Our favourite (deceased) female Irish artists Part 2

Emma Cownie

Following on from my last post (which covered Sarah Purser, Rose Maynard Barton, Gladys Wynee, Kathleen Fox, Estelle Solomons, Phoebe Donovan, and Norah McGuinness), here’s my second group of my favourite female (deceased) Irish artists. I am covering this group in chronological order, although is overlap, date-wise with my list of artists in part 1. This group of women, although still largely drawn from the “Protestant Ascendancy“, were noticeably less wealthy than many of the artists in part 1. This is a personal list and you may be shouting at me for leaving out your personal favourite. Tell me who you think I have missed out.

Grace Henry (1868–1953)

Remember Paul Henry and his beautiful landscapes paintings of the wild west coast? Well, his wife, Grace was an accomplished artist in her own right but her reputation suffered from being overshadowed by her husband’s fame.

Grace Henry was born Emily Grace Mitchell in Aberdeenshire, in Scotland. She was the ninth child of ten of the Rev. John Mitchell and was educated at home, spending time at the family’s home in Piccadilly, where she experienced London society. When her father died the family found themselves in much-reduced circumstances, so Grace left home in 1895 to pursue a career as an artist. Remember, this is the end of the 19th century. That’s a pretty incredible decision for a single woman.

In 1899 she left Scotland for the continent, visiting Holland and Belgium, studying in Brussels and Paris. Whilst in Paris, she met and married Paul Henry in 1903 and moved first to London and then to Ireland. The couple traveled in Achill Island for the first time in 1910 which was intended to be a two-week stay, with the couple going on to live there until 1919. This period spent on the island did place a strain on the Henry’s marriage, as Grace was not as happy living there.

Her work developed while on the island, starting with Whistler- inspired nocturnal scenes with muted colour and simple compositions, becoming stronger as she grew in artistic confidence into the 1920s.

Despite being instrumental in setting up The Society of Dublin Painters in 1920 which provided exhibition space for many female modernist painters, her reputation suffered from her separation (although they never divorced) from her husband Paul, who left out all references to her in his two autobiographies!

Grace continued to travel later in her life, often staying with friends or living in hotels, rather than maintaining a home of her own. She also experienced periods of “melancholy”, probably depression, during these later years, though she continued to exhibit.

Letitia Marion Hamilton (1878–1964)

Originally from Co. Meath, Letitia was one of three sisters. Their father could only afford one dowry, so Letitia and her sister Eva remained unmarried and turned to their artistic careers to help support the household. Letitia studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art where she was taught by William Orpen, continuing her studies at the Slade School of Art in London and with Frank Brangwyn.

She exhibited in Paris, Edinburgh, and Dublin. She was one of the founding members of the Society of Dublin Painters, along with Paul Henry, Grace Henry, Mary Swanzy, and Jack Butler Yeats. In 1948, she won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games art section in London. Who knew you used to be able to paint your way to an Olympic medal?

Lilian Lucy Davidson (1879–1954)

Lilian Lucy Davidson was born in Bray, County Wicklow. She was the sixth of ten children of a clerk of petty session called Edward Davidson. Unfortunately, her mother died when she was ten and it seems that her family was not affluent although it is thought that she had a private education. She went on to attend the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (DMSA) and was awarded a scholarship and free studentship at the Royal Dublin Society in 1897, the year her father died.

Although not in very buoyant financial circumstances she travelled extensively and did so for most of her life. She painted landscapes in Belgium and Switzerland, besides various parts of Ireland. She was a regular contributor to the Watercolour Society, The Dublin Painters Society and the Munster Fine Art Club, and was part of an interesting circle being friendly with Jack Yeats whom she painted and the circle around the Gate theatre for which she wrote plays under the pseudonym of Ulick Burke. The fact that Davidson’s family was not wealthy may have influenced her choice of poorer people as her subjects, depicting them in a sympathetic manner. I love her fluid style and her treatment of every day life in Ireland. I particularly like “Night at Claddagh”, for the falshes of light from the houses and how the little details such as the woman’s red dress and bare feet suggest so much about her life.

