In pictures: The hidden world of Margaret Watkins

Joe Mulholland tucked his neighbour's gift away until after her death – only to unwrap an incredible photographic archive. Forty years on, he tells Gaby Soutar about showing Margaret Watkins's ground-breaking work in Scotland

'IT WAS wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. I had no idea what was inside, but I had to promise not to open it until after she died."

When journalist Joe Mulholland was given a mysterious parcel by his elderly neighbour, Margaret Watkins, back in 1967, his young daughter had just been diagnosed with leukaemia. So, while many of us might have been tempted to peel back the wrapping and peek inside, he stashed it at the back of the linen cupboard, understandably having more important things on his mind. It was only when Watkins – who was originally from Canada – died a couple of years later, aged 85, that Mulholland stumbled upon the hiding place again and broke open the package.

He couldn't quite believe what was inside – a jumbled archive of thousands of contact sheets, negatives and photographs, documenting an incredibly accomplished career spanning the early part of the 20th century. Despite the fact that they were firm friends, often talking late into the night, Watkins had never mentioned this part of her life to him.

Some 40 years later, a selection of these images are now hanging in Mulholland's brand new arts space, the Hidden Lane Gallery, which recently opened in the chilly premises of a former hearse garage at the slightly louche end of Argyle Street.

"It's ironic, really, to be promoting a dead artist in this building," says Mulholland, now a dapper 68-year-old, who clearly remembers the events that led him to be the guardian of this vast collection, which he's managed over the years. He was also made executor of Watkins's will at the time of her death, and remembers her as a prolific reader, with the widest vocabulary of anyone he's ever known.

"She might have said something about 'pictures' when she gave the box to me but, if she did, I would've thought she meant Victorian family snapshots. She had given them to the right person, though, as I was probably one of the few in Scotland at that time who rated black and white photography as being of interest."

In order to unravel the secret past, Mulholland had to sift through the contents of Watkins's 17-room Victorian townhouse at 41 Westbourne Gardens in Glasgow's Hyndland. After extensive dusty research in a house that was so cluttered as to have 16 chests of drawers in one room, he found that she had had her own advertising studio in New York in the 1920s, was a student – and, later, a teacher – at Boston's Clarence White School of Photography, was a tutor of Margaret Bourke-White (who took the iconic Art Deco image of the Chrysler building), and a participant in the artistic shift from pictorialism to modernism.

In the process of clearing the house, he also found many more images – some of which were still in their packets, after having been developed at the local chemist. On the walls of the compact Hidden Lane Gallery is a selection of this work, much of it developed by master printer, Robert Burns, using traditional fibre papers. These include advertising images, social commentary (such as a picture of immigrant mothers at a clinic in Greenwich Village, in 1918), and snaps of beautifully-lit nudes that, according to Mulholland, are typical of the Clarence White School of Photography.

As you enter the gallery, to your right is a surrealist, undated work entitled Jane Street Apartment, which consists of a Bohemian-looking crushed velvet hat and bag lying on a sofa, with a print of Botticelli's Venus hanging overhead. Beside this photograph is a head-and-shoulders depiction of the artist, Self Portrait (1919), which shows Watkins, her dark hair tied in a chignon, looking down her nose, regally, at the camera. "No, it's more than that – imperious," says Mulholland.

There are also some images of the New York "glitterati", who would've been photographed in Watkins's Greenwich Village studio – the most famous of whom is the composer, Sergei Rachmaninov.

The other side of the room showcases her finest modernist work – powerful still-life images of seemingly ordinary household scenes. These include Domestic Symphony (1919), which features three eggs, perched on the edge of a smooth, sculptural surface and The Kitchen Sink (1919), a composition consisting of a ceramic sink containing a grubby milk bottle and other household paraphernalia. Both of these images were featured in Vanity Fair magazine at the time.

"She did this innovative thing of taking pictures in her Greenwich Village kitchen," explains Mulholland. "There was a lot of controversy at that time about whether this was art or not, or just the sign of a slovenly housekeeper. However, there was one very highly regarded critic of photography at the time who said that The Kitchen Sink was the most memorable picture that he had ever seen. She (Watkins] composed like a painter and tended to see ordinary things as being very beautiful."

