Street Scene to Still Life: Margaret Watkins’ Domestic Symphonies

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

After nearly 100 years, the work of Canadian photographer Margaret Watkins has finally been receiving the recognition it deserves—this time from audiences in southwestern Ontario.

Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies was originally presented at the National Gallery of Canada in 2012, and was warmly received by audiences at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Ontario, earlier this year. Opening on May 17 at Museum London, in London, Ontario, this exhibition is the first retrospective examination of Watkins’ career as a photographer.   

“Watkins is from the region, so that is nice for our visitors; but the greater attraction for us is to be able to exhibit the work of such a respected and important photographer, who has been presented in Europe and the United States. Watkins really has both national and an international scope,” says Cassandra Getty, Museum London’s Curator of Art.

Watkins, however, was not always as well-known as she is today. An artist’s body of work can sometimes be forgotten, fall out of fashion, or even disappear completely from the pages of art history. This was almost the case for Watkins.

Born in Hamilton in 1884, Watkins left home in 1908, finding work in a Boston portrait studio before moving to New York City, where she became an accomplished professional photographer. From 1916 to 1928, she taught at the prestigious Clarence H. White School of Photography in Maine, and later in New York, where her students included Margaret Bourke-White, Laura Gilpin, Paul Outerbridge, Ralph Steiner and Doris Ulmann—all of whom are represented in the National Gallery’s collection.

In 1928, Watkins left New York to care for her mother’s sisters in Glasgow, Scotland, and would never return to North America. She does not appear to have earned any real income from her photography after this date; she did, however, become an enthusiastic amateur, specializing in street photography in Russia, Germany and France. She was also elected an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society, and was the first-ever female member of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Photographic Association. Although she was largely forgotten as a photographer by the time of her death in 1969, her executor found hundreds of photographs in her Glasgow home, leading to a number of solo exhibitions in North America and Britain.

“A lot of the credit for rehabilitating her reputation in general, and restoring her place in the history of photography, is because of Lori Pauli, who really filled an important role in our understanding of this artist,” says Getty. “It’s a coup for us that the National Gallery has been willing to generously share these works with smaller institutions like ours.”

Lori Pauli, NGC Curator of Photographs and curator of Domestic Symphonies, happened upon Watkins’ work almost by accident. “We had seven of her works in the collection, and one day I came across them while researching another exhibition,” she remembers. “They were these incredibly beautiful photographs by somebody who was born in Hamilton. I am from nearby Guelph, and I thought, ‘Why have I never heard of this artist and her work?’” 

Pauli decided she wanted to create a major solo exhibition dedicated to Watkins: a project that would ultimately take nearly 25 years. When the National Gallery exhibition finally opened in October 2012, it marked Watkins’ restoration to her rightful place in the annals of twentieth-century photography—and the eventual presentation of her work in southern Ontario.

“It’s really exciting to see her come home,” says Pauli. “She had a one-person retrospective in New York before she left; but, after that, there really wasn’t anything. So this was her first major solo exhibition since the 1920s.” 

Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies features more than 100 photographs, ranging from soft-focus portraits and landscapes to street scenes, storefronts, advertising work and still lifes. “Her work adds a whole new dimension to the history of Modernist and Pictorialist photography,” adds Pauli.

The exhibition opens at Museum London on May 17 and runs to September 7, 2014. For more information, please click here.

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