Edith Sara Watson Biography

Edith Sara Watson




Photographer and painter Edith Sarah Watson was born the youngest of four on November 5, 1861, in East Windsor Hill, Connecticut. Her parents--mother Sarah, whose family owned a local Hartford newspaper, and father Reed, a printer--kept a tobacco farm, earning just enough income to pay for their children’s education. As they grew up, the Watson children, Don, Rosa, Amelia, and Edith, were encouraged to pursue financial independence in fields that they enjoyed. At the time, this was an unusual pursuit for women, but the three sisters took the advice to heart. The eldest, Rosa, became a well-regarded botanical artist and worked for Harvard University. Amelia taught painting at boarding schools and secondary-education institutes for women. Meanwhile Edith, after her siblings had all left, continued to study watercolor painting, history, mathematics, physics, chemistry, Latin, and French at the Hartford Female Seminary.

In the summer of her sixteenth year, she took the family donkey and $5 and set out to explore her home state and Massachusetts, alone. She enjoyed painting the towns and landscapes she came across. When she returned home she had settled on becoming a professional artist. Her sister Amelia soon returned home to pursue an independent art career as well, and the sisters built a studio adjacent to their parents home. For ten years, the two traveled from Connecticut to Florida, establishing connections with collectors and other artists, and selling their works to support themselves and their parents.

In the early 1890s, however, Edith discovered photography through her uncle, noted botanist Sereno Watson. She fell in love with the medium and the freedom it afforded her; it wasn’t long before she was ready to set out on her own once more. While Amelia was content to teach in Cape Cod, Edith wanted to explore the northern territories and made her way up into Canada. Soon, she was dividing her time between the province of Newfoundland and Labrador and her home in Connecticut. She traveled slowly, going by foot, cart, horse, ferry, boat—even rowboat—and train. This allowed her to take thousands of photos of the daily lives of rural locals and of their surrounds, which she traded for food and lodging. She sold images for advertising to small businesses she came across on her journeys, and though it did not pay exceedingly well, she was able to send money home. Eventually she began selling her photos to tourism guides and travel bureaus for Canada, America, and Britain.

For 35 years Watson called Canada home for half of the year; the winters, she divided between her family home in Connecticut and, beginning in the early 1900s, Bermuda. There she rented a cottage in St. George’s, usually in exchange for her work. It was in St. George’s in 1911 that she met aspiring journalist Victoria Hayward. They soon became partners in work and life, and traveled to remote areas of Canada, going as far as British Columbia and Alaska to meet and live with First Nations tribes and other relatively unknown social and religious groups, such as Mennonites and Doukhobors. Their respectful approach proved fortunate to the travelers, who were welcomed into these circles time and again throughout the years. In 1921 they published “Romantic Canada”, in which they coined the phrase “the Canadian mosaic,” a term still used to describe the multicultural nature of Canada.

Despite the hardships that were presented with World War I and the Depression, the two were able to mete out a living and explore until Edith was well into her 60s. It wasn’t until her 70th birthday in 1931 that Edith finally decided to settle down. She and Victoria moved to Edith’s family’s summer cottage in Cape Cod. For twelve years the pair settled into their new home, staying within the confines of the New England boundaries. Edith died not long before Christmas, 1943.