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National Gallery of Canada presents first major retrospective of Canadian photographer Margaret Watkins' work
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.

OTTAWA.- The National Gallery of Canada unveiled the first retrospective exhibition of the work of Canadian photographer, Margaret Watkins. Watkins gained a reputation in the world of art and advertising during the 1920s, with her images of everyday objects such as a sink filled with unwashed dishes, eggs on the edge of a draining board, a shower hose and a bar of soap. The exhibition, titled Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies, runs until January 6, 2013, and is comprised of 108 works created between 1914 and 1937, seven of which are part of the NGC’s collection.

Although Watkins started working in a Pictorialist style of photography, making soft-focused images of literary and sometimes sentimental subjects, she continued to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in terms of subject matter. Her images of ordinary domestic objects set new standards for the genre of still-life photography and she was one of the earliest photographers whose art also found a purpose in the world of advertising.

“Margaret Watkins pushed the limits of modern photography in 1920s New York. We are delighted to provide the public with an opportunity to discover the work of this remarkable but largely forgotten Canadian artist,” said NGC Director Marc Mayer. “Thanks to Joseph Mulholland, former neighbour and friend, who has looked after Watkins’ photographs since her death in 1969, we can now appreciate the full measure of her art and her place within the history of photography"

The sub-title of the exhibition, Domestic Symphonies, refers to one of Watkins’ still life scenes, an elegant study of three eggs on an enamel draining board, made in 1919, that she titled Domestic Symphony. The show traces Watkins’ career path, from her early days in Boston, where she was hired as an assistant in a commercial photography studio, to her life in New York, where she taught at the famous Clarence H. White School of Photography, and subsequently to Paris, Cologne, the USSR and Glasgow, where she settled in 1928.

The exhibition opens with a series of portraits of the artist. It goes on to explore the period between 1915 and 1928, during which she studied photography at the Clarence H. White School and eventually began to secure contracts from major advertising agencies such as the J. Walter Thompson company. In 1921, the magazine Vanity Fair featured Watkins’ photographs in an article about the artist and her work, praising her “Modernist’ and “Cubist” images. Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies also includes photographs produced while she lived in Scotland from 1928 onwards, when she travelled to Germany and France and began to do street photography using storefronts, their display models and luxury items as subjects. Visitors will also have a chance to view remarkable works created in the USSR, during a visit there in 1933.

If not for the perseverance of a friend and neighbour, Joseph Mulholland, the photographs of Margaret Watkins might have been forever lost. Although she was a leading portrait, still life and advertising photographer in New York in the 1920s, and an influential teacher of photography at the time, her work had been virtually forgotten until it was exhibited in Glasgow and New York City in the early 1980s. The Glasgow exhibition of 1981, mounted by Mulholland, initiated a gradual rediscovery of both the woman and her work, which led to this first major retrospective exhibition of her photographs.

Meta Gladys (Margaret) Watkins was born in November 1884 to a Hamilton, Ontario businessman, Frederick W. Watkins and his Glasgow-born wife, Marie. As a child, Margaret studied music and art and exhibited a talent for writing, particularly poetry. In 1909 she moved to East Aurora, New York to work as a chambermaid at the Roycroft Arts and Crafts community where she learned the art of book illumination. From 1910 to 1913 she worked at the Sidney Lanier camps in Walpole, Massachusetts and Eliot Maine. In 1913 she moved to Boston where she began working as an assistant in a commercial photography studio. A session at the Clarence H. White Summer School of Photography in Maine would set her on a career path.

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