‘It was wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. I had no idea what was inside, but I had to promise not to open it till she died.’
And he kept his promise, did journalist and later gallery owner, Joseph Mulholland. Until he opened that gift to him he had no idea who she had been. She never spoke of it during their friendship. At the time she passed over the present to him Joe’s daughter was battling leukaemia so he had much on his mind as he stashed the parcel away in the back of a linen cupboard. It was later, in 1969, when his neighbour did finally succumb to mother time, that Joe, who in the meantime had been invited to be executor of her will, remembered his vow from years before. What he found when he retrieved that package eventually bought Margaret Watkins back from obscurity – so much so that in 2013 Canada Post commemorated her on a stamp issue.
He thought he knew her back story pretty well. Margaret and Joe had become firm friends and on many occasions, over the years, had talked long into the night about their lives – but she never let on. To him she was the sweet elderly lady who shared the street with him. Nothing in her tales prepared him for what was revealed the day of the opening of her gift to him; her gift to two nations. Inside were thousands of photographs and negatives – a treasure trove of memories, a treasure trove of art. Joe Mulholland is now in his seventies and is Margaret Watkins’ champion; the keeper of her flame. Thanks to his efforts to bring her in from the chill of obscurity Watkins is now recognised as being ‘…a highly distinguished and important figure…’ in the story of photography. It is significant that two countries, Canada and Scotland, claim her as their own as galleries line up to display her oeuvre – an oeuvre partially contained in that package.
Watkins was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1884. In 1913 she moved to Boston, gaining employment at a photographic studio. From that point on the art became her life – until circumstances took a more notable future in it away from her. But even after she ceased snapping, later events showed it was never far from her mind. She took photography seriously from the start, enrolling in Clarence H White’s Maine Summer School. White was a notable practitioner and not adverse to having relations with his students as well. That may or may not have been the case with Margaret, but he quickly caught on that she had the chops to make a name for herself and became her mentor. This led to one of her career setbacks. He willed her his artistic legacy, but was challenged in court by his widow. Bizarrely it was found that Margaret was entitled to his photographic images but she was ordered to sell them to the spouse for a fraction of their worth.
By 1920 Watkins was the editor of a leading journal as photography became increasingly well regarded as an art. She was also freelancing for advertising agencies. She taught her skills as well, passing on her knowledge to others who, like her, could see photography as their calling.
But then family called and she felt obliged to leave all she had achieved behind her and start anew across the Atlantic. Four aged aunts were in dire need of a carer and Margaret felt obligated. For a time she could continue on, establishing herself in Glasgow and taking on commissions that saw her travel around Britain and across the Channel. As the aunts became even more frail, though, she was forced to restrict herself to snapping industrial Glaswegian landscapes and the city’s denizens.
After Joe opened his package he wondered if more lay in her large residence opposite. It did – an incredible cache was found, much of it now housed in Mulholland’s own shop-front for her talent – Glasgow’s Hidden Lane Gallery. He found advertising images, her work in social commentary and luminously lit nudes. He also unearthed an image of her as a young lady and found it difficult to reconcile this ‘…imperious…’ self portrait with ‘…her dark hair tied in a chignon, looking down her nose, regally, at the camera.’ with the old dear of his friendship.
The images he uncovered proved that Margaret W was a most versatile practitioner. Her early still lifes, such as the one featured on the Canadian stamp in her honour, ‘The Kitchen Sink’ (1919), caused some controversy amongst critics. Most, though, were of the opinion that, what she produced with these, were ‘…composed like a painter and tended to see ordinary things as very beautiful.’ There were also her portraits of the celebrities of the day taken in her Greenwich Village studio, including that of great composer Rachmaninoff. After being removed from the New York scene she was more limited in what she could produce. Now it tended to be more the everyday recording of what she discerned around her. Eventually her nursing duties made even this difficult and she more or less gave the game away, disappearing from view until her recent rediscovery. But her moment had really passed the day she left the US.
Outwardly, according to Joe, she remained chipper till the end. He did find evidence in her abode that all was not as it seemed. There was a scribbled note that gave an insight to the real condition of her mind, to the effect that she ‘…was living in a state of curdled despair…I’m doing the utmost to cope with a well-nigh hopeless situation.’ He also found she had packed her bags to return to the scene of her days of photographic pomp – to return to New York.
Anne Quirk is Margaret Watkins. The sublime novel, ‘The Illuminations’, has bought Watkins’ story back and to a wider audience in the guise of a fictional protagonist. Anne has dementia. Her memories of the past are fragmentary. She is struggling to remain semi-independent – not in a fine house next door to Joe M, but in supported accommodation. Here there is also a neighbour who takes her in hand, helping her through the day so she can cope. Maureen has had her troubles too, but she has commenced to piece together Anne’s back-story. Anne’s aggrieved daughter Alice fills in some gaps too, but it is with conflict-damaged soldier Luke, her grandson, that she shares her greatest bond. Through Luke, author Andrew O’Hagan presents all the ugliness of our current Middle East involvements. Luke has returned from Afghanistan battered and bruised mentally. He takes to the Mulholland task, once he discovers a similar trove of photographic images, to bring Anne back in from the cold. So it is potentially win-win. Anne’s legacy gives him something to focus on, he gives her one final escape from the fog that is enveloping her mind.
And then there’s Harry, her mysterious lover from the post war years who encouraged her with her artistic pursuit. When it really counted, though, he left her in the lurch. A terrible tragedy followed that caused Anne to lose much of her will for a while. In her memory Blackpool, where her liaisons with the married beau occurred, was the place where she was happiest. So, at the end, that’s where Luke takes her. In doing so the remainder of her story is unravelled. Even the Beatles get a cameo. The pair arrive in time for the famous illuminations that light up the resort each year. By now the reader realises that the future of both these characters is on the up and up, even if poor Anne no longer has the wherewithal to fully realise that. This is helped immensely by a letter from a Canadian gallery, one that had cottoned on to her historical worth as well.
Through Anne Quirk, Andrew O’Hagan, together with good neighbour Joseph Mulholland, have seen to it that a champion of early women photographers has re-emerged and taken her rightful place. As for the novel itself, it is a fine and worthy book. By the end it is, as well, a compelling read. It was long listed for the Man Booker, but sadly didn’t make the final cut. Pity that. O’Hagan’s ultimately very moving and positive tome is thoroughly recommended by this reader.