Cuala Press Christmas cards visualised the ideals of the Irish Revivalist movement
Posted on: 22 December 2022
A bedraggled Father Time on Dublin’s quays and a Gaelicised Virgin Mary doing a bit of ironing beside a red-headed baby Jesus are among some of the striking images featured in Christmas and New Year greeting cards produced in the early 20th century by Cuala Press, one of Ireland’s leading Arts and Crafts enterprises.
These fascinating images are among over one hundred Cuala Press prints and associated archival material that are available to view online on the Virtual Trinity Library website. The prints and the Cuala Press Business Archive are the subject of the Cuala Press Project (2019-2023), which aims to re-introduce the world to Elizabeth and Lily Yeats, a talented duo who founded the Cuala Industries in 1908 – a female-led enterprise in Churchtown, Dublin that almost exclusively employed and trained young women.
Beatrice Glenavy (1883-1970). Our Lady ironing. Cuala Press hand-coloured print.
Dr Billy Shortall, Ryan Gallagher Kennedy Research Fellow at Trinity Irish Art Research Centre explained:
“Designed by Beatrice Elvery, later Lady Glenavy, Our Lady Ironing was produced by the Cuala Press as a hand-coloured print and as a Christmas card. Cuala Press prints produced culturally distinctive and affirming images of Irish life and people. Here the artist Gaelicised the Christmas story, in this heart-warming domestic scene, the Virgin Mary looks over her sleeping red-haired Christ child in a decorative, archaic cottage interior. Mary irons and gently admonishes two angels to be quiet. The window frames an Irish landscape. This image of divine motherhood is set in historical rural Ireland.
“The illustration Dublin Quays is by Jack B. Yeats and featured on the Cuala Press calendar for 1911. The image proved to be a popular one and it was subsequently issued as a hand-coloured individual print, and also as a Christmas and New Year greeting card. It depicts a somewhat bedraggled Father Time sitting tiredly on a city quayside. He leans against his scythe, a familiar tool in rural Ireland. Father Time’s hourglass is counting down the old year, the grains of sand having nearly run their course. A very young sailor climbs from his ship with confidence and excitement, his pet monkey and parrot bringing a sense of other worlds to Dublin. The sailor’s ladened sack symbolises hope and expectations for the New Year ahead."
Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957). Dublin Quays. Cuala Press hand-coloured print.
Cuala Industries was a leading internationally-recognised Arts and Crafts organisation which produced books, prints and cards under the guidance of Elizabeth, director of the Cuala Press and embroidered textiles under Lily Yeats. It was to the forefront of national and international theory and practice in relation to the promotion of fine design and craftwork in printing, and it was unique in its ambitions to revive and sustain the art of hand-printing in Ireland in the twentieth century.
Dr Jane Maxwell, Manuscripts Curator in the Library adds:
“It is not only the tender and evocative Christmas imagery that provides us with insight into the workings of the Cuala Press. The history of how the Press itself worked speaks volumes about the sense of camaraderie which flourished in what was a domestic industry in the best sense.
“Three in-house scrapbooks survive in the Cuala archives which capture something extraordinary about the kind of workplace Susan and Lily Yeats brought into being. They are filled with joyous illustrations, designs, and literary texts by and for the women who made up Cuala. They preserve forever something of the atmosphere of fun and creativity which was the founding ethos of the Yeats women’s Arts and Crafts enterprises.”
Table of contents page from the 1903 Dun Emer/Cuala scrapbook.
Dr Angela Griffith, Academic Principal Investigator, Cuala Press Project, Trinity Irish Art Research Centre, commented:
“The visual and textual content of these greeting cards, along with other printed material, provide a unique insight into the workings of the Cuala Press, a dynamic part one of Ireland’s leading Arts and Crafts enterprises. Under the inspirational drive of the Press’s director, Elizabeth Corbet Yeats, Cuala’s prints visualised the ideals of the Irish Revivalist movement for its audiences and collectors. Printed images are viewed as a dynamic, and often a more democratic, artform; they were relatively less expensive than paintings, and they could be transported easily and cost-effectively.”
“Cuala prints were also exhibited locally and abroad. Therefore, viewers, from across borders and social classes, had the opportunity to engage with Cuala’s beautifully crafted works. The printed image is an intimate thing, it is a hand-held work of art and it addresses the viewer directly, its impact is immediate and considerable. The artists employed by Cuala produced designs which reflected Irish nationalist sentiment, dominated by scenes of rural Irish life and landscape. The Irish are shown to be an heroic industrious people, its children cared for in warming, tranquil domestic environments, the feminine world of Marian inspired mothers a common theme. Other prints represent the more colourful in society, the ballad singers, circus and theatre types, and travellers in search of the world and themselves.”
“The subject of Irish artists and illustration is a new and rich area of research which has not been undertaken before in a comprehensive manner, particularly the contribution of women to this creative process. Its narrative must be reconstructed, revaluated and restored.”
Mary Cottingham (1863-1947). The Virgin and Child. Cuala Press hand-coloured print.
With the support of the Ryan family and the Schooner Foundation, Trinity College Library in partnership with the Trinity Irish Art Research Centre the Cuala Press Project is supporting conservation, research and public access to its new and existing Cuala Press holdings.
Under Virtual Trinity Library, Cuala Press prints and associated archival materials are now available to view at digitalcollections.tcd.ie This new platform of engagement, will ensure that this significant, visual response to a transformative period in Irish history will be enjoyed, understood and appreciated by new global audiences.