Mary Swanzy (1882–7 July 1978)

Mary Swanzy was born in Dublin, to a wealthy medical family. She was educated in Dublin and then sent to a finishing school at the Lycée in Versailles, France, and a day school in Freiburg, Germany. This education meant that Swanzy was fluent in French and German.

Mary trained in several academies in Paris. It seems that Mary was no party animal. Her life in Paris, while agreeable, did not resemble the bohemian myth. Usually, Mary was in bed by 8pm each evening and in the studio by 7.45am each morning, working intensively from the life model.

Her father had hoped she would be a portrait painter, but Mary was disliked portraiture, saying that men tended to want to be painted by men. After the deaths of her parents, Swanzy was financially independent and could travel, spending her time between Dublin and Saint-Tropez during World War I, whilst continuing to paint. She traveled far and wide, to the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, USA, Honolulu, and Samoa. It may well be that the upheavals back in Ireland including the shooting dead of her cousin, Oswald Swanzy, a Detective Inspector with the RIC, prompted Mary to travel abroad.

Her money also gave her the freedom to explore different artistic styles. She painted in many styles including cubism, futurism, fauvism, and orphism, and she was one of Ireland’s first abstract painters. In the mid-1920s Swanzy settled in Blackheath, London, making regular trips to Dublin and abroad.

To be honest, I agree with the assessment of critics who have described her work as having a “prim, Edwardian feeling” that shows through the veneer of modernism. I think it was painted from the head, not the heart. I much prefer her work that was done in Samoa in the 1920s. Here her work seems relaxed, natural and joyous.

Margaret Clarke (1888–1961)

Margaret was born in Newry, County Down, Ireland, one of six children of Patrick Crilley. I am guessing from her surname that she was raised a Catholic. She had intended to become a teacher and went to night school to train at technical college but in 1905, she won a scholarship to go to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. There she studied under William Orpen, who regarded her as one of his most promising students, she later became his assistant. In 1914, Margaret married her fellow student Harry Clarke, and they had three children.

Margaret first exhibited with the RHA in 1913 and would go on to exhibit over 60 artworks in the forty years until 1953, the majority being portraits. Amongst the portrait commissions Clarke received were ones for Dermod O’Brien, President Éamon de Valera, Archbishop McQuaid, and Lennox Robinson. She spent a great deal of time on the Aran Islands with fellow artist Seán Keating and her husband, from which she produced a number of landscapes and smaller studies.

Over her lifetime Clarke won many awards including the Tailteann gold, silver and bronze medals in 1924, and another Tailteann bronze in both 1928 and 1932. Upon the founding of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1943, she was appointed a member of the executive committee.

May Harriet “Mainie” Jellett (1897–1944)

Born in Dublin, Mainie was the daughter of a barrister William (who was later also an MP). She studied at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin under William Orpen, and then in London under Walter Sickert.

In 1921 she moved to Paris, where she encountered cubism and began an exploration of non-representational art. Her new style, including colour and rhythm was greatly inspired by her stay in France. After 1921 she and artist Evie Hone, her companion and life partner, returned to Dublin but for the next decade she continued to spend part of each year in Paris. In 1923, she exhibited two cubist paintings at the Dublin Painters’ Exhibition.

The response was hostile, with the Irish Times publishing a photograph of one of the paintings and quoting their art critic as saying of them ‘to me they presented an insoluble puzzle’.

Mainie devoted much of her energy — throughs essays and lectures — to trying to overcome conservative attitudes in Ireland, which was then culturally isolated. Her work was also part of the painting event in the art competition at the 1928 Summer Olympics.

In the 1930s figurative elements reappeared in her painting, and her later work included landscapes and religious subjects. She also made designs for the theatre and ballet. Jellett died young of cancer, but the year before her death, her campaigning on behalf of modern art bore fruit in the founding of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, of which she was the first chairperson. This was an exhibiting society that became the main venue for avant-garde art in Ireland for many years. Sadly Mainie was not to live a long, dying of cancer at 46, but she had made a significant contribution to Irish Art and Feminism in that short time.

