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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.

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Elizabeth Yeats, artist and teacher in the arts and crafts tradition.

Billy Shortall.

The Dun Emer, and later Cuala Industries were pioneering female-led studios in the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement. They promoted handmade work, wove beautiful carpets, produced exquisite needlecraft, and printed and bound beautiful books. They served the domestic and business market and they produced liturgical art objects. It was a collaboration of artists and designers using local Irish materials. It is worth quoting at length from the studios’ 1904 prospectus which rhymed with the ideals of the wider A&C Movement,

Everything as far as possible is Irish: the paper, the books, the linen of the embroidery and the wool of the tapestry and carpets. The designs are also of the spirit and tradition of the country. The education of the work girls is also part of the idea – they are thought to paint and their brains and fingers are made more active and understanding…

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Cuala Press. Names matter.

Billy Shortall.

When Evelyn Gleeson (1855-1944) moved to Ireland to establish the Dún Emer Guild with Lily and Elizabeth Yeats she purchased a house named ‘Runnymede’ in Dundrum, a South Dublin village suburb. The house had been named for Runnymede in England where The Magna Carte was sealed in 1215. Evoking the spirit of Irish Revivalism, the Dundrum house was redesignated Dún Emer by Gleeson, meaning Emer’s fort in Gaelic, after the wife of the legendary Irish hero Cuchulainn. Emer was renowned for her craft and needlework skills. Gleeson oversaw the Guild’s weaving department; Lily (1866-1949) ran the embroidery workshop; and Elizabeth (1868-1940) managed the private printing press.

The recovery and use of Irish legends, the story Cuchulainn in particular, during the Irish Revival in the early twentieth century is well documented. Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill founded the Gaelic League in 1893 to promote the Irish language. Ancient heroic tales were retold by writers such as Standish O’Grady and many of their central characters peopled the poems of W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) such as in “The Death of Cuchulain”, “The Only Jealousy of Emer” and numerous others. Lady Gregory’s translation from the Irish of Cuchulainn of Muirthemne, which W. B. Yeats described in the introduction as ‘the greatest book ever to have come out of Ireland in my time’, was published in 1902.

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Cuala Press narrating conflict

Billy Shortall.

The Yeats sisters, Elizabeth, and Lily (Susan) depicted above on an advertisement postcard c. 1905 by their sister-in-law Mary Cottenham Yeats. The card shows Elizabeth carrying books and Lily Yeats holding an embroidered garment as they set out to build a female Arts and Crafts enterprise with Evelyn Gleeson  at the anticipated dawn of a new Independent Ireland.

Elizabeth ran the hand printing press. With her brother William as editor, the press produced important Irish revivalist literature. Additionally, Elizabeth worked with several Irish artists, key among them her brother Jack, to produce hand-coloured prints, cards, bookplates, and the illustrated series A Broadside. Lily managed the embroidery department. The Yeats sisters separated from Gleeson in 1908 and continued their areas of production nearby in their new venture Cuala Industries. Both were female enterprises and almost exclusively employed and trained young women as assistants in producing artefacts adhering to arts and crafts principles. Elizabeth was a woman of her time, a time of increasing female agency, politically, socially, and in the workplace.  A contested and complex history was lived through her Press.

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Eileen C. Booth, Cuala Press artist.

Billy Shortall.

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’.

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