Clare Marsh, still life and portrait artist, is born Emily Cecil Clare Marsh on January 13, 1875, at New Court, Bray, County Wicklow, the house of her maternal grandfather, Andrew McCullagh, a wine merchant.
Marsh’s parents are Arthur and Rachel Marsh (née McCullagh). She has four siblings. Her family is descended from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, specifically from Francis Marsh of Edgeworth, Gloucestershire, with his wife the great-aunt of James II‘s first wife. The family later moves to Raheen, Clondalkin, and later to Cappaghmore, Clondalkin. There is little information about her early life although she is involved in the suffrage movement.
Marsh meets Mary Swanzy at Mary Manning‘s art classes, with Swanzy remembering Marsh as being from “a background of impecuniosity, which did not apparently worry them in spite of a more affluent upbringing.” She is influenced artistically by her aunt and John Butler Yeats, with whom she becomes close friends. In the summer of 1898, Yeats paints Marsh’s portrait at Manning’s studio. She is more drawn to the work of Yeats than of his son, Jack, and models her portraits on that of the older Yeats. He mentors her, encouraging her to see other artists’ work as much as possible and saying “to produce a picture will force you to think.” He urges her to paint more industriously. She exhibits with the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) for the first time in 1900 with East wind effect and Roses. Yeats later claims that Marsh helped him with “line drawing or sketching, by putting him on the track of bulk drawing.”
Alongside Manning’s classes, Marsh takes night classes in sculpture with John Hughes and Oliver Sheppard at the Metropolitan School of Art. Aside from a trip to Paris in 1910 or 1911, she is taught exclusively in Dublin throughout her 20s. She takes a course at Norman Garstin‘s studio in Penzance, and stays in North Wales in 1914, painting two Trearddur Bay scenes. She paints still life and portraits, including one of Lily Yeats. It appears that her portraits of children and dogs are popular based on her submitted works to the RHA, exhibiting without a break from 1900 to 1921. The Hugh Lane Gallery holds her portrait of Lord Ashbourne, which demonstrates her painting style of loose brush strokes with an air of informality. Yeats suggests that she spend some time in the United States, where he is living at the time. She spends two months in New York City, staying with cousins at White Plains and then moves into a room neighbouring that of Yeats in Petitpas. Her uncle strongly disproves of this living arrangement, so she leaves and returns to Ireland in January 1912, which upsets Yeats greatly.
Upon her return from New York, Marsh starts holding classes at her studio at South Anne Street which Swanzy recalls are “well liked and always full,” with Susan Yeats becoming a pupil. She becomes the Professor of Fine Arts at Alexandra College in 1916. In the same year, she paints the fires and destruction of the 1916 Easter Rising. She paints a portrait of Jack Butler Yeats in 1918, which is now held by the Highlanes Gallery. John Butler Yeats later sympathises with her in a letter that she and other women are not elected members of the RHA. Knowing that Yeats is in financial difficulty, she sells some of his drawings and sends the money to him. It appears that over time, she works more with colour, as demonstrated in her portrait of Susan Yeats. Her final paintings are night studies, some of which show a possible influence from Swanzy with whom she shares a studio in the autumn of 1920. She is also believed to be one of the founding members of the Society of Dublin Painters.
Marsh dies on May 5, 1923. A posthumous exhibition of her work is held in October 1923. Due to her early death, she largely falls into obscurity until one of her works is included in the 1987 “Irish Women Artists from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day” exhibition and publication from the National Gallery of Ireland. The National Gallery of Ireland holds a selection of sketches and paintings by Marsh, and a sketch of her by Swanzy. She is included in an exhibition of art by women artists at the Highlanes Gallery in 2012.
(Pictured: “Self-Portrait” by Clare Marsh, oil on canvas, circa 1900, National Gallery of Ireland)