Poetic Geography: Margaret Watkins’ Domestic Symphonies

We map out our lived spaces through our desires and the stories we create. We develop a poetic geography in which places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories.

Marcel de Certeau*

Domestic Symphonies at the National Gallery of Canada is the perfect late autumn/early winter exhibition. After a summer of blockbusters, it’s a welcome respite to truly get up close to work so intimate and so close to the texture and crumbs of reality as Margaret Watkins’ photography.

I hadn’t heard of Watkins’ work before seeing the exhibition. As I slowly made my way through the exhibition, her work drew me, one photograph at a time until I came across this brick of cheese:

Phenix Cheese

Watkins’ Phenix Cheese – the competing textures, the simple shapes and shadows — felt both familiar and curious. I had seen images of a similar nature around me, but where? This work looked contemporary, I thought, until I saw the date  on the title card next to it: 1923.

Suddenly it hit me: the same kind of images – tablescapes with foodstuffs arranged in careful order according to texture and shape, with a sense of nostalgia and melancholy – litter the blogosphere. I was equating Watkins’ work with contemporary blogs. I would be lying if I said that the idea didn’t embarrass me at first – after all, I was standing in our National Gallery, the hallowed halls of The Death of General Wolfe and The Group of Seven. This was supposed to be Fine Art, not fodder for pop-cultural references, right? Was the best I could do with my hard-earned Art History degree to compare my dithering about on the inter-webs with a photograph of cheese?

So, I looked around the exhibition again, I looked closer, I read Watkins’ Biography, I scrutinized the 20th century magazines her work appeared in. I mapped my curiosity. Here, then, is that map:

Growing up in the home of an upper-middle class department store owner in Hamilton, Ontario, Watkins’ world, her biographers tell us, was “created through objects” involving a “highly gendered system of attentiveness.” Hers was a world of luscious drapery, lace table cloths and delicate china. It was a world of kitchens and parlors — feminine spaces — and it was this world of objects that formed the imagination for Watkins’ commercial work in the early 20th century.

Margaret Watkins - Sun and Globe

We see this imagination at work in her advertisements for Cutex nail polish. Dainty hands, strings of pearls and well-manicured nails invite young women to participate in a world of DIY luxury and self-care.

Cutex Nail Polish - 1924

Ordinary nails are an elegant accessory to well-designed satin dresses, china tea-cups, and glamorous cocktail rings.

The Tea Cup - 1924

Cutex published the above image in Ladies’ Home Journal with the following text:

 The perfectly groomed woman uses her hands naturally and dexterously with a grace that is unconscious. The correct care she gives them enables her to move with the assurance of one who does not have to apologize for their appearance.


You can have exquisitely groomed, lovely nails – no matter how crowded your day, no matter how exacting your household, social or business duties may be.

Margaret Watkins - Myers Gloves, 1924

The same advertisement could be the mission statement of the DIY/Lifestyle blog, Fieldguided. On the blog we see similar vignettes of carefully crafted femininity and domestic space. Glittered feathers, plastic-flower-trimmed sunglasses, and the concern for perfectly symmetrical eyebrows echo the perfectly groomed women in Watkins’ Cutex advertisement. Elsewhere still, a vase of flowers, recalls Watkins’ Mirror with Flowers – an advertisement for Macy’s department store.


In the case of the blog, however, the advertisement is for oneself, one’s lifestyle. The consumer becomes the advertisement through the aestheticization of everyday life.

Watkins’ advertisements also aestheticize everyday life by reducing domestic space to simple shapes, shadows, lines and form. Only a few (arguably strategically placed) crumbs on a delicate knife in Phenix Cheese allude to the reality — mess, work –of the kitchen space. Watkins’, her biographers write, was so pleased with these patterns, shapes and forms that she hung Phenix Cheese in her kitchen like a work of art.

Margaret Watkins - Study for Phenix Cheese

Similarly, Tennessee food blog {Local Milk} transforms everyday objects into formal, artful compositions – the kind you want to buy and hang on your own kitchen walls. A spiced pear, gorgonzola, and toasted walnute pie, for example, becomes a study in light and texture. The hatchings of the pie’s lattice compete with the textures of an intricate lace doily. The floral motif on silverware recalls those patterns on a china plate and pie server. The wilted leaves next to a green pear recall Dutch still-life paintings, decadence and decay. Two leather notebooks in the foreground suggest melancholy and nostalgia for the past. It’s comfort food and chiaroscuro. As Watkins’ herself wrote,

Nothing is ever too commonplace or too useful to escape the sweet embellishment of art. Around the humble cookstove art runs in riotus castiron curves, where may rest the savory spillings from many too exuberant soup kettle.

Margaret Watkins - Glassware study for Macy's ad, 1928

So, then, why? Why – more than 80 years after Watkins’ work appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal – does the impulse to aesthetize domestic space/life persist?  The answers to this question are endless. And it is here that my map diverges: one path points to Cultural Studies clichés of the “phantasmagoria” and “spectacle” of modernity, another philosophizes about how advertising is the new story-telling, still another wants to investigate the physiological impulse to create, or declare the triumph of feminism—how these women-bloggers turn advertising on its head –using its tropes to make a living from their arts and crafts. (I think of Nora Ephron questioning her experience of culinary culture of 1960s New York:  “was this the grand climax of the post-World War II domestic counterrevolution or the beginning of a pathological strain of feminist overreaching? No one knew. We were too busy slicing and dicing.”)

I am not sure I am satisfied with any one answer — or any one direction.

My map, instead, returns to Watkins’ work and the suggestion that a work of art, doesn’t speak one truth, nor should I expect it to. I am satsified — even grateful –to return to a body of work, to an exhibition, that so quietly and perfectly creates this complex geography – even if it treads on the uncomfortable terrain of contemporary culture.

Margaret Watkins - Self-Portrait, Glasgow, 1928-38

Domestic Symphonies is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until January 6, 2013.

*as quoted


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