Margaret Watkins is a poignant addition to the Archive and Everyday Life Exhibition not only because of her ties to Hamilton, which continues the theme of Canadian everyday life, but also because of the content of many of her photographs, particularly her still life works. As Dr. Mary O’Connor recalls of seeing Watkins’ exhibit in Ottawa: "They had seven of her photos and I was really struck by three of them -- of her kitchen, the bathroom -- wonderful still life images in her home that were a combination of modernist abstraction and a statement on women's labour and the every day routine of women," says O'Connor. "She was able to combine the two brilliantly, and it provides a tremendous insight into life during that era."
Watkins’ life can be traced through her sojourns through three very distinct cities- Hamilton Ontario, New York City, and Glasgow, Scotland. Watkins was born on November 8, 1884 in Hamilton. Her mother, Marion Watt Anderson was her tie to Glasgow, Scotland- and she was also active in art as well as music. Watkins left Hamilton at the age of twenty-four to pursue a career in the arts, though her path was meandering. She worked in several artists’ communities for a number of years, including the Roycrofters in East Aurora, New York from 1909 to 1910, and the Lanier Camp in Maine from 1911 to 1916. Watkins’ job working for Alice Boughton, a famous photographer, marked the beginning of her rise to becoming a world-renowned photographer. Watkins's photographic works were exhibited in a number of locations, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Java, Japan and London.
1928 was the year that Watkins went to Europe for a holiday that was supposed to last six weeks. She visited her maiden aunts in Glasgow and found them in ill health and their house in disrepair. She decided to help them out and never left Glasgow- she remained there for forty years. One cannot help but see the parallels between her still life depictions of women’s work and "domestic scenes" and the manner in which Watkins lived out the rest of her life- immersed in domestic work. Watkins continued to photograph in Europe and was a member of the West of Scotland Photographic Club and the Royal Photographic Society. She photographed trips to the USSR, Germany and France (1928-1933). She and her friend, Bertha Henson (nee Merriman), began an import/export business in the late thirties. Margaret Watkins died in Glasgow on 10 November 1969.
McMaster Archives acquired the Watkins Archive through Joseph Mulholland, her neighbour in Scotland with the aid of Dr. Mary O’Connor from the department of English and Cultural Studies in 2002. The accumulation of the material itself speaks to the "everyday act" of archiving by Watkins. She saved letters, address books, cash books, and legal documents that attest to her life in New York City and Glasgow. Moreover, her documents are often traced over by her own handwriting, and the date of the superimposed writing is often unknown- one can almost imagine her reaching for any piece of paper handy to scribble on. Watkins’ archive provides fascinating insight into the everyday life of a Hamiltonian, artist and woman immersed in domestic work.