1858 engraving of Victoria

Colonial History Vancouver Island

Maureen Duffus - Author and Historian


Vancouver Island History

Return of The Golden Girl

The Golden Girl

The 1920s painting known as 'The Golden Girl' arrived in Victoria in 2010, after 80 years of world travel from a London art school to Paris exhibitions in her youth, to the lost years and a miraculous return by unknown friends.

It is an early work by Canadian portrait artist Robin Watt of his wife, Doreen Yates. Both were born in Victoria, Robin in 1896 and Doreen in 1901, and both studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.

The roundabout journey back to Victoria began with a query from a member of the artist's family. Helen Geissinger, a Canadian living in Australia, was searching for information about the 'Doreen Yates' in a portrait by Robin Watt. Two years and many delightful emails later the restored Golden Girl now hangs in my home - less than a mile from where she was born more than a century ago.

Robin was the son of Dr. Alfred Watt, chief medical officer and superintendent of the BC quarantine station near Victoria, and his wife, Margaret Rose (Madge) Robertson. He attended University School in Victoria until Dr. Watt died suddenly in 1912. Madge soon took Robin and his younger brother Sholto to be educated in England.

Robin was accepted at Sandhurst Military College and joined the British army (Green Howard Regiment) as a regular commissioned officer. A Montreal newspaper obituary (1965) cites his distinguished military record during World War I:

"He was awarded the Military Cross with bar, the Croix de Guerre, and was mentioned in despatches twice. He was wounded four times and served for a period as aide-de-camp to Canadian corps commander Sir Arthur Currie. He resigned from the army in 1920 and began his studies at the Slade School, London, then studied in Paris and Rome."

Doreen, always known as Dodie, was the daughter of Harry Yates and Nellie Austin. She too was taken to England after her father died, and also studied at the Slade. The two Victoria artists married in the early 1920s.

Robin Watt - self portrait
Robin Watt, self portrait.
Date unknown (oil)

sketch of Robin Watt by Doreen
Charcoal of Robin by Doreen
for a 1932 Seattle exhibition

Doreen Yates
Young Dodie - Photo of Doreen Yates as a Victoria schoolgirl, ca. 1916

No one in either of the families can confirm the exact date that the portrait of young Dodie Watt was begun. However its first mention in print is a very favorable review from an exhibition at the 1925 Paris Spring Salon:

"Some particularly strong portraits, distinctive work of high merit, are signed 'Robin Watt'. The portrait of Mrs. Watt reveals the young artist's particular genius in a marked degree." (Daily Express, 1925)

Excerpts from other Paris Salon reviews include:

"His portraits are splendid ...", Paris edition, New York Time, 1924; "His success (in the Paris Spring Salon) may place him in the front rank of young artists ...", Toronto Saturday Night, 1924; and in the Sunday Times, London, in 1925, "A clean incisive draughtsman, as numerous drawings testify, and his oils, particularly his self portrait, show genuine ability and great promise." (Cited in a later exhibit catalogue.)

The couple returned to Canada in 1927 and worked in Montreal for the next few years. Helen writes from Australia that her mother Bethia, a niece of Madge Robertson Watt, leased a nearby apartment. She organized shopping and cooking for the artists as well as her brother Noel, then a McGill University student. Robin and Dodie never cooked in their own apartments where lingering cooking odors would be unacceptable when people came to sit for their portraits. (Dodie's mother, Nellie Austin Yates, also took an apartment in Montreal to help with domestic chores, and remained with the couple for most of her life.)

The couple then returned to Victoria in the early 1930s. Their first studio and flat were in a small 'penthouse' on the Central Building, above the sixth floor offices of Dodie's lawyer cousin, Bob Yates. They later moved to an Oak Bay cottage on Transit Road.

A copy of a catalogue for Robin's 1932 exhibition of portraits and drawings at the Elshin Studios in Seattle illustrates some of his work shown during the Victoria years. It included portraits of his younger brother Sholto and of Mrs. Norman Bethune. Judge P. S. Lampman and Dodie's uncle Philip Austin sat for charcoal drawings. Many Victoria homes must still have the treasured pastels of young children of their Oak Bay neighbours in the Victoria years.

Meantime Dodie was sketching 1880s houses of the old Victoria neighbourhood of James Bay.

