Women in Art 5: Grace Henry

Grace Henry

Grace Mitchell (1868-1953) was raised in Aberdeen, and exhibited her early work with the Aberdeen Artists Society. Leaving Aberdeen around 1899, she pursued her artistic studies in Brussels in the Ernest Blanc Garic Academy. The Academy accepted female students, but they had to use a separate entrance. In Paris, she attended the Decluse Academy, and then the Academy Julian where she met Paul Henry. Through Paul Henry, the American artist James McNeill Whistler came to influence her work, leading to the prevalence of nocturnal scenes and affecting her choice both of subject and colour.

Her painting The Girl in White (1912 Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin) is reminiscent of Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862, National Gallery of Art, Washington) in its subject, its controlled brushwork and as a tonal study. Paul Henry and Grace Mitchell were married in London in 1903, having moved there a couple of years earlier to further their artistic careers. Their trip to Achill in 1910, intended to last a fortnight, became a nine-year stay. Both artists painted extensively during these years, but in very different styles. Paul Henry’s Irish landscapes are typically muted in tone and focus on lake and mountain scenes. In contrast, Grace Henry often painted nocturnal scenes, working out of doors but using artificial lights to aid her in her compositions. In Evening Star, Achill (1912, Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin) her use of colour is particularly striking in the vivid blue of the sky. Her works from this period show both the use of a rich palette, and a concern with atmospheric effects. She also painted figural groups in the west of Ireland. Top of the Hill (c.1920, Limerick City Gallery of Art) is a warm scene which gives a sense not just of the western landscape, but also a sense of the community. The painting shows a group of women stopping for a chat at the top of a hill. One woman looks out of the painting, smiling at the viewer. Their shawls and head-scarves, and the green fields and rolling clouds, are typical of portrayals of rural Ireland. However, Henry’s style, with its bold colours and heavy outlines, is very striking.

Along with her husband Grace Henry was a founding member of the Dublin Society of Painters which sought to promote young Irish artists. During the 1920s and 1930s she travelled in France and Italy, training under André Lhote, whose students Evie Hone, Mary Swanzy and Mainie Jellett were to bring Cubism to Ireland. However, his influence is not as strong on Grace Henry’s work, which never fully adopts a Cubist style. Grace Henry’s work has often been overshadowed by that of her husband, and the inscription on one of her paintings in the Hugh Lane Gallery reads “Mrs Paul Henry”. However, an examination of their work shows that Grace Henry was the more adventurous of the two – her works are more varied, and show modern influences, such as that of Cubism and Japanese prints. The Henrys exhibited together in St Stephen’s Green Gallery and the Magee Gallery in Belfast, among other venues, up until their formal separation in the early 1930s. Following this, she continued to travel and to paint. Grace Henry was made an honorary member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1949 and her work can now be seen in many Irish art institutions.

Women in Art is an ongoing series I am writing for TN2 Magazine, with the aim of rediscovering works by Irish women artists, and showing the important contributions these artists have made to the development of Irish art.

Women in Art 4: Susan ‘Lilly’ and Elizabeth ‘Lollie’ Yeats


The painter Jack B Yeats and his brother, poet W. B. Yeats are both well known figures of the Irish Revival period, however, their sisters Susan ‘Lily’ Yeats (1866-1949) and Elizabeth ‘Lollie’ Yeats (1868-1940) also made important contributions to Irish culture, both in terms of publishing and arts and crafts.

Both sisters studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, and later took classes in the RDS. In 1903, they set up the Dun Emer Guild with Evelyn Gleeson. This enterprise aimed to promote the Irish Literary Revival and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland, as well as offering employment for Irish women. By 1905 they were employing thirty women. Susan ran classes on Irish culture and language to educate the workers about their national heritage. The name Dun Emer (or Fort of Emer) refers to Cúchulainn’s wife Emer whose beauty and artistic skills were renowned, thus it reflects both the role of women in the organisation, and their nationalist aims as folklore was also central to the Irish Literary Revival. Their manifesto of 1903 stated that “Everything as far as possible is Irish… The designs are also of the spirit and tradition of the country.”  Evelyn Gleeson managed tapestries and rugs, while Susan was responsible for the embroidery side of the guild, and was a skilful designer. Her studies with May Morris meant the designs reflected the style of William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement, however they had a conspicuously Irish bent with patterns of Celtic interlace, or the use of Irish wool. Elizabeth had studied at Froebel college and worked as a visiting art teacher in several Irish institutions. She also published four painting manuals. She was responsible for the printing press at the Dun Emer Guild, and brought the experience she had gained at the Women’s Printing Society in London to this venture. The first book printed was W.B. Yeats’ In The Seven Woods (1903). Eleven books were produced by this press, but it was not financially viable and Elizabeth had disagreements with W.B. Yeats, who acted as an editor for the press, and with Evelyn Gleeson. Other productions by the Press included bookplates, broadsides, greeting cards, hand coloured prints and privately commissioned books. Susan travelled to New York with her father to show the work of the guild at the Irish Industrial Exhibition of 1907.

