In 1927 an English newspaper referred to the “Cuala group of artists”, these were artists mainly women who provided designs for Cuala Industries, primarily for prints published by the Press. 1 Of the nearly forty artists in this group over two-thirds were female. A number of these artists have faded from Irish art historiography and the visual history of Cuala Press is often only discussed in terms of the Yeats family members, Elizabeth the Press’s founder, her sister and Cuala embroideress Lily, artist brother Jack who provided designs, and William the Press’s literary editor.
One of the most prolific designers for Cuala during the 1930s was Eileen Constance Booth (nee Peet) (1906-2000) who created more than twenty illustrations for reproduction on cards and for individual prints. Born into a Quaker family in Dalkey, Co. Dublin in 1906 she studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, and for a short period at the renowned Slade School of Art in Britain’s capital, and most interestingly from a Cuala Press point of view as a printmaker specifically in photo-engraving, the method of reproduction used by the Press for its prints. The Cuala Press Business archive holds Booth’s student card associated with the “London County Council School of Photo-Engraving & Lithography” for 1931/2 (TCD MS 11535/9/11/4). The card records that she won first prize for a landscape design in a student exhibition. Traditional Irish rural scenes would become a mainstay in her work and was her preferred subject matter for the Press. It is likely the Eileen first came to Cuala’s attention when she won first prize at the 1926 National Art Competition in ‘Illustration in colour’.
Two of the judges were Lily and Jack B. Yeats. Her correspondence with Elizabeth Yeats discussing family issues indicated that a close personal friendship developed alongside their professional relationship around artistic commissions. One of Elizabeth’s last commissions to Booth in 1937 was to design a greeting card for the “Irish Minister to the Vatican”, William Macaulay, and his new wife and Cuala patron, Irish-American papal duchess, Genevieve Brady [TCD MS 11535/9/10/7]. 2 The card featured an image of the Magi, a verse by Susan L. Mitchell, and was printed in an edition of six hundred, and hand-coloured.
Some years earlier, Booth had received a commission from the Cuala Press’s editor, William B. Yeats, to illustrate a song for his series of musical broadsides, published by Elizabeth in 1935. 3 Writing to Booth the poet said that he was “particularly struck by your work” and requested a design to accompany the traditional ballad “The night before Larry was stretched” [TCD MS 11535/9/10/3]. William quickly followed this with a second commission for the same publication to illustrate “The Groves of Blarney” [TCD MS 11535/9/10/4].
In 1905 Jack B. Yeats was the first artist to create designs for prints for the Dun Emer and Cuala Presses and arguably his early work laid the markers for an in-house style. Cuala prints were produced from industrially produced metal or ‘zinco’ blocks, using the technique of photoengraving. Original pen and ink drawings were photographically transferred to the metal and transformed to relief blocks; each element of the drawing faithfully reproduced. Jack’s early Dun Emer and Cuala Press style can be compared stylistically to contemporary woodblock designs, stylised forms defined by heavy, bold expressive outlines and contour lines. These blocks were hand-printed by Elizabeth and her assistants on handmade paper which were then coloured by hand in watercolour and occasionally gouache. Apart from specific commissions, these printed images were dominated by scenes set in recognisable Irish landscapes appealing to both local and diasporic clientele. While Eileen’s work conforms to an in-house Cuala Press Style, her work can also be described at times as more illustrative and decorative as evident in the later Broadside commissions and the Macaulay-Brady card.
The distinctively Irishness of their prints placed Cuala firmly among the cultural groups that underpinned the nationalist movement and calls for political independence. Cuala prints gave Irish people a view of themselves as proud, distinctively Irish, set in their own place, and a distance from stereotypical bucolic ‘Irish’ characters in knee breeches and tall green felt hats, or raven-haired, rosy-cheeked and wearing stark white aprons of many earlier Irish genre scenes. Now, the West of Ireland’s distinctive landscape dominated the backdrops. As the new state was emerging the west was invested with a cultural capital, bestowed on it by revivalist writers, artists, and nationalist politicians – the location became an essential source of national identity. Here the Gaelic way of life and language still endured– more so than in the English influenced east. Some Cuala prints, exampled by Booth and others most notably Beatrice Glenavy, Gaelicised religious scenes associating Irishness with Catholicism, something that was seen as Irish and crucially not British, further signifying Irish identity as non-British.
This promotion of an Irish-Ireland identity, by the Cuala Press, rooted in the Irish revival and nationalist politics, is evidenced in the Booth prints and designs from the TCD Business archive some of which are illustrated here. For source material Eileen Booth travelled to Achill staying in a hotel owned by a younger sister of another Cuala Press artist, Dorothy Blackham.
Booth’s style is defined by strong contrasting areas of black and white, she is unafraid of large areas of dense black, her professional training informing her design sensibilities. Like other Cuala prints, colour is used judiciously. Booth successfully employed a minimum range of colours for maximum effect and became a prominent members of the “Cuala group of artists”.