A Life Revealed in Archives

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Filed under Library News:  Archives & Research Collections Mills
Western Art and the New Era. Photo of a decorative table lamp.

Western Art and the New Era. 

During the course of a normal day, we create many kinds of documents:  letters, photographs, grocery lists, notes, scribbles and maybe even a diary entry.  Many of these personal documents are ephemeral in nature but we keep what is really important to us. It is such documents, which exemplify the pattern of an ordinary life and one that is interrupted with personal events and meaningful turning points that are found in the Margaret Watkins archive housed in the McMaster Archives. Watkins’ life and sojourns can be traced in three cities – Hamilton, Ontario, New York City and Glasgow, Scotland. 

Best known for art and advertising photography executed in New York in the 1920s, Watkins was active in the Clarence White School of photography and in the movement from pictorialism to modernism. The William Ready Division acquired the Watkins archive with the aid of Mary O’Connor, Professor of English and Cultural Studies in 2002. O’Connor relates the story of how the archives came to McMaster: Watkins, who lived in Glasgow during her later life looking after two aunts, gave her neighbor, Joseph Mulholland a box, and asked him not to open it until after her death. "He obeyed her wishes and when he opened the box -- this was in the early 1970s -- he found these stunning photographs. She had never spoken about her art at all”. As Dr. Mary O’Connor recalls of first seeing Watkins’ photographs exhibited 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. Selections from the Margaret Watkins archives were displayed at the McMaster Museum of Art on March 13 to highlight the occasion of the Author’s Talk given by Mary O'Connor and Katherine Tweedie, co-authors of Seduced by Modernity: The Photography of Margaret Watkins (2007) in conjuction with the current exhibition at the McMaster Museum of Art, “Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies.

Written by Renu Barrett