In 1908 the sisters split with the Dun Emer Guild and formed Cuala Industries. The Cuala Press was the only Arts and Crafts press to be managed and staffed by women. The designers for embroidered banners included Jack B Yeats, Pamela Colman Smith and Mary Cotter Yeats (whose illustration of Elizabeth and Susan Yeats representing printing and needlework accompanies this article). Susan herself too created many of the designs, and won three awards for her work at an RDS exhibition in 1909. Susan was frequently ill from overwork, and in 1932 the embroidery section of the Cuala Industries was closed. The Press continued, but again ran into financial difficulties. It published modern Irish writers, including the work of W.B. Yeats and illustrations by Jack B Yeats. This reflected its staunchly Irish character, insisted upon by Elizabeth. Following the 1916 Easter Rising, and in connection with her growing republican sympathies, Elizabeth published Thomas MacDonagh’s 1917 address. After Elizabeth’s death in 1940, the Press was run by Georgie Yeats and Elizabeth’s assistant Mollie Gill until 1969.

The Yeats sisters were highly significant in moving the Irish Cultural Revival into the realm of the visual arts, and through their promotion of embroidery they were central to the Irish Arts and Crafts movement. Their niece Anne Yeats (1919-2001) was a painter and a set designer working with the Abbey Theatre, the Cork Opera House, the Olympia, the Gaiety and Lyric Theatre. Her training as a painter began with Elizabeth Yeats, and she later studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School and in Paris. Her painting is modern and experimental, and she also produced illustrations and lithographs. Another highly significant contribution she made to Irish society was the donation of the Jack B Yeats sketchbooks to the National Gallery of Ireland.

Women in Art is an ongoing series I am writing for TN2 Magazine, with the aim of rediscovering works by Irish women artists, and showing the important contributions these artists have made to the development of Irish art.

Women in Art 3: The Cubists

The role women have played in the development of Irish art is clear when it comes to the emergence of modern art styles. It was the pioneering artwork of a trio of female artists (Evie Hone, Mainie Jellet and Mary Swanzy) that saw the introduction of Cubist and abstract art to Ireland.

Women in Art: The Cubists

In Irish art, women have often been instrumental in the development of modern styles. The main instigators in bringing Cubism to Ireland in the 1920s were Evie Hone, Mainie Jellet and Mary Swanzy. While their innovative work was not appreciated in an Ireland that was increasingly conservative and nationalistic following the Civil War, the progress they made is now celebrated.

Artworks by painter and stained-glass artist Evie Hone.

Artworks by painter and stained-glass artist Evie Hone.

Evie Hone is a well known stained glass artist, whose work Four Green Fields is now situated in government buildings.  She first met fellow Cubist Mainie Jellet in the Westminister School of Art, when studying under Walter Sickert. The two later travelled to Paris together, studying first under André Lhote and then under Albert Gleizes. Hone started off with cubist paintings like Jellet, but later moved to working in stained glass. The backgrounds of these windows often feature geometric patterning reflecting the avant-garde style she developed through her training in Paris. Hone was highly religious, having spent a year in an Anglican convent, and this is often seen in the themes of her work.

Mainie Jellet's abstract paintings.

Mainie Jellet’s abstract paintings.

Mainie Jellet’s abstract compositions focus on line, rhythm, colour and form. Jellet sought to explore extreme forms of non-representational art. Her dependence on form and colour lead to the creation of an austere abstract style. Cubism was not initially well received in Ireland. Jellet first exhibited her abstract works at a Society of Dublin Painters show in 1923.  Critics were confused by the new style;  an Irish Times reviewer described her work as “an insoluble puzzle” and another critic referred to “the sub-human art of Miss Jellet”.

She later toned down her modern style, combining it with religious themes, hoping this would have a greater appeal for the public and that they would come to appreciate her abstract aesthetics. Her work is now hung in galleries across the country.

Mary Swanzy's Cubist paintings.

Mary Swanzy’s Cubist paintings.

