Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies. National Gallery of Canada presents first major retrospective of this Canadian photographer’s work

OTTAWA, ON - October 3, 2012

October 5, 2012 to January 6, 2013

Starting this Friday, October 5, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) will unveil 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, will run 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.

A fortuitous discovery
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.

About the artist
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.

About the curator
Lori Pauli is the curator of Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies. Associate Curator of Photographs at the National Gallery of Canada, she has organized numerous exhibitions and catalogues including Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky in 2003, Acting The Part: Photography as Theatre in 2006, Utopia/Dystopia: The Photographs of Geoffrey James in 2008 and, most recently Wonder and Invention: 19th Century British Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada in 2011. She has also published on the work of photographers Diane Arbus, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Gary Schneider, Stella Simon, and Edward Weston.

Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies
is accompanied by a 157-page catalogue published by the National Gallery of Canada. It contains an introduction by Joseph Mulholland, friend of Watkins and the major lender of her work to the exhibition, and an essay by the exhibition curator and NGC Associate Curator of Photographs, Lori Pauli. It is available in soft cover in English at a cost of $49 at the NGC Bookstore or online at

Exhibition opening
On Thursday, October 4 at 6 p.m., members of the public are invited to attend the exhibition’s official opening. The curator, Lori Pauli, along with Joseph Mulholland and other lenders to the exhibition will be in attendance. Free admission. In the Great Hall.

Meet the Collector
On Friday, October 5, at 12:15 p.m., Joseph Mulholland, of Glasgow, Scotland will talk about Margaret Watkins. This event (in English with simultaneous interpretation) will be held in the Lecture Hall. Admission is free.

Meet the Curator
On Friday, October 12, at 12:15 p.m., visitors are invited to accompany curator Lori Pauli on a walk through the Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies exhibition. In English, with a bilingual question period. Admission included with entrance to the NGC.

Adult art tours
At 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, October 16, and Friday, November 16. Supplementary ticket required. Also available for groups, upon request. Call 613-998-8888.

Includes admission to the NGC Collection. Tickets are $9 for adults, $7 for seniors and full-time students, $4 for youths aged 12 to 19 years, and $18 for families (two adults and three children). Admission is free of charge for children under 12 and for Members of the Gallery. Free admission to the collection on Thursdays, from 5 pm to 8 pm.

Opening hours
Closed on Mondays. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm, and on Thursdays until 8 pm. Open on Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day at noon, and between December 26 and 31. Closed on December 25 and January 1.

About the National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada is home to the most important collections of historical and contemporary Canadian art, including the extensive collection of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. The Gallery also maintains Canada's premier collection of European Art from the 14th to the 21st century, as well as important works of American, Asian and Indigenous Art and renowned international collections of prints, drawings and photographs. Created in 1880, the National Gallery of Canada has played a key role in Canadian culture for well over a century. Among its principal missions is to increase access to excellent works of art for all Canadians. To do so, it maintains an extensive touring art exhibition programme. For more information:

Sources: Lori Pauli, Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies, National Gallery of Canada, 2012; Katherine Stauble, Margaret Watkins: Of Sight and Sound, Vernissage (Fall 2012), National Gallery of Canada.

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For more information, please contact:

Josée-Britanie Mallet
Senior Media and Public Relations Officer
National Gallery of Canada