Downstairs in the gallery there's a collection of work dating from after 1928, when Watkins had moved to Glasgow to care for her four ailing aunts. These are starker than the images shown upstairs, with one featuring the wooden stands that were built for the launch of the Queen Mary, another taken from the top of the Finnieston Crane and still others featuring tugboats moving along the Clyde, with great plumes of smoke trailing on the wind.

Mulholland is keenest to show me a picture that he found on a contact sheet, now being shown as an A5-sized print. According to his research, Self-portrait, Glasgow (1935), is one of the last pictures Watkins took. It features a curved stone staircase, with her shadow cast across the concrete.

"This alludes to my theory," he says. "She thought of herself as a shadow in her own life."

Perhaps Mulholland feels that, if Watkins hadn't come to Scotland, her artistic career might have continued flourishing. But he says that it could have been more than aunts and altruism that brought her here in the first place. "She taught at the Clarence White School of Photography and my surmise is that she was half in love with White himself," Mulholland says. "It's said that he died in flagrante delicto with one of his students in New Mexico. Watkins organised his memorial exhibition in 1927 and displayed some of his major pictures, which he'd given her in lieu of salary.

"However, White's widow then sued Watkins for ownership. Although the court ruled in Watkins's favour, they ordered her to give the pictures back to the widow, who had to pay $194 for them. Watkins probably would have carried on working at the school, but losing these possessions, which had been given to her by this man who she admired, was too hurtful."

After she moved to Glasgow, Watkins's relatives at Westbourne Garden died slowly, one by one, while she nursed them. At the same time, the Second World War broke out and, as Mulholland points out: "At that time, nobody would cross the Atlantic unless they had to." Marooned in a foreign country, Watkins carried on taking photographs – but never to the extent that she did earlier in her life.

There were other set-backs, too. A fellow member of the Glasgow Camera Club "borrowed" her precious Graflex camera – never to return it. Then, to compound matters, she developed agoraphobia in late middle-age and only felt able to leave the house at night. It's no wonder that she couldn't tell her young neighbour about her artistic career, which must've seemed part of a different life altogether. But she never forgot those times, the proof of which was compounded by something Mulholland discovered in her house.

"When she died in 1969, her bags were still packed, ready to go back to New York. Cabin trunks and portmanteaux were there, full of clothes and papers and a fine half-plate camera," he writes in the exhibition catalogue.

"Outwardly she seemed happy to me, but inside was a seething unhappiness. This I discovered through finding little scraps of paper where she had scribbled her thoughts: 'Living in a state of curdled despair, taking Bennax to keep up my courage… I'm doing my utmost to cope with a well nigh hopeless situation…

'I miss the artistic crowd most desperately. Collectively they may have every failing under the sun, but, in spite of their sins (or because of them) they have a strange gleam of vision, something worth striving for, something a bit beyond the end of their small human noses.'"

&#149 Margaret Watkins (1884-1969): Forgotten Woman is at the Hidden Lane Gallery, 1081 Argyle Street, Glasgow until 15 January. For details, visit: www.hiddenlanegallery.com

• Joe Mulholland

LIFE & TIMES

1884

Born Meta Gladys Watkins in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

1909

Moves to New York, into the Roycroft Arts and Crafts Community

1914

Studies at the Clarence White School of Photography in Boston

1915

Moves to Greenwich Village, New York and works for photographer Alice Boughton

1921

Four photographs by Watkins are published in Vanity Fair magazine

1922

Her photograph The Bread Knife is exhibited in San Francisco and Japan

1924

Works on advertising images commissioned by Macy's and J Walter Thompson

1925

Exhibited at the Pictorial Photographers of America International Salon at the Art Centre in New York

1928

Travels to Cologne, Paris and London. Moves to Glasgow to care for her elderly aunts

1930s

Begins creating composite photographs for carpet, lino and textile designs, which were never realised

1933

Watkins visits the USSR, where she records post-revolution Russia

1969

Watkins dies

1984-2005

Mulholland organises a solo exhibition of Watkins's work at New York's LIGHT Gallery In New York, Detroit Institute of Arts, New York Public Library and other venues. Her work appears in various books, including Rosenblum's A World History of Photography

2007

Seduced by Modernity: The Photography of Margaret Watkins, written by Mary O'Connor and Katherine Tweedie, is published

November 2009

The Hidden Lane Gallery opens

2011

Solo exhibition planned for the National Gallery of Canada