Mary Swanzy’s work is also abstract, with a focus on shape and pattern, showing a strong influence of the work of Paul Cézanne. Swanzy was well educated, both artistically and academically. Her early teachers included May Manning and John B Yeats, and she later studied under both Delacluse and Colarossi. When studying in Paris, Swanzy visited the modernist writer Gertrude Stein who had works by Picasso and Matisse in her collection. She held her first exhibition in the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1905. Her work gradually became more abstract as she experimented with colour and form. Swanzy did a lot of travelling, including visits to Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. In 1925 she moved to London, meaning her influence on Irish art was not as strong as that of Hone and Jellet.

In an Irish Times review of the 2013 exhibition Analysing Cubism, Mainie Jellet is spoken of as the Irish artist who most directly addressed Cubism in her own work. This opinion, so different from the one expressed in the same publication ninety years earlier, shows how the work of Mainie Jellet and her contemporaries has been re-evaluated and is now seen as crucial to the development of Irish art.

Women in Art is an ongoing series I am writing for TN2 Magazine, with the aim of rediscovering works by Irish women artists, and showing the important contributions these artists have made to the development of Irish art.




Women in Art 2: Letitia Hamilton

Did you know that the Olympics used to feature an art section? Ireland has won a few medals in this category – most famously Jack B Yeats’ silver medal for The Liffey Swim in 1924. However, Letitia Hamilton also won one of the last Olympic medals for art in 1948. Read all about her career below in the second of my Women in Art series (originally written for tn2 magazine), celebrating the achievements of Irish women artists. Also – for more on art in the Olympics check out this very interesting article.

Women in Art – Letitia Hamilton


An image of the Letitia Hamilton painting from the Hugh Lane Gallery, and an original leaflet for an exhibition of paintings of Venice by the two sisters in St Stephen’s Green Gallery in 1924.

Letitia Hamilton, painter of landscapes and rural scenes, hailed from an artistic family – her sister Eva was a portrait painter, and the two often exhibited together. Their great-grandmother Catherine Hamilton (née Tighe) was a watercolourist who also produced satirical drawings, and their cousin Rose Barton became the first female member of the Royal Watercolour Society. Barton and her close friend Helen Mabel Trevor offered a model to the sisters as professional painters during a period when women artists and watercolour painting were beginning to receive long overdue recognition. The Hamilton sisters came from an Anglo-Irish background, their home was Hamwood House of County Meath. As their father could only provide a dowry for one of his six daughters, Eva and Letitia both remained unmarried and through their art brought the main income for the household when they lived with their mother and sisters in later life.

The Hamilton sisters studied under William Orpen at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. Letitia also studied enamel at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and she was commended by both the Metropolitan School and the Board of Education National Commission who awarded her a silver medal in 1912. The use of the Art Nouveau style in her enamel work foreshadows the modernist leanings of her later paintings. Initially the more ambitious of the two, Eva was the first to exhibit, showing work with the Water Colour Society of Ireland in 1898. She later turned to portraiture and became known for informal group portraits, as well as individuals against plain backgrounds.

Letitia first exhibited in 1902. While she was slower in developing her style than her sister, it was Letitia who engaged with the avant-garde movements current on the Continent, and whose modernist style differentiated her from the “accomplished” manner typical of lady painters hailing from the Big Houses.

In 1915 Letitia and Eva exhibited works from their travels in Holland. Letitia was a frequent traveller both in Europe and Ireland, and was influenced by the prevailing modern European artistic trends of the 20s and 30s. She also exhibited internationally – in London (Royal Academy, Burlington Gallery and Kensington Art Gallery), Scotland and the Salon in Paris. It is believed that she first came under the influence of the Impressionists when in France with Anne St John Partridge, whom she was studying under at the time.

1920 is seen as the turning point for Letitia, when her work reached its mature style. In this year she became a founding member of the Society of Dublin Painters, a group encouraging young artists with avant-garde tendencies.  Around this time her signature changed from MH (May Hamilton) to LMH (signifying her full name Letitia Marion (‘May’) Hamilton). She worked by creating small oil sketches, which were later developed into finished works. She painted rapidly, and had a loose and fluid touch.

Letitia first travelled to Venice in the early 1920s, and a booklet on a joint exhibition of Venetian views (The Stephen’s Green Gallery, February 1924) can be seen in the image accompanying this article. When in Venice, Letitia painted on a gondola studio lent to her by her friend, artist Ada Longfield. These Venetian works are among her best, and show the development of her mature style. They are characterised by a looseness of brushwork, and an interest in the effects of light. She worked in pastel shades, and made strong use of outlines. This new palette was later applied to her Irish landscapes, as were her experiments with painting light during her travels in Europe.

