THE ROYAL IRISH ACADEMY IS IRELAND'S LEADING BODY OF EXPERTS IN THE SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES

Margaret McNair Stokes, 1832–1900

Margaret Stokes was born in Dublin in 1832 and lived in Merrion Square until her father’s death. In later life she lived at Howth, County Dublin. Her talent as an artist was evident and she worked with many Irish antiquarian scholars and Members of the Royal Irish Academy, editing and illustrating their books. Among her most striking works was the design and artwork for Samuel Ferguson’s The cromlech of Howth: a poem which was issued in colour in London in 1861.

Margaret Stokes was the first woman born in Ireland to be elected an Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy (1876). (Women were not permitted to become full Members in her lifetime.) In later life she published some of her research under her own name, in illustrated books such as Early Christian architecture in Ireland (1878) and Early Christian art in Ireland (1887). Her book on early Christian art contained over 100 woodcuts of her drawings. It proved particularly popular and was regularly reprinted, helping to influence artistic perceptions of Irish heritage well into the twentieth century. Her catalogue of the high crosses of Ireland remained unfinished at the time of her death, though some of her work on the topic was published by the Academy in 1898 in a large-format book entitled High crosses of Castledermot and Durrow.

In the last decade of her life, Margaret Stokes travelled in continental Europe, tracing the artistic influences on medieval Irish art in Italy and France. She wrote about these journeys in Six months in the Apennines (1892) and Three months in the forests of France (1895), illustrating them with line drawings. Many of the illustrations in these books were derived by her from photographs she had taken on her travels. Some of those photographs are preserved in her archive in the Royal Irish Academy.

The ‘Margaret Stokes Archive’ (MSA) in the Royal Irish Academy consists of original art works, prints, engravings and photographs collected or produced by her, relating to her interests in early Christian Irish art and architecture, Christian art and the relics of early Irish saints in France and Italy. This collection was transferred by donation from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in 2014. It supplements a similar collection of Margaret Stokes’ photographs, drawings and notes already in the Academy collection. RIA, MS 12 L 36 is a portfolio of archaeological sketches, photographs and notes, and includes some correspondence received by Margaret Stokes relating to her drawings, libraries and archaeology. RIA, 12 L 37 - 39 are three albums of archaeological photographs from her collection.  RIA, 12 M 19–21 are photographs of high crosses, relating to the research project that was unfinished at the time of her death. The Academy library also holds a collection of her glass plate negatives relating to her research; these negatives have been digitised and are individually catalogued on the Photographs catalogue where thumbnail images can be viewed.

Further reading

Royal Irish Academy Library. Special List A042. Margaret Stokes Archive (formerly in the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland).

Royal Irish Academy online catalogue of Photographs

Marie Bourke, ‘Margaret Stokes (1832-1900) : antiquarian, artist, writer – pioneer’ Audio recording

Bernadette Cunningham, ‘Margaret Stokes: antiquarian scholar with an artist’s eye’ [2018]

Andrew O’Brien & Linde Lunney, ‘Stokes, Margaret McNair’, in Dictionary of Irish Biography (9 vols, Cambridge, 2009), vol. 9, pp 102–3 (dib.cambridge.org)

Janette Stokes, ‘Margaret McNair Stokes’ Irish Arts Review, 9 (2013), pp 217–19

Colleen Thomas, ‘Margaret Stokes: a scholar from Howth’ [2016] (TCD)

 

BC

June 2020

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