Wynne, Emily Adelaide (1872–1958), textile artist and author, was born in Germany, the eldest of five children of Albert Augustus Wynne, a civil and mining engineer, and his wife and cousin Alice Katherine (née Wynne). With her sisters Winifred Frances Wynne (1873–1969), born in Co. Carlow, and Alice Clara ('Veronica') Wynne (1890–1969), born in England, Emily developed the signature colour lines of the Avoca Woollen Mills, supported by their brother John Brian ('Jack') (1877–1977).
The Wynne family originated from Hazelwood or Annagh in Co. Sligo. They were related to Constance Markievicz (qv) and Dr Kathleen Lynn (qv). Home was pink Georgian Tigroney House, accessed by a short avenue at a slight remove from the centre of Avoca, Co. Wicklow. Set beside the Avoca Woollen Mills, it came to embody the sisters' gracious way of life, and was occupied by them until their eventual demise. Their father, Albert Wynne, had mining interests in Germany, largely in Silberhütte, in the north of the country. These he managed with his brother Wyndham, and family members made frequent trips to Germany. When their parents were abroad, Emily and her sisters stayed at Corris House in Bagnalstown, Co. Carlow, their mother's family home, where they were cared for by Alice's unmarried sisters, Clara (Aunt 'Gigi') and Frances (Aunt Fanny).
From the 1820s onwards a growing number of middle-class and ascendancy women with a developing sense of their own personal power responded to the prevalent economic distress by setting up lacemaking and other textile industries. Emily was acquainted with some of these industries and those that ran them. Borris House, home of the McMurrough Kavanagh family, was approximately fourteen kilometres south of Corris. In 1846 Lady Harriet Kavanagh introduced lacemaking to the town of Borris, based on lace she had seen on her extensive travels. Lady Frances, her daughter-in-law, expanded the Borris lace industry, creating some of the design patterns for the town's lace school. The revival of Limerick lace in 1888 by Florence O'Brien (qv), and the setting up of Clare Industries with Mina Keppie in 1895, are other examples of successful needlework industries of this period. The O'Brien family were friendly with the Wynnes, Veronica Wynne and Flora Vere O'Brien, daughter of Florence, continuing the friendship into the next generation.
Emily Wynne visited Germany on at least five different occasions between 1887 and 1909. Her visits were during a period of unprecedented economic growth, with the resultant development of a cultural infrastructure. While there, she took advantage of the cultural activities on offer, the art, music and theatre potentially informing her later artistic practice.
In 1908, through poor mining investments abroad, the family were forced to pull out of Silberhütte. Thereafter, the brothers concentrated their energies on the Glendalough estate, which they had purchased in 1890, initially for holidays. This downturn in fortunes sharpened Alice Wynne's desire for her daughters to find a vocation. In this search, the sisters benefited from their mother's creative disposition and her encouragement of their intellectual as well as artistic development. Interested in the usual pursuits of women of her class, with an aptitude for painting and needlecraft, she unusually made some of her own clothing.
Emily and Winifred were likely educated at home by governesses. Veronica, a generation younger, attended Richmond High School, London, and later Alexandra College, Dublin (1906–8). While there, through a special arrangement instituted by her mother, she attended art classes given by Mary Ruth 'May' Manning (qv) in her studio. Manning noted Veronica's aptitude for working with colour. The artist Mainie Jellett (qv), seminal in introducing modernism to Ireland, was also taught by Manning, and was on familiar terms with Veronica. Their families moved in the same social circle; Jellett's father rented Glendalough Lodge on the Glendalough estate for the family's summer holidays on more than one occasion.
From circa December 1901 until March 1902, Emily received training in designing patterns for damask work at Andrew S. Robinson Designing Rooms, Wellington Place, Belfast, then the capital of the world linen industry. The training necessitated understanding how damask was woven on a jacquard loom, technically a complex process. Through attempting to sell her designs to the various Belfast linen mills, Emily also learned the economic and practical realities that a design needed to meet so as to be suitable for production.
To supplement the family income, Emily ran a lace repair and sales business with her mother (c.1905–16). The business that Emily regenerated and ran for some years after the first world war operated with the support of contacts in Europe. It took in Belgium, Germany, Corsica, France, Portugal and Birmingham, all visited by Emily. Lace was purchased and sold under the overriding direction of mother and daughter, a process that honed Emily's selling skills. The family were actively involved in the war effort. Emily was at home for the war's duration, assisting in managing the house, and in 1919 travelled to France with the Church Army. Brothers Jack and Charles (1895–1917) enlisted; Charles died of injuries sustained in action in France. Others within the family's social circle also experienced the loss of a loved son, brother or spouse, a loss that particularly affected the protestant population.
Fluent in German, Veronica and Winifred secured posts with the War Office in London, primarily translating German letters into English. Veronica's responsibilities included translating intercepted Sinn Féin correspondence from Irish to English (she had probably learned Irish at Alexandra College). In response, her own vision, along the lines of moderate nationalism, developed as to how the relationship between Ireland and England might best move forward. From her base in London towards the end of the war, Veronica enlisted familial contacts to offer her services as a propagandist to Francis Cruise O'Brien (qv) and Horace Plunkett (qv), both leading constitutional nationalists; the offer included producing propaganda in Irish. This was not realised; nor was her aspiration for an administrative position in the new Irish state.
