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Cluna Studios. A competitor for Cuala Press art prints

Billy Shortall.

While this blog series focuses on the Cuala Industries, it is interesting to look to their Irish contemporaries working in craft printing.  With its establishment in 1922, Cluna Studios emerged as the main competitor to the Cuala Press and Industries, most noticeably in the profitable line of hand coloured art prints and cards.

In ‘Announcements by Members of the Guild of Irish Art-Workers’ published in the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland and Guild of Irish Art-Workers Seventh Exhibition catalogue of 1925, notices for the Cuala and Cluna studios faced each other. Both advertised their hand-coloured prints, cards, calendars, embroidery, and painted wood items such as, candlesticks, bowls, boxes, hairbrushes, and so on. Cuala alone sold hand-printed books. Like Cuala, and the Dun Emer studies, the Cluna Studio was an arts and crafts enterprise established by women craftworkers, namely Gertrude (Gertie) Grew and Margaret (Daisy) O’Keefe, when Ireland was on the cusp of independence.

Gertrude (Gertie) Grew, A.R.C.A. (1883-1976), was born into a well-to-do brewing family. Her earliest art training was at the Belfast School of Art, where she won the Dunville travelling scholarship among other awards. At the Royal College of Art, South Kensington she studied both design and painting, ultimately focusing on the former. After South Kensington she took charge of Lady Egerton School of Craft, a workers’ guild, where a pair of candlesticks for Britain’s Queen Mary was a notable commission. Grew’s health deteriorated, and she moved to Dublin to recuperate in 1921. She remained in the city and continuing with her previous career, she, in partnership with O’Keefe, founded the Cluna Studios located at 39 Harcourt Street, Dublin. As a craftworker at Cluna, Grew focused on metalwork and embroidery and was a multi-award winner at the Tailteann Games’ Art Exhibitions in 1924, 28, and 32. However, this was not Grew’s first time to exhibit in Dublin, early exhibits included works at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1911 and 1914.

Grew was an effective organiser and champion of Irish arts and crafts and was actively involved in organising and promoting exhibitions. She was one of the main organisers of the 1925 Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland exhibition. As Honorary Secretary of the 1932 Aonach Tailteann art exhibition she delivered a talk on national radio, then named 2RN on contemporary Irish Arts and Crafts. She was a selector for the Exhibition of Irish Art associated with the Chicago 1933 Worlds’ Fair. At the same exhibition, Cluna exhibited ‘two processional banners from [her studio], both in appliqued poplin, designed by Miss Quigley and Miss M. O’Keefe’ and executed by Grew.

Margaret O’Keefe (1888-1979), or Daisy as she was commonly known, grew up at Faythe House, County Wexford. Her family were prosperous, with business interests in the malting industry. She trained at the Metropolitan School of Art Dublin, and she excelled at enamel work. There, she was student of Oswald Reeves (1870-1967) the English-born metalwork master.

Margaret O’Keefe, Spring, enamel.

Appearing in the various yearly registers for the Metropolitan School of Art from 1909, her exhibition commendations and prizes are notable. She won prizes at various Arts and Crafts and Tailteann Games art exhibitions for enamelling, drawing, and printmaking. At the Irish Art Exhibition in Chicago 1933 she showed fifteen works; various designs, painted wood, and nine Cluna prints. Between 1916 and 1921 O’Keefe exhibited ten works at the RHA, including four portraits and three designs for illustration.

Margaret O’Keefe (1888-1979), The girl in the scarlet shawl, 40.7 x 50.8 cm. Exhibited at the 1917 annual RHA exhibition. This was O’Keefe’s most expensive painting shown at the RHA (£21).

Early in her career, O’Keefe provided book illustrations for Colm Ó’Lochlainn’s Candles Press publications. At the 1925 Arts and Crafts exhibition, she again exhibited designs for colour reproduction; an enamel plaque called Spring; and photo-engraved hand-coloured Cluna prints, mostly to her own designs; and lithographed greeting cards and postcards.

The early 1920s is regarded as the highpoint of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement with the country having developed an international reputation for stained glass, metalwork, enamelling, private press printing, textiles, and other crafts, through enterprises and individuals such as, Cuala Industries and Press, Harry Clarke, An Túr Gloine, Mia Cranwill, Dún Emer Guild, and others. At this time 39 Harcourt Street became a hub of Arts and Crafts activity in the city. Alongside the Cluna Studios, others at the same address included The Craftworkers Ltd., and Colm Ó’Lochlainn’s Candles Press, Frank Brandt (graphic designer), Michael O’Brien who specialised in Celtic Illuminations and calligraphy. The Cuala Press, Dun Emer Studio, Candles Press, and Cluna Studio often exhibited side by side at national and international craft fairs and exhibitions. Cluna, Cuala, and Dun Emer were all included in an Irish exhibition held across a number of New York public libraries in 1927.

