activities.
Homer Watson’s inspirational life story and his impact on art in Canada represent an exceptional focal point for local pride. Our community not only spawned some of Canada’s great industrialists and politicians, but also a primarily self-taught artist from Doon who changed the way Canadians look at themselves. Homer Watson is recognized as “the man who first saw Canada as Canada” — a quote by J. Russel Harper, author of Painting in Canada, a History. Because he was self-taught, he managed to paint Canada’s landscape as it was, not as European landscape had been painted by the Old Masters. He has been called “a forerunner of the Group of Seven” (Harper).
Arriving in Canada from England with his parents in 1913 at the age of 18, Ralph Connor, a watercolourist, discovered that the deep, rich colours of the Canadian landscape were better described in oils. He then became an advocate of the pallet knife. With his oils, he experimented with many styles from representative to semi-abstract. Painting for over 30 years, he progressed through work that was entirely representational to an interpretation which eliminated a great deal of detail to a semiabstract style. His pictures were hung by the Ontario Society of Artists, The Royal Canadian Academy, the Montreal Museum and the Williams Memorial Art Museum in London, ON. Waterloo County provided inspiration for much of his work, but his influence spread far beyond his own community of Kitchener.
He began his business career as an employee of the Deluxe Furniture Co. on Gaukel St. He worked there for some years before the company folded. Then he took over the partnership, and became president and general manager. Later the business was moved to King St. South in Waterloo and the name was changed to The Deluxe Upholstering Company. His work was closely linked to art design in which he had a keen interest. He maintained a studio in his factory where he painted every day. In both his employment and his art work, he was known for his genial disposition and wit.
In 1931, The Kitchener Art Club (later the Art Society of Kitchener) was formed when Mr. Connor found a place at Schreiters Furniture Store on King St. where the artists could meet and then placed an ad in the Kitchener Record. The turnout was very encouraging so they rented a studio over one of the stores. While self-critiqued group painting was reserved for the winter, sketching and painting expeditions on foot or by street car in the summer produced landscapes, urbanscapes, and documentary records which interpret Waterloo County in wide variations of style, done mostly in watercolour and oil. Because of urban and industrial expansion, many of the scenes, rural, pastoral, and agricultural depict a way of life that has passed forever.
In 1932, The Art Club’s first exhibition surprised the community with a large number of paintings except that the quantity exceeded the quality. However, the next exhibition resulted in the news headline, Local Artists Surprise Community with Merit of Excellent Works. By 1941 they were exhibiting in shows regularly, largely due to the organizational skills of Mabel Dunham of the old Kitchener library. Then in 1949 Ross Hamilton, Homer Watson’s friend who with his wife had opened the Doon School of Fine Arts, did much to obtain recognition for the group outside the community. He organized a travelling exhibition which included a month-long show at the Vancouver Gallery before beginning the trip back east. There were 70 works by 15 artists and the art review in the Vancouver Daily was entitled, Not Only Big Cities Produce Fine Artists. In many ways, the work of this group laid the foundation for the current art gallery. Before there was a gallery, any walls that could be acquired without cost served as exhibition space—city hall, libraries, churches, the YMCA and the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium. Many members of the Group of Seven visited.
These were the early years, and the Society continued to grow, but as Robert Reid, long-time arts reviewer for The Record once said, “the amateur artists and Sunday painters who assembled in 1931 were as much pioneers in the creative sense as the pioneers who actually settled the area. In a society that spurned all but practical activities, these artists were committed to the advancement of the visual arts. Many were important teachers (The Doon School of Fine Arts), others were instrumental members of arts organizations (Five Counties Art Association and later the Central Ontario Art Association,and still others were motivating forces behind the establishment of the Gallery itself in 1956 (The Bicycle Shed).
In 1951, at the age of 55, Ralph Connor, a prominent Western Ontario artist died in St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto. He was stricken with a heart attack en route to Toronto. Beyond his work and artistic life, he was a member of Westmount Golf and Country Club and a member of the church choir at Trinity United Church for many years. Our memories of him, however, will focus on his efforts to promote solidarity and community among local artists. What was his vision once the Art Society of Kitchener-Waterloo had established a place in this community? I believe it was encapsulated in the hope that the Society would continue to thrive for the purpose of mentoring artists on all levels. I think he would be very pleased to see us today.