Margaret Watkins: Of Sight and Sound

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Margaret Watkins, Shop Windows – Workers’ Reflections, Moscow (1933), gelatin silver print, 15.7 x 21.2 cm. NGC. Purchased 1984 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act

When asked to summarize her life’s story for a magazine profile in 1923, Margaret Watkins wrote, “born in Hamilton, Ontario, brought up on pictures and music.” The photographer was at the height of her artistic career at the time, living in New York, winning prizes in international exhibitions, teaching at the renowned Clarence H. White School of Photography, and brimming with self-confidence. Music was part of the rich cultural life she enjoyed in the city, with frequent outings to concerts, recitals and operas. Watkins’ short photographic career was nourished by this passion for music, as demonstrated in a new exhibition, and this passion endured. 

Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies is an exhibition of 95 photographs by this Canadian photographer, dating from 1914 to 1939 and varying from portraits and landscapes that bear the soft focus, romantic mood and lyrical forms of the Pictorialist movement, to modernist still lifes, street scenes, advertising work and commercial designs. The title of the exhibition echoes that of Watkins’ sublime image of three eggs on an enamel draining board, Domestic Symphony (1919). Both titles suggest that music was a vital inspiration for this artist.


Margaret Watkins, Domestic Symphony (1919), palladium print, 21.2 x 16.4 cm. NGC. 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 exhibition is a culmination of years of research by Associate Curator of Photographs Lori Pauli, who first encountered Watkins’ work in 1992. At that time, Pauli was working alongside James Borcoman, the Gallery’s founding curator of photographs, to research an exhibition showcasing the growing photographs collection. Among the images the visionary Borcoman had purchased over his tenure, and which he was considering for that show, were seven by the relatively unknown Margaret Watkins. Pauli was struck by the elegance of Watkins’ photographs of ordinary subject matter and by the captivating life story that soon emerged.

Margaret Watkins was born in 1884 to a successful entrepreneur, Frederick Watkins and his Glaswegian wife Marie. As a child, she already showed a keen eye for design and craftsmanship, and by age 15 was selling her homemade crafts in her father’s department store. She played piano and sang in the acclaimed Centenary Methodist Church Choir. Leaving home in 1908, Watkins worked at Roycroft Arts and Crafts community and the Sidney Lanier Camp, both rural utopian communities in the northeastern United States, and soon took up photography. In 1913 she moved to Boston. Working by day in a portrait studio, she wrote poetry in the evening, attended concerts and put in a sometimes gruelling schedule singing Mendelssohn and Wagner with the Temple Israel Choir. Within two years, she landed a job in New York with the photographer Alice Boughton, and soon began studying under the influential Clarence H. White, at both his summer schools in Maine and Connecticut, and in his New York School. White’s teaching faculty included such luminaries as Max Weber, F. Holland Day, Gertrude Käsebier and, eventually, Watkins herself. She took an active role in the Pictorial Photographers of America, exhibited her photographs widely, won prizes and critical acclaim, and gained advertising contracts.

Having begun her photographic career in portraiture, Watkins had the opportunity to experiment with landscape during those early years at White’s summer schools, and considered Opus 1 (1914) to be her first true photographic success. Made in Seguinland, Maine, the tightly cropped view of three fishing boats is radical in structure and composition, with the truncated boats at the edges of the frame forming ellipses around a central triangle of water. The musical title suggests the affinity Watkins perceived between art and music.

It was in 1919 that Watkins made her first ground-breaking domestic still lifes, taking as her subject such mundane scenes as a kitchen sink and bathroom fixture. In Domestic Symphony, the graceful curve of the porcelain recalls the fern-like scroll of a violin. Again, the composition is striking: the lower three-quarters of the image is in darkness, anchoring the forms and volumes in the upper portion. Still Life — Shower Hose (1919) shows a rubber hose rhythmically looped around a towel rack.


Margaret Watkins,  Still Life – Shower Hose (1919), gelatin silver print, 21.2 x 15.9 cm. NGC. Purchased 1984 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act

As Lori Pauli writes in the exhibition catalogue, Watkins was likely influenced by Arthur Wesley Dow, a Columbia University professor of fine arts who was closely associated with the White school. Dow wrote about the beauty of compositions that use curved and straight lines, and alternating light and dark masses — elements that are apparent in Watkins’ lyrical The Wharf (1922) and Untitled (Two Trees by Lake) [1923]. Dow also promoted the ideas of Ernest F. Fenollosa, who believed that music was the key to the other fine arts since its essence was “pure beauty.” Watkins herself used music as a metaphor for visual patterning in an essay about the emergence of advertising photography out of painting: “Weird and surprising things were put upon canvas; stark mechanical objects revealed an unguessed dignity; commonplace articles showed curves and angles which could be repeated with the varying pattern of a fugue.” Photography and music also converged in her portraits of musicians Sergei Rachmaninoff, Gustavo Morales and especially Marion Rous, whose avant-garde taste is conveyed by bold angles and dramatic shadows.

In 1925 Watkins’ life began to unravel when her employer and mentor, Clarence White, died suddenly on a teaching trip to Mexico. The following year, Watkins became locked in a legal battle with White’s widow over ownership of some of White’s prints, and her work seemed to slow down. In 1928, “being fed up with the uttermost,” as she later wrote in a letter, Watkins left New York to travel in Europe and never returned. Having stopped in Glasgow to visit her aging aunts, she found them in varying degrees of ill health, living in squalid conditions, desperate for help. One aunt died within a week of her arrival. Over the next 40 years, she would find it impossible to leave, save for the odd trip to London or the continent. Although she continued for a short time to take photographs, she never again had her own studio or darkroom, and appears never to have exhibited any of her European work.

Watkins did, however, continue to attend concerts and operas, and beginning in the 1940s, rented rooms to visiting musicians and conductors. Once, describing the Scottish landscape in a letter to a friend, she observed how music and images cohabited in her mind: “And there the sun set, or rather exploded… purple and crimson and gold trumpeting from peak to peak till they fairly reverberated with colour. (Somehow I always mix sight and sound and this was Wagner with full orchestra.)”


Margaret Watkins, Academic Nude – Tower of Ivory (1924), palladium print, 21.2 x 16 cm. NGC. Purchased 1984 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act

Towards the end of her life, Watkins — tight-lipped about her past as a photographer — handed a sealed box containing all her photographs to her neighbour Joseph Mulholland, with strict instructions to open it only after her death. During his last visits, Mulholland found her constantly listening to classical radio. Watkins died in November 1969, leaving most of her estate to music charities. It is only since Mulholland started exhibiting her works himself that this important Canadian photographer has come to the attention of institutions such as the Gallery, finally receiving her due with a major exhibition.

Pictorialism and modernism find a harmonious meeting place in Margaret Watkins' graceful images.

Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies is on view at the NGC until 6 January 2013. A catalogue in English and French editions accompanies the exhibition.

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