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Dublin (re)drawn

Billy Shortall.

Commissioned, designed, printed, and hand-coloured by different women, the Cuala Press print, College Green, shows a lively scene in Dublin’s city centre. A traffic policeman stands in a moment of contemplation, as trams and cars trundle along the street, and people hurry on the pavements. Its distorted drone-like perspective allows the artist, Hilda Roberts, to bring together visually the familiar sculptures of Henry Grattan, created by John Henry Foley (1876), Thomas Moore by Christopher Moore (1857), and the pediment sculpture of Fidelity carved by Edward and John Smyth (1809) situated high on James Gandon’s House of Lords. Orientated as they are, the viewer can imagine they are in conversation with each other. The streetscape hasn’t changed much in the almost hundred years since this print was first produced. The public toilets beside the Moore statue are no longer extant but are immortalised by Joyce in Ulysses, ‘He crossed under Tommy Moore’s roguish finger. They did right to put him up over a urinal: meeting of the waters’. A satirical reference to Moore’s ode to the formation of Wicklow’s Avoca River, ‘The Meeting of the Waters’.

This image is not an immediate candidate for a Christmas card, but as such, for country people or the diaspora it firmly located the sender in Dublin. Each edition of the image as an individual print or as a card was hand-coloured with slight differences, notably the version in the TCD Cuala Press Archive (TCD MS 11574/15) presents a grey city dominated by Wicklow granite and Portland stone. In stark contrast, three well-dressed modern women are highlighted in primary yellow, blue, and red coats.

Roberts’s original commission, from Elizabeth Yeats around 1930, was for a print for framing. College Green was the last print Roberts designed for Cuala. It first appeared as a Christmas card in 1946 after George Yeats (widow of William B. Yeats) wrote to the then Mrs. Marsh (Roberts’s married name) earlier that year offering a ‘fee of £ 3-3-0’ for [additional] use of the illustration ‘on a [Christmas] card’. The often-overlooked George Yeats took on management of the Cuala Press following Elizabeth’s death in 1940.

Hilda Roberts, photograph. Private collection.

Hilda Roberts, HRHA (1901-82) was a Dublin-born sculptor, painter, illustrator, and she produced designs for a small number of stained-glass windows. She showed promise as an artist from an early age. In her last year in secondary school at the German High School, Nightingale Hall, Wellington Place, Clyde Road, she was commissioned to illustrate the Macmillan and Co. 1919 edition of Persian Tales by D. L. R. and E. O. Lorimer. On leaving school she studied as the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art under the tutorship of Patrick Tuohy and at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. She travelled to Paris in 1926 with fellow Dublin artist Stella Steyn. She started her artistic career as a sculptor which may account for the focus on the statues of College Green. Despite winning numerous prizes for sculpture, she abandoned it to focus on portraiture and illustration. With her husband, Arnold Marsh, Headmaster of Newtown School in Waterford, she was the catalyst for the establishment of the Waterford Municipal Art Collection in the 1930s and 1940s.

1932 Aonach Tailteann certificate awarded to Hilda Roberts. Private collection.

Roberts was a prize winner at the 1928 Aonach Tailteann art exhibition for ‘Decorative Painting and Schemes of decoration’ and received honourable mentions in three different classes at the 1932 event, ‘Portraiture’, ‘Prints and Drawings’, and ‘Drawings for reproduction’. She represented Ireland at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games art exhibition with Watching the Curragh races and was selected for Irish art exhibitions abroad by government officials in London 1930 and Chicago 1933.

Hilda Roberts, design for “Oft in the Stilly Night” (TCD MS 11535, Cuala Business archive) one of five illustrations for Sean O’Faolain (selected by), Lyrics and Satires from Tom Moore (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1929).

Her illustrative work included sixteen full-page drawings for the principal State publications of the 1920s and 1930s, namely, Dublin Civic Week Handbooks (1927 and 1929), A Book of Dublin (1929), and Saorstat Eireann, Irish Free State Official Handbook 1932. Other illustrated books included Quaker Homespuns 1655-1833 by Isabel Grubb published by H. R. Allenson, 1932. She provided illustrations for some of her brother-in-law’s, John Lyle Donaghy, books of poetry, but not for his writing published by Cuala other than a small pressmark for Into the Light, and other poems (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1934). For Cuala’s 1929 publication selected by Sean O’Faolain, Lyrics and Satires from Tom Moore, she provided five book illustrations.

Roberts is best known for her portraiture and west of Ireland scenes, many painted when she stayed with Elizabeth Rivers, another Cuala artist, in her cottage on the Aran Islands. She produced three other scenes of Ireland’s capital for a series of hand-coloured Cuala art prints, titled The Four Courts, O’Connell Street, and the Custom House.  Roberts also designed at least one greeting card. Her card design for Cuala shows a Madonna-like mother and child scene, both in traditional costume and set in a west of Ireland landscape.

The subject of the modern city was a less common theme among Irish artists. However, Roberts views record Dublin as a vibrant, cosmopolitan, and progressive European capital. Her late 1920s Cuala print of O’Connell Street shows an elevated view of the main thoroughfare, lined with commercial buildings. It is a busy scene with people moving about on business and numerous motor vehicles.  The GPO is prominent with its aerials broadcasting the newly formed 2RN national radio station, another sign of progress and Ireland’s connection with the wider world. This image declared that Dublin had recovered from earlier wars and was open for business and tourists.

Hilda Roberts, Canterbury Tales Scene, Stained-glass window, 1920s, made by Roberts while at the Harry Clarke studio. Private collection.

Her illustration for the 1929 Civic Handbook drew inspiration from Harry Clarke’s exquisite Ireland’s Memorial Records, 1914-1918 (1922), by using elaborate the ornamental decorative border on each page. As well as working for a while in his stained-glass studio, Clarke was one of Roberts’s teachers in the DMSA, and his bold, linear graphic style influenced her illustrative work. Roberts’ designs were popular, and, as seen, her designs for Cuala as prints and greeting cards were greatly in demand.

Hilda Roberts, Custom House Dublin. Design. TCD MS 11535/5/1/39/1. Uncoloured trial Cuala print.

Additional sources:

Catalogue Hilda Roberts HRHA 1901-1982 A Retrospective Exhibition, (Waterford: 1998).

Theo Snoddy, Dictionary of Irish Artists 20th Century. (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1996). 427-429.

B. Shortall, “National Regeneration – A Decade of the Tailteann Games, 1922-1932” in Journal of the Federation of Local History Societies. 33-44. (2020).

B. Shortall, “Read All About It: Art and Politics in Civic Publications” in Art and Self-Determination: A Reader (Dublin: IMMA, 2023). 80-87.