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Cuala Press Research. Anatomy of a photograph

Billy Shortall.

The Cuala Press operated from different premises during its existence. Initially, under the Dun Emer Press imprint, it was part of Dun Emer enterprises in Dundrum from 1902 until 1908. Elizabeth and Lily Yeats split from Dun Emer and Evelyn Gleeson, in 1908 and moved their printing and embroidery operations to ‘a four roomed cottage’ on Lower Churchtown Road in July of that year. It was housed in William and Georges Yeats home on 82 Merrion Square from August 1923 until February 1925. Cuala then moved to Baggot Street and sub-rented upstairs rooms from the building’s main tenants, Norman Allen Ltd. They remained at Baggot Street until January 1942, by which time W. B. Yeats (the Press’s editor) and Elizabeth were both dead. After 1942 the Press, now managed by George (W.B.’s widow), moved to her house on Palmerstown Road. The thirty-two years in Churchtown and Baggot Street were the most productive. Photographs with decorative and historical detail exist from all locations and are rich sources about Cuala Press life, industry, output, location, and much more.

This blog looks at one photograph taken in the Cuala Press Baggot Street premises in 1932, and the avenues of research that image invites and the questions it asks.

On the back wall, facing the viewer, are a series of embroideries by Lily Yeats, who by 1932 was working on her own on Cuala Industries embroideries and struggling financially; W. B. Yeats stepped in to help. In a letter to Lady Gregory (May 1931) he explained that he organised a small overdraft with the bank to support Cuala embroidery and that he had agreed to personally pay half of Lily’s salary. In an effort to generate business and in anticipation of the upcoming 1932 Eucharistic Congress he commissioned the young Irish artist, Brigid O’Brien, to produce designs for three Stations of the Cross to be embroidered by Lily. These Stations are not documented in the TCD Cuala Business archive (other than in photographs), two other sources were important, the letters of W. B. Yeats garnered by John Kelly and others, and contemporary newspaper reports. W. B. wrote to his friend Olivia Shakespear (Nov. 1931), that the Stations were ‘not after my own heart & meant for a pious market’. The three embroidered Stations, exhibited at the 1932 Aonach Tailteann art exhibition, as samples of the complete series of fourteen that narrate the story of Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion, priced at £15 15 schillings, were positively reviewed. The 1932 Tailteann art exhibition doubled as the exhibition associated with the Congress. Winning first prize in their class, they were purchased by an American church benefactor, Genevieve Brady, who was attending the Congress. In addition to the purchase she commissioned the remaining eleven stations. William was delighted with the sale and again wrote to Shakespear (Jun. 1932) declaring, ‘I have had that rarest of things a success in my own family.’ For the business, he added, it meant Lily had a year’s ‘profitable work’ and it encouraged him to form grander plans for future commissions. Brady was a Church benefactor and supported the Jesuit Center, Wernersville, Pennsylvania. Contacting the Center, they confirmed the Station were still hanging there and they obligingly sent photographs.

Lily Yeats and Brigid O’Brien (designer), Sixth Station, The face of Jesus is wiped by Veronica, coloured embroidery. 76x53cm. Jesuit Center, Wernersville, Pennsylvania.

The small embroidery lying against the front of the mirror, Tobias and the Angel, was also designed by Brigid O’Brien and executed by Lily. The only record for this artwork is an illustration as part of an article on Cuala and Lily and Elizabeth Yeats in the New York Sun on 4th January 1939

New York Sun, 4th January 1939

The embroidery on the far left is a framed cushion cover, and a version of it appeared at auction in 2008 along with some documentation showing that it was gifted to Lily’s cousin, Dr Rupert Gordon. This, Olive and Rose, design is interesting because it was designed by William Morris, the doyen of the international Arts and Crafts movement, in the 1880s. Lily would have worked on such a design when she was employed at the Morris Embroidery Department in London from the late 1880s. Another version is in the NGI, and Morris and Company versions appear occasionally. This asks questions around, connections, influence, exhibition, reception, and exchange within English and Irish arts and crafts communities.

