With a detailed exhibition on Margaret Clarke’s diverse legacy recently unveiled in the National Gallery of Ireland, Niamh MacNally, NGI’s Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings, casts a much-needed spotlight on the female artists forgotten in Irish history.
During the process of compiling and curating this Margaret Clarke retrospective, what aspects of her work and character have inspired you the most?
With this dedicated exhibition on Margaret Clarke, I believe the viewing public will come to know aspects of both the artist and the person. A strong independent-minded character, Margaret Clarke was determined from an early age to pursue a career as a professional artist. In researching this exhibition I have been inspired by Clarke’s drive and ambition to succeed in the male-dominated art world of her time. Wanting to be recognised for her own merits as an artist, she wrote to Thomas Bodkin (Director of the National Gallery of Ireland from 1927-1935) regarding a review he had written of her 1924 solo exhibition. In it he had praised her work yet referred to her as ‘Mrs Clarke, the wife of Mr Harry Clarke … [and] one of the most brilliant of that remarkable group of students which Sir William Orpen fostered’. In response to this review she wrote: “I hope I shall be able to attract your appreciation of my individual efforts as a painter, rather than the fact [that] I am the wife of one artist and the pupil of another”.
With regards to her ambitious artworks, she also challenged traditional notions of what was deemed suitable subject matter for women artists. What drew me to Margaret Clarke in the first place were her incredibly fine drawings. In gathering together the works for this exhibition I have also been struck by the fact that she was an exceptional colourist.
To the best of your knowledge, what level of opportunities were given to Ireland’s women artists of the 20th century relative to their male counterparts?
The Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (DMSA) had many women students, so the opportunities in relation to art education were present. Margaret Clarke received four consecutive scholarships to continue her training at the DMSA. People like Ethel Rhind, Estella Solomons, Kitty Jammet, and Kathleen Fox were all Margaret’s contemporaries at the DMSA. Women also regularly exhibited at the RHA, just like their male counterparts. The issue arose with the fact that many women weren’t generally recognised or viewed in the same way as their male counterparts. Margaret Clarke exhibited regularly at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) from 1913, and quickly established a reputation as a notable portrait painter. Thomas MacGreevy (Director of the National Gallery of Ireland from 1950–1963, who served on the first Irish Arts Council) asserted that there were ‘several women artists of account’ who deserved proper recognition from the RHA, yet highlighted a chauvinist minority within the institution who: ‘apparently only titter at the idea of a woman artist’. (Irish Independent, December 4, 1922) Despite the RHA’s long history (founded in 1823) Clarke was only the second woman to be awarded full membership of the institution in 1927, preceded by Sarah Purser who had been elected three years earlier.
Is the issue less that they were well recognised during their active careers, but somehow faded from the public awareness of future generations?
Given the time, I believe it was a considerable feat to have been the second woman artist to have been elected a full academician by the RHA. Though very much admired by her contemporaries, her reputation has with time faded from view. This I believe is in part due to the fact that she was one half of a prominent artistic couple. Over the years she has been overshadowed by her husband’s celebrated stained glass designs and illustrations. This exhibition brings Margaret Clarke’s art back into the light, repositioning her as a significant figure in early twentieth-century Irish art. Her work warrants reassessment, having last been seen in a retrospective at the Taylor Galleries, Dublin, in 1979.
Do you feel that major changes must still be made to art history syllabus to re-enforce Ireland’s awareness of its historic female artists?
I think there is huge scope for representing Irish women artists more prominently in terms of our art history syllabus/textbooks. If they are not represented in the minds of students, they don’t exist or aren’t viewed as important. You don’t want students coming away with the idea that women are not as creative artistically and imaginatively as their male counterparts. The current lack of published material on Irish women artists needs to be addressed and further parity needs to be established. In fact the current exhibition catalogue I have edited for the Margaret Clarke exhibition attempts to fill, in some small way, what is a gaping void with regards to books on Irish women artists.
Can we expect to see more historic women artists spotlighted in the National Gallery’s future exhibitions?
Yes. We are following the Margaret Clarke exhibition in the autumn with a stunning display of prints by the German twentieth century artist Käthe Kollwitz, which I’m sure will have great appeal. In more recent times the Gallery has also displayed and acquired the work of a number of contemporary women artists. In the autumn of 2015 we displayed the large-scale portrait photographs of Jackie Nickerson, the documentary photographer, in which she drew inspiration from the Gallery’s own collection of historic portraits. Only last month we unveiled the highly innovative sculpted portrait bust of Garry Hynes, Director and co-founder of the Druid Theatre, by Vera Klute. This work now forms part of the National Portrait Collection at the National Gallery of Ireland as does Geraldine O’Neill’s oil painting of the designer John Rocha, which the Gallery commissioned in 2015.
A Trio of Forgotten Female Artists:
Mary Swanzy (1882-1978) – A bona-fide trailblazer of eclecticism in Irish art, Swanzy’s multi-hued style thrived during her seven-decade career – proving her as one of the country’s original abstract painters. A strong purveyor of Cubism and its offshoots – first impacting her work during an influential few years studying in Paris – her subsequent embracing of the Impressionism-esque Fauvism movement reflected her voyages to tropical Samoa and Honolulu. Finally settling in London from the mid-20s onwards, she was made an honorary member of the RHA in 1949 and held her final one-woman show at the Dawson Gallery two years before passing away.
Sarah Purser (1848-1943) – As previously stated, Purser was the first woman to join the RHA’s rankings in 1924; having long been considered an unmissable figure in Dublin’s early 20th-century art scene. She utilised her inherent talent and connections to garner myriad commissions from British gentry, most of these rooted in portraiture. She was an equally noted leader in Ireland’s stained-glass movement, having created a well-frequented, associated workshop named An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower) in 1903. She was later responsible for establishing the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, having single-handedly persuaded the Irish government to provide Charlesmont House as its residence.
Evie Hone (1894-1955) – Triumphing over a lifetime of poor health, the first chapter of Hone’s career featured a vivid dalliance with Cubism (few of her artworks during this period have survived, nor garnered acknowledgement). While cutting her teeth at the Westminster School of Art in London, Hone began a long-standing friendship with fellow woman artist Mainie Jellett. Both travelled on to Paris, studying together under the tutelage of André Lhote and Albert Gleizes, before making their return to Ireland in 1923. She harnessed her training in Cubist painting to evolve an imaginative stained-glass style, for which she is best characterised, having joined Evie Hone’s aforementioned An Túr Gloine before setting up an independent studio.
Margaret Clarke: An Independent Spirit is running in the National Gallery of Ireland’s Print Gallery until 20th August.
Words: Amelia Éclectique
Images & accompanying captions
Margaret Clarke (1884-1961)
Robin Redbreast, c.1915
© The Estate of Margaret Clarke
Collection Ulster Museum
Margaret Clarke (1884-1961)
Bath Time at the Crèche, c.1925
© The Artist’s Estate
Photo © National Gallery of Ireland
Join Niamh MacNally of the National Gallery of Ireland as she discusses the work of Margaret Clarke, a once well-regarded member of the artistic establishment, whose reputation has faded from view.