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WORK OF THE WEEK | 6 January 2020

CAG.57 Margaret Clarke, The Dressmaker, 1924, oil on board, 57 x 44.5 cm. Donated, Lennox Robinson. © the artist’s estate

Nollaig na mBan shona daoibh! We’re celebrating Women’s Little Christmas with our first WORK OF THE WEEK of the year.

The Dressmaker (1924) is an understated and intimate painting by Margaret Clarke, which was donated to us by her friend, the Irish playwright Lennox Robinson (1886-1958). It offers the viewer a window into 1920s Ireland, as two women are shown in a time-honoured yet modern relationship – dressmaker and client – and embody the social changes of the age, which include shorter hair and hemlines!

The composition focuses on these two figures, and their attention to detail, and allows the viewer to project their questions: is this a new garment or something that needs alterations, is it symbolic or for a special occasion?

Ambitious and highly skilled, Margaret Clarke (1884-1961), née Crilley was born in Newry, County Down. She won a scholarship in 1905 to study at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, receiving her teaching certificate in 1911 and subsequently working as an assistant to her teacher, Sir William Orpen (1878-1931). She married stained-glass artist, illustrator, and classmate Harry Clarke (1889-1931) on 31 October 1914. Exhibiting her work regularly at the Royal Hibernian Academy, from 1913 until 1953, Margaret Clarke won medals at each of the Aonach Tailteann.

Until relatively recently, however, her work has often been overshadowed by that of her husband, something she was not unaccustomed to in her lifetime, becoming Director of the Harry Clarke Stained Glass Studios after his early death. Writing in response to a review of her 1924 solo exhibition by Thomas Bodkin (1887-1961), she asked: ‘I hope I shall be able to attract your appreciation of my individual efforts as a painter, rather than the fact I am the wife of one artist and the pupil of another.’ National Gallery of Ireland, Dublinand F.E. McWilliam Gallery & Studio, Banbridge held a retrospective of her work in 2017.

The Dressmaker (1924) by Margaret Clarke is featured in MYSTERY & IMAGINATION: Harry Clarke Watercolours until 2 February 2020.

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