Both Cuala Press and Cluna Studio produced a significant number of hand-coloured art prints and cards. The Candles Press printed a limited range of almost exclusively black and white cards and prints. While Candles Press employed a number of high calibre designers, including Elizabeth Rivers (and who would also provide designs for Cuala), Candle’s output was significantly less when compared to the Cluna Studio and the Cuala Press. Cuala and Cluna also both produced painted woodwork and jewellery, though it was limited for Cuala. Similarly both produced embroidery but here Cluna (apart from one or two ecclesiastical commissions), operated on much smaller scale.  

The Cluna Studio opened the Dublin Art Shop at 54 Dawson Street in 1924 as an outlet for their products and those of other craftworkers and studios, including books and prints from Cuala and Candles Presses. Shortly afterwards they moved their Cluna Studios to the same building on Dawson Street and rented other rooms to fellow craftworkers. An announcement for a 1926 Christmas sale at the Cluna Studio, which included ‘calendars, greeting cards, prints, handmade jewellery, painted woodwork, lamp shades, embroidery, original and artistic designs’ advised that the studio’s ‘entrance [was] through the ‘Dublin Art Shop’ on Dawson Street.

Cluna Studios stall at Aonach na Nodlag in the Mansion House Dublin.

The Christmas Sale list of work identifies the mainstay crafts of the Studio over its lifetime. The most popular products were hand-coloured art prints, artist-designed greeting cards, postcards, and painted woodwork. Later they added a popular range of handmade felt Irish-costumed dolls. Jewellery was mostly metalware and enamel, and their woodwork and postcards were invariably decorated with neo-Celtic designs. Such ornament, alongside images of Irish characters and life, peopled their range of prints.

Margaret O’Keefe for the Cluna Studios.

The Dawson Street premises closed in 1962 and the Dublin Art Shop moved to 110 St. Stephens Green and from there the company sold antiques as well as craft. TCD Cuala Business Archive reveals that in 1963, the Dublin Art Shop were still requesting hand-coloured prints from the Cuala Press, then under the directorship of George Yeats. Cluna Studios also continued to produce in-house designed prints and cards and exhibited at the 14th Annual Card Fair at the Richie Hendricks Gallery in 1965 but gradually over time their focus shifted to selling antique silver.

In relation to print designs, similarities in the studio’s names, the occasional shared artists, such as Dorothy Blackham, and the style of some prints often led to confusion between the Cuala and Cluna, with one newspaper reporting ‘the Cluna Studios with Jack Yeats’ horsemen and donkeys prancing along the walls. – However, Jack Yeats only provided designs for his sister’s Cuala Press.

Dorothy Blackham for Cluna Studios.

Cluna Studios relied heavily on Margaret O’Keefe’s print designs, with limited input from their other artists. Cluna came to making art prints nearly twenty years after Cuala and where Cuala originated, Cluna followed. Cuala Press was born out of the Cultural Revival of the late 19th and early 20th century and wore this influence throughout its existence. Building on the success of Cuala, the Cluna Studio was also a product of the successful Irish Arts and Crafts movement of the 1920s.

With few exceptions, Cluna focused almost exclusively on a tourist trade, highlighted by their production of postcards. Cuala had the advantage of precedence and had a number of well-known and celebrated artists contributing designs, not least those produced by Jack Yeats.    

Selection of Cluna postcards
Margaret O’Keefe for the Cluna Studio.

While Cuala and Cluna had national retail outlets which served both the local and tourist market, Cuala also looked to the diaspora and alongside a subscription service, used international bookseller outlets to sell prints. Cuala prints had a wider distribution, Elizabeth Yeats was recognised as a key figure in Irish and international cultural society, was affiliated with some of the country’s leading writers and artists, thus had a greater lasting impact, as history has shown. However, both Cuala and Cluna were important Arts and Crafts studios, each run by talented craftswomen, each making significant contributions to Irish artistic and cultural life.

Cluna Studio hand-coloured print.
Dublin Art Shop, 54 Dawson Street.