Nano Reid (1900–1981)

Nano Reid was born in Drogheda, County Louth. She was the eldest of four children of Thomas Reid, a well-to-do publican, and grew up above their pub. Although she started her training to become a nurse, her parents were persuaded by their Catholic parish priest to let her go to the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin.

In 1927, Nano went to study in Paris and London and after that stayed in Ireland. After returning to Ireland, Reid began to exhibit landscape painting at the RHA. Like other painters of the period, such as Paul Henry, she traveled to the west of Ireland for painting inspiration with her early work showing the landscapes, local people, and fishermen of the area.

I much prefer her portraits to her landscape work.

In Dublin, Nano shared a house with her friend Patricia Hutchins. There was gossip about the nature of the women’s relationship, but Hutchins went on to marry. After WWII, Nano moved to Fitzwilliam Square, taking in young men as lodgers. She used to go on shared holidays to Connemara with her gay friend, self-taught Belfast artist, Gerard Dillon in the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1950, Reid and Norah McGuinness (see part 1) were selected to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale of Art. This was quite remarkable, considering this was the first time the country had shown at the event. The nation’s cultural identity was to be shaped by this event, and international perceptions of the country would be determined by what they chose to show. The reason for their selection was most likely because it was believed these two artists could compete on an international level.

This second group of female artists ranged from the wealthy and hard-working Mary Swanzy who only had to please herself to Margaret Clarke who started her training at night school, and most of these artists had to teach painting to supplement their income. Their work is diverse in style from figurative to cubism. As a group, they had traveled widely, with Mary Swanzy traveling the widest. Artists like Mainie Jellett embraced very public scorn to promote new ways of painting in the Irish State.

These women were always swimming against the tide. They were independent, working women in an era when women were expected to limit their attention to their homes and families. Taken as a group as a whole, it is probably unsurprising that a significant number were either lesbians or did not marry. Husbands and families did not appeal to Sarah Pursar and Nona Reid and would more than likely impede their ability to paint and to pursue their artistic careers. Only Kathleen Fox and Margaret Clarke were married and had children. Norah McGuiness’s “open marriage” was deeply shocking to contemporary society. Although the support and expertise of men such as J.B. Yeats and William Orphen were pivotal for many of these women, their own organisational skills such as the founding and running the Dublin Painters’ Society and the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, were impressive. They also encouraged and supported many younger artists. Of all these artist, I liked the portraits of Margret Clarke and Letitia Hamiliton’s vigorous landscapes. In the end, it was Lilian Davidson’s lively figurative work that I enjoyed the most.

Yet despite the considerable achievements of these artists, their work still fails to fetch the sort of prices that artists like Jack Yeats, Roderic O’Conor, Paul Henry or Louis leBrocquy command. A list of 25 top-selling Irish artists of the past decade only included only two female painters, Norah McGuiness, and Mary Swanzy. It is interesting that Mary Swanzy’s cubist work has been promoted by Patrick J Murphy, an author, collector, the former Chairman of the Arts Council of Ireland.

Yet, is hard not to resist the conclusion that the world continues to ignore and downplay female artists. Art UK’s list of 18 “Incredible Irish Artists” only included 6 female artists! The 6 female artists were “incredible” but many of the male artists that were included on that list were definitely not “incredible”. Ireland Before You Die’s list of the 10 Best and most famous Irish artists includes just 2 female artists. Any modern list of “top” or “hot” artists, Irish or otherwise, is invariably heavily dominated by male artists. It is hard to escape the conclusion that female artists are still swimming against the tide! However, it is significant that auction houses such as Dublin-based Adam’s spent a lot of time, money, and effort putting together a Summer Loan Exhibition of Irish female artists in 2014. All of the paintings were on loan from private collections from both North and South of the border. The catalogue is thoroughly researched, and includes many more women than I have included on my list. It is important that Adams’s exhibition celebrated and publicized the significant role that women have played in the history of Irish art, a role that has too often been overlooked.

Read more about Irish Art:-

Catalogue for Irish Women Artists 1870 -1970 Summer Loan Exhibition

Irish Museum of Modern Art





Landscape painter. Inspired by light and colour. Living in Wales & Donegal. www.emmafcownie.com