They were a popular couple in Victoria society, at least until Robin's unforgivable gaffe made the newspaper: He criticized the newly illuminated legislative buildings - a solid stone mass encircled by light bulbs. Victorians loved it then and still do.

But Victoria in the 1930s depression was no place for artists to earn a living. Fortunately Robin was offered the position of art master at Stowe School, a prestigious British public school in Buckinghamshire at the former grand country estate of the Dukes of Buckingham. The Glebe House near the school was the art master's residence and studio for the next 14 years.

sketch of James Bay house by Doreen
sketch of James Bay street by Doreen

Two sketches by Doreen during the early 1930s, showing 1880s houses much as they looked when first built in one of the town's first residential neighborhoods. The Oswego street house is still much as it looks in the delicate sketch. They were gifts to the author on Doreen's last visit to Victoria.

all dressed up
En route to or from a posh do, Robin formally dressed in top hat, Doreen and student equally ready for the occasion, mother not quite up to scratch.

Robin with Doreen's mother and two students
Summer afternoon on the lawn in front of the Glebe house dining room with Robin, rear; Doreen's mother, right; and two students, centre.

They returned to Montreal in 1948 and Robin's career blossomed. His work included portraits of many prominent Canadian figures of the 1950s including powerful cabinet minister C. D. Howe, and acclaimed neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield.

John Duffus portrait
'Sandy-haired scot' John Duffus
by Robin Watt, Montreal, 1951

Maureen Yates portrait
Pastel of Maureen Yates, 1933.
One of many Victoria children's portraits by Robin in the 1930s

Their studio was in an old carriage house on Drummond Street, up the hill from Sherbrooke Street. My husband and I visited the Montreal studio several times when we lived in Ottawa. Robin and Dodie worked together, Dodie chatting with the sitter while Robin concentrated on his work. We saw this successful arrangement when Robin completed a portrait of my husband that he referred to as "the sandy-haired scot".

The Golden girl's dark days ... and the miraculous rediscovery.

The much-travelled portrait remained out of sight, and unknown to anyone in Dodie's family, until the surprising email arrived from Australia.

These excerpts (from e-mails 2014) from Robin's Ontario family as recalled by his second cousin, Helen Geissinger, trace the trail of the Golden Girl's wanderings between the last known sighting in the 1960s and her mysterious reappearance some 40 years later.

"My mother Bethia saw the portrait when she visited her brother, my uncle Noel Arthur, who lived in Meadville, Pennsylvania, the 1960s. She didn't say anything about the state of repair of the painting, except that it had already moved around a bit and had always been in smoky environments.

"The portrait of Dodie disappeared after Noel died in 1971. His second wife sold the Pennsylvania house and moved with all her belongings to Noel's cottage on Georgian Bay near Collingwood. My mother visited her a few times until she was told not to return. She saw nothing of the place until the second wife died in 1993 and Bethia found herself executor of the estate. There was still no sign of the Golden Girl when she helped clear out the cottage.

"Somehow, someone must have known the Collingwood history of my family, and knew where relatives lived. This 'someone' rescued a few family photos, some copies of Noel's writings - and the Golden Girl.

"These were all packed in a big cardboard box and left at my son Eric's door in London, Ontario, in the late 1990s, with no identification of the donor or contents. My brother and I recognized the grungy portrait, but weren't sure what to do about it. So there it stayed in Eric's basement until he was about to move house and the basement had to be cleared. The fate of the box had to be decided.

"That is the point at which I began searching for Dodie's living relatives. It is the greatest luck that I found you, thanks to your website. I am so happy to have met you, online at least, and to have found exactly the right person who values this painting. It is my hope that Robin and Dodie would feel the same."

(Helen, I do think they would, seeing each other across a room again. Maureen.)

And that's how Dodie's image arrived back in her home town.

The portrait was indeed in terrible shape. Previous attempts at repair were disastrous, but the sadly mistreated Golden Girl survived, thanks to a year of painstaking restoration by conservator Simone Vogel-Horridge. Her meticulous work included removal of blobs of unevenly applied dark coating; treatment in a humidity tent; repeated flattening of the badly distorted canvas on a hot vacuum table; stretching on a wooden stretcher, and sealing infilling of loss of paint and discolouration.

The painting is fine now. A broken wood frame, apparently tacked together from an old door frame, is replaced with an elegant gold-toned frame, and she is absolutely ready to hang at a gallery exhibit again, almost 90 years after a first appearance at the Paris Salon.