The volatile transformation from an old order to the new characterising the period 1918 to 1923 coincided with personal upheaval for the sisters. Their father died in 1922, and the following year Horace Plunkett and the 7th earl of Mayo (qv) and Lady Mayo, founders in 1894 of the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland, moved to England; their houses had been burned during the civil war, directly targeted because of Plunkett's and Lord Mayo's role as Free State senators. (The Wynnes, like many of their class, drew inspiration from Ruskinite ideals, expressed through the arts and crafts movement and the closely aligned cooperative values espoused by Plunkett.) These departures, combined with a more general depletion of protestants and the losses of the great war, created a vacuum. The Wynne sisters, in part, occupied this vacuum, engaging with the life of the Irish state through the medium of their craft. They belonged to a cohort of women coming to the fore from the 1920s to the 1970s, who, through artistic and craft endeavour, often allied to social entrepreneurial ideals, found an identity outside the domestic. Many were protestant and single, and the interlinking network through which they operated was nurtured through attendance at Alexandra College. At a time of flux in class, gender and national identity, their 'established and outsider' status, with its legacy of economic and social advantage as well as social engagement, meant that they could, with relative ease, create opportunities for themselves and their practice.
Emily's and Veronica's well-received collaborative novel Every dog (1929) was published under the pseudonyms of E. and V. Pringle-West. In the tradition of Somerville (qv) and Ross (qv), the idiosyncrasies of small-town Ireland and a somewhat bumbling English aristocratic lead character provide the comedy. The female lead characters from varying big-house backgrounds reveal how the sisters perceived the changes experienced over the previous decade; namely, a continuum of their social status quo, while pragmatically taking advantage of the changes that had occurred. Risk and change, leading to growth and through this to personal happiness, is a central theme: Ireland is 'a young country … full of possibilities and romance, a country where anything might happen' (Every dog, 22).
In 1927 the sisters officially took over the running of the Avoca Woollen Mills, with a stated wish to start an Irish industry and contribute to the local economy. In existence since 1723, the mill catered for the needs of the local mining community, producing standard white, grey or red rugs. Their first foray into colour seems to have been accidental. Wool was processed, washed and dyed in vats outside the mill, protected by a corrugated-iron roof. The bottom of a vat fell out before the wool was properly dyed, leading to an unintended, 'lovely' colour, which customers subsequently requested. A strong colour sense enabled the Wynnes to capitalise on this. 'Let the beginner learn to get true colour first of all' (Mitchell, 18) was a maximum of Emily's, and her colour sense was shared by Michael Gallagher, a weaver from Donegal whom she employed. These colours and the sisters' introduction of new lines and international sales transformed a heretofore local enterprise into an international business. They were soon supplying fabrics to the leading French fashion designers of the time and woven woollen goods to the USA. The sisters designed in colours to suit each nationality, Emily noting that 'Americans are fond of green, Irishmen of brown, Italians of grey and other sober colours, blue is for England, while all bright colours please the French' (Sunday Graphic, 21 February 1937). Their colours, including Emily's signature pink, were inspired by her travels, nature and the surrounding natural countryside. Winifred's well-regarded botanical knowledge was utilised in sourcing and growing plants for dyes (prior to the move to synthetic dyes); these she grew in the wall garden of Tigroney. She became a noted cultivator of primulas, her 'Julius Caesar' considered one of the best of its kind.
Emily's vision as chief designer was patriotic and modernistic. She believed Ireland was capable of producing fine woollen materials of an equal quality to those made by Rodier in France for the French fashion houses. These values were shared by the Country Shop on 23 St Stephen's Green and the avant-garde Society of Dublin Painters (founded in 1920) of which Mainie Jellett was a prominent member. The former opened its doors as a sales depot for traditional craft in 1930. It was managed by Muriel Gahan (qv) and a largely female committee, including Olivia Hughes, a cousin of Jellett whom Gahan had met at Alexandra College. Gahan set up the shop in response to the plight of Patrick Madden, a weaver of homespun tweed from Mayo, having seen the disparity between the skill and quality of his work and his living condition. She sought Emily's input in the sustainability of weaving, referring Madden on to her. Members of the Society of Dublin Painters, in which women featured prominently, exhibited in the gallery of the shop, and cubist-inspired rugs were made up and sold on the premises.
Tweed was supplied to the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, renowned in the 1930s for her colour palette and modernist designs. Emily made business trips to Schiaparelli at her Paris atelier in 1933 and again in 1937. Schiaparelli, who collaborated with surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, saw herself primarily as an artist. The tweed produced, according to Emily, appealed to designers such as Schiaparelli, as 'the individual designing, and somewhat primitive processes of our little industry, give a material a character appreciated by these artists. And they can be definitely certain of exclusiveness' (Sunday Graphic, 21 February 1937). In 1935 Emily accompanied American agent Carol Brown on a sales trip to New York and Boston. Later a shop was opened in London, and Barbara Donovan, a cousin, became the mill's English agent. At the company's peak in the 1940s, up to seventy men were employed and five hundred yards of cloth produced per week.
Emily died at home in Tigroney House on 12 June 1958. Thereafter, the business struggled on until the early 1970s, lacking both her direction and the capital required to move it forward. Veronica died in Bloomfield Hospital, Donnybrook, Dublin, on 4 March 1969, and Winifred in hospital in Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow, on 27 April 1969. In 1974 Donald Pratt purchased the mill, utilising once more the palette colours that the sisters had created.