In works such as the atmospheric Snow in County Down (part of the Hugh Lane collection, see image above) her use of impasto techniques and work with the palette knife can be seen in the weight of the snow on the branches. This thick, vigorous application of paint and expressive brushwork shows the influence of Van Gogh on her work. The Impressionistic effects of dappled light can also be seen in the use of purples and yellows in the snow.

In 1948 Letitia was awarded a bronze medal in the arts section of the Olympic Games for her painting of the Meath Hunt Point to Point Races, the only Irish medal that year, and one of the last Olympic medals for art to be awarded. She became President of the Society of Dublin Painters in the late 1950s, continuing to paint throughout the 1960s in spite of her failing eyesight. Her last exhibition was held in 1963, the year before her death, in the Dawson Gallery, Dublin.

In her later years, she collected the work of fellow modern Irish artists such as Evie Hone, Louis LeBroquy and Jack B Yeats. The reputations of these respective artists have outlived that of the Hamilton sisters, but it is clear that they both played significant roles in the Irish art world of their time. Letitia in particular is important when examining the application of modern European movements to Irish art – something I will be returning to in the next instalment of this series, which covers the Irish Cubists – Evie Hone, Mainie Jellet and Mary Swanzy.

Women in Art 1: Sarah Purser

I have been writing a series on women in Irish art since October 2013 for TN2 Magazine, a cultural magazine published by students in Trinity College Dublin. The editors have kindly given me permission to reprint the articles here. The series aims to examine work by Irish women artists, and look at the contribution they have made to the art world. I am still writing the series – so there is plenty of art to come!

The first article focuses on Sarah Purser, a painter and stained glass artist who was influential in the establishment of many Irish art institutions. It certainly seems like she was a force to be reckoned with!

Women in Art: Sarah Purser


This piece is the first in a series exploring the works of Irish female artists. Across the art world, women have typically been left out of the Western canon. Art historian Linda Nochlin speaks of this in her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” stating that there was little chance of success in the art world for those “who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class, and above all, male”.  Feminist art theorists seek to rewrite the history of art, recovering these lost female artists.

TN2 recognises that this series is a tricky project, in that there is the risk of seeing the achievements of these artists as solely defined by gender, but it is a risk we are willing to take in order to draw attention to these artists, and show their importance to the art word, regardless of their gender. In Ireland there is a wealth of female artists who have made significant contributions to the development of the art world. They have been pioneers – be it founding institutions such as An Túr Gloine and Cuala Press, or bringing Cubism to this country. However, despite the changing views of their importance in the history of Irish art, they continue to be largely unrepresented in art collections, and unknown to the Irish public. This series will offer an introduction to these artists – their achievements, significance and works.

Sarah Henrietta Purser (1848-1943) was an Irish painter and stained glass artist, as well as an enthusiastic patron of the arts. Purser studied in Switzerland, Dublin and Paris. She first exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy of Art in 1872. Her studies in Paris lead to the adoption of both plein air and realist techniques. She began exhibiting portraits in the RHA in 1881, and in 1884 her portrait of Henry Gore Booth was described as being “utterly free from the cut and dry effect of the conventional portrait”. Following this, her portraits were displayed extensively in the RHA and in 1890 the RHA awarded her honorary academician status, the only recognition given to women at the time.

Her studio was a lively centre of creativity and debate for men and women alike, frequented by figures such as Douglas Hyde, W.B. Yeats, Maud Gonne and Constance Markievicz.  In 1903 she founded An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower), a stained glass enterprise active from 1903 to 1944, which involved such artists as Harry Clarke and Evie Hone.  It was founded following the Irish Cultural Revival of the nineteenth century, to encourage the making of Irish stained glass. Purser’s role included creating stained glass panels, but also recruiting artists and delegating commissions. Her social and artistic connections were invaluable in this venture.  Purser continued to arrange exhibitions, both at home and abroad, of modern artworks such as those by the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, and was instrumental in the setting up of the Hugh Lane gallery (then known as the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art). She was also on the board of the National Gallery of Ireland, and established the Friends of the National Collections.

Sarah Purser achieved full RHA status in 1924, becoming the first female artist to do so. Some of Purser’s paintings are on display in the Provost’s House, and one of her stained glass windows can be seen in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. The image accompanying this article is of The Blue Hat (1923), an oil painting of Kathleen Kearney, Purser’s favourite model. It is one of a series of works showing leaders of the nationalist movement. It also reveals a lot about Purser’s technique – such as the influence of Impressionism in her work, seen in the loose brushwork.  As an artist, but even more so as a patron and organiser, Sarah Purser was one of the leading figures of Irish art in the  twentieth century.