The embroidery of Saint Brendan on the extreme right was probably part of an early 1930s commission from Martha and Oliver St John Gogarty, designed by Brigid O’Brien, it was executed by Lily, and will be the subject of further research. It was sold by Sotheby’s, London in 2017 as part of ‘Yeats – The Family Collection’ sale.

Lily Yeats and Bridget O’Brien (designer), Saint Brendan, coloured embroidery.

The mirror in the centre of the various embroideries is an example of painted woodwork that Cuala Industries produced and sold up until a few years before this photograph was taken. On the sideboard in front of these are a series of Cuala Press prints and a vase. The vase is an example of Carrigaline art pottery, from the arts and crafts unit of the commercial pottery. Carrigaline art pottery holds its own with its more celebrated international contemporaries and its principal craftworker, Ada A. Keeling, is recorded as a visitor to the Baggot Street premises – was it a present? The visitors’ book in the TCD Cuala Business Archive dates from 1929 to its closure and is peppered with artists, writers, craftspeople and the culturally engaged, including Keeling. The earlier visitors’ book 1908-1928 in the National Library of Ireland is similarly endowed. Not all the prints on the sideboard are identifiable, but two stand out. On the right is a hand-coloured print of William B Yeats’s poem, “The Lover Pleads with his Friends for Old Friends”, illuminated by Charles Braithwaite, first produced in the mid-1910s, it sustained popularity.

Charles Braithwaite (1876-1941) illumination, William B. Yeats (1865-1939) poem. The Lover Pleads with His Friend, Cuala Press hand-coloured print. This and other Braithwaite illuminations are available on the Cuala Press TCD Digital Collections as part Virtual Trinity Library.

The second is a design by Anne Price featuring an image of and text attributed to Saint Columba. This was probably Price’s (of whom we have limited biographical details) first commission from Elizabeth Yeats and it enables us to date her involvement with Cuala to the beginning of the 1930s.

Anne Price, Saint Columba, Cuala Press, Dublin, early 1930s, hand coloured photoengraved print. Cuala Press Business Archives. IE TCD MS 11535.

On the left wall are several watercolours by Elizabeth, as the workroom was also a showroom, it must be assumed that these were for sale. Some of the works are Italian scenes from her 1928 holiday. Shown here is a watercolour of Lake Garda (dated 1928), it is on the bottom right of the group in the photograph. Elizabeth usually sketched while on holidays and encouraged other Cuala associated artists to do the same. Hoping they might find a suitable image for a Cuala Press print, she asked, ‘Look out for ideas for Cuala and good phrases that could be used under pictures…’

Elizabeth Yeats (1868-1940), Lake Garda, 1928. Watercolour on paper. 23.5×29.5cm.

There are some books for sale on the table beneath, but what are those reams of what look like cloth and what’s in the display case? On the right of the photograph is a bookcase which probably holds more Cuala Press volumes.

The desk is the centre of the photograph is well lit and has space for two Cuala craftworkers, it could be assumed that the worker not at her desk is possibly taking the photograph. The other woman, Eileen Colum, is hand colouring a print designed by Elizabeth. The workspace is bright, Colum’s watercolours are on the table, and with brush in hand she is working. There are several prints on the table and considering the large print editions, it is both a skilled and monotonous endeavour. However, the work and environment at Cuala appears to have been good, Eileen joined in 1904. Workers stayed a long time and reported positively on their experience. The unidentified woman (possibly Mollie Gill, who worked with the Yeats’s for sixty years) typing indicates that this was a business with subscriber lists, orders, supplies, wages, and the procedures of any business. Presumably she also handled queries and callers to the Studio.

There is considerably more to be gleaned from this one image and there are numerous other ‘research rich’ and interesting photographs available to view, with more to be added, on the Virtual Trinity Library Cuala Business Archive.