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The daughter of Patrick Crilley, a hackler in the flax trade, Margaret Clarke was born at 17 Thomas Street in Newry on 1 August 1884.

The third (unfinished) portrait of David Clarke, painted by his mother around 1940. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The third (unfinished) portrait of David Clarke, painted by his mother around 1940. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Although little is known of her early life, the 1901 Census of Ireland records that the Crilley family had moved to Kiln Street and notes that Margaret Crilley was a teacher in the National School. Having a gift for drawing, she attended night classes at Newry Municipal Technical School from the age of 21. Motivated by a desire to better herself and a strong belief in the importance of art in education, Margaret Crilley’s ambitions lay in teaching art. These ambitions were nurtured by her art instructor in Newry, Minnie Nagle.

Miss Nagle had been a medal winner in the South Kensington Board of Education art exams in the 1890s and, between 1905 and 1907, Crilley took the same exams, also with first class results. This success paved the way to a scholarship at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and her arrival in Dublin introduced her to a completely new artistic world.

The Three Marys painted by Margaret Clarke sometime between 1923 and 1928. It was inspired by the women at Christ’s tomb. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The Three Marys painted by Margaret Clarke sometime between 1923 and 1928. It was inspired by the women at Christ’s tomb. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Maintaining herself in Dublin through scholarships, Crilley worked for her Art Teacher’s Certificate while studying painting under the renowned Irish artist, Sir William Orpen. She won silver and bronze medals in the British Board of Education Art Competitions while working with Orpen and became his teaching assistant in 1911. Crilley also modelled for Orpen on several occasions including his An Aran Islander. Orpen greatly admired Crilley’s own work and she was widely regarded as his favourite pupil. She exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy for the first time in 1913.

Portrait by Margaret Clarke of her son, David, as a teenager, painted c.1934 - 1935. This was the second of three paintings which Clarke completed of her youngest child. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Portrait by Margaret Clarke of her son, David, as a teenager, painted c.1934 - 1935. This was the second of three paintings which Clarke completed of her youngest child. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Margaret Crilley chose various family members, including her sister Mary, as models. Studies of the stained glass artist, Harry Clarke, whom she married in 1914, were also completed. With her husband and Seán Keating, another of Orpen’s pupils, she visited the Aran Islands, then the ‘mecca’ for young Irish artists in the aftermath of the Celtic Revival. Clarke’s awareness of the Celtic Revival, however, did not extend to her joining Cumann na mBan – the women’s branch of the Irish Volunteers - like many women artists at that time.

Margaret Clarke’s portrait of her son, David, as a baby, c.1921 – 1922. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Margaret Clarke’s portrait of her son, David, as a baby, c.1921 – 1922. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Margaret Clarke, pictured with her son, David, as a baby, c.1920. Harry and Margaret Clarke had three children, Ann (b. 1916), Michael (b. 1919) and David who was born in 1920. Courtesy of Fiana Griffin
Margaret Clarke, pictured with her son, David, as a baby, c.1920. Harry and Margaret Clarke had three children, Ann (b. 1916), Michael (b. 1919) and David who was born in 1920. Courtesy of Fiana Griffin

During the inter-war years, Margaret Clarke (she ceased signing her paintings as Margaret Crilley after her marriage) established herself as one of Ireland’s most important portrait painters. Among the public figures painted by her are Éamon de Valera, the Irish President and John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin. Clarke became a full member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1927.

After the death of Harry Clarke in 1931, Clarke took over the management of his studios on North Frederick Street in Dublin with her son, David, and daughter, Ann. She still found time to paint and her work during these years shows an interest in still life and landscape. A solo exhibition of her work was held in 1939 and, in 1943, Clarke became involved in the Irish Exhibition of Living Art.

Margaret Clarke never painted after the early 1950s. She died in 1961 and is buried in Redford Cemetery, Greystones, County Wicklow. Her paintings are found in the National Gallery of Ireland, the Ulster Museum and in collections in Cork and Limerick. A number of private collectors also own her work.

Five paintings by Margaret Clarke are in the Newry and Mourne Museum Collection. Three of these, The Three Marys (1923 – 1928) and two paintings of Clarke’s youngest child, David, as a baby (1921 - 1922) and as a teenager (1934 – 1935) are on display. The other two works owned by the Museum are the third (unfinished) portrait of David, painted c.1940 and The Young Seagull (c.1946). 

The Museum is open to the public seven days a week with admission free of charge. For opening hours, information on events and exhibitions, other services and bookings please phone 028 3031 3178 or visit www.bagenalscastle.com.

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