Artful Musing

THE ARTFUL BLOGGER: A long-forgotten star photographer is resurrected at the National Gallery

By Paul Gessell

Margaret Watkins, "Still life - Shower Hose, 1919." Gelatin silver print, 21.2 x 15.9 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 1984 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act.

A long forgotten Canadian artist, Margaret Watkins, has been resurrected from obscurity with a large, impressive exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada of her early 20th century photographs.

You can be forgiven if you have not heard of Watkins before. She has largely been forgotten for almost a century. And she would have remained forgotten if not for the efforts of a friendly neighbour in the city of Glasgow, where Watkins died November 10, 1969. More on that later.

Watkins was born November 8, 1884, in Hamilton. As a young woman, she moved to the United States in 1908 to seek her fortune, eventually settling in New York City. By the 1920s she had become a celebrated photographer who exhibited extensively and was profiled glowingly in Vanity Fair magazine. She specialized in portraits, arty advertisements, and still life scenes that echoed the “cubist” and “modernist” styles popular in the 1920s.

She was also known for transforming mundane objects from the kitchen or bathroom into carefully constructed art objects. The title of the National Gallery exhibition of about 60 images is Domestic Symphonies. That’s a reference to the manner in which she could elevate the ordinary into the divine.

Her photograph “Still Life: Shower Hose 1919” shows an old-fashioned shower hose looped around a towel rack. It is a perfect example of the way Watkins used light, lines, and geometric compositions to create the perfect picture.

Margaret Watkins, "Academic Nude - Tower of Ivory, June 1924." Palladium print, 21.2 x 16 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 1984 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act.

The achievements of Watkins were remarkable for two main reasons: She was far more progressive than many of her contemporaries and she was a young woman operating in a field dominated by older men.

Watkins’s life took a bizarre twist in 1929 when she decided to take a holiday and visit four old spinster aunts in Glasgow. She arrived in the Scottish city to find her aunts ill and living in squalid conditions. She decided to stay temporarily to help out her relatives. She attempted to continue her photographic career in Glasgow but failed. Even after all the old aunts died, Watkins remained in Glasgow. By that point, she had become an impoverished, forgotten recluse herself.

Watkins never married. The National Gallery’s Lori Pauli, who curated this exhibition, says there is evidence Watkins experienced some romantic tragedy as a young woman and never found romance again.

Two years before her death in 1969, Watkins gave a sealed box to a journalist neighbour, Joseph Mulholland, to keep for her and to be opened only after her death. When the box was opened, Mulholland discovered to his great surprise hundreds of Watkins’s photographs. She had never told her Glasgow neighbours of her successful photographic career in New York back in the 1920s.

Mulholland is determined the world will not forget Watkins. He has been striving for the last four decades to orchestrate exhibitions of Watkins’s work. There was one in Glasgow, one in New York and now, the largest ever, one at the National Gallery.

Pauli is hoping to tour the show, which is largely comprised of photographs Watkins gave Mulholland. The exhibition continues until January 6.