Lillias Mitchell

The life and work of Lillias Mitchell, artist, researcher and educator in Irish craft, benefactor to Irish art and artists.

Lillias Mitchell

Helen Lillias Mitchell (1915-2000)

Lillias Mitchell was born in Rathgar, the youngest child of Dublin businessman David W. Mitchell and his wife Frances Kirby, and sister of David and Frank Mitchell. As a child she showed artistic talent, and attended painting classes with W.B. Yeats’ sister Elizabeth and later, from the age of 11, with the Irish artist Lilian Davidson. Encouraged by Miss Davidson, she went on to study painting for two years under Dermod O'Brien at the Royal Hibernian Academy School and also followed sculpture courses at the National College of Art. Then, in 1937-8, she spent a year in Switzerland, where she continued to study sculpture and modelling in clay.

In 1940, she won second place in the RDS Taylor Art Award for her very fine statue, St. Patrick Struggling in his Soul for Peace.

The whole of her subsequent career bears witness to her enthusiasm for the practice and teaching of art, craft and design. After the War, in 1946, she opened her own Weaving Workshop at 84 Lower Mount Street, Dublin. Here she first developed her personal Golden Fleece emblem, the hand-lettered text of which is replicated in the Golden Fleece Award's logo. From 1949 she also became a regular attendant of Carl Malmsen's craft school at Viggbyholm, Sweden to study traditional techniques of spinning and weaving. Art students were soon attracted to Lillias' Weaving Workshop, and in 1951 she was appointed to open a Weaving Department in the National College of Art & Design, Dublin where she continued to teach the arts of spinning, weaving and dyeing until her retirement. Lillias was always grateful to the then Minister of Education, General Richard Mulcahy, for this opportunity.

Lillias practised and taught craft weaving using natural fibres and dyes. Over the years she visited and studied the methods of traditional spinners, dyers and weavers in Donegal, Connemara and Kerry. In 1975 she founded the Irish Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers, and in 1978 she published the fruits of her studies in her anthology Irish Spinning, Weaving and Dyeing, followed in 1986 by Irish Weaving: Discoveries and Personal Experiences.

She maintained a lifelong involvement with the Royal Dublin Society, and its Arts and Crafts programmes in particular. In 1987, she founded the Lillias Mitchell Award which was offered for many years in the RDS National Crafts Competition (now the RDS Craft Awards) in the Textiles category. In recognition of her many contributions to the arts in Ireland she was made an Honorary Life Member of the RDS in 1993.

Lillias was an artist all through her life. She continued to paint and sketch actively into her 80s, exhibiting regularly with the Watercolour Society of Ireland. In 1995 she was elected as an Honorary Member of the Royal Hibernian Academy, a fitting recognition of her lifelong dedication to visual art.

The setting up of a Trust to fund the Golden Fleece Award was a project to which she devoted much thought in her later years. Her Letter of Wishes to her trustees says that:

It has always been my wish that those with talent be encouraged to develop their talents, particularly in Ireland … I am very conscious of the fact that many artists cannot develop their talents because their art does not bring in a steady income for them and yet they need to support themselves financially … My wish is to give artists a 'boost' in times of particular need … I have set up this trust [for] artists in need who are interested in pursuing their careers as artists.

The Trustees of the Helen Lillias Mitchell Artistic Fund are proud to carry out these wishes to the best of their abilities.

Note: Select archival material relating to Lillias Mitchell’s life and work has been deposited with the National Irish Visual Arts Library (NIVAL) at NCAD, where it forms the Lillias Mitchell Collection, and some early film footage of craft workers has been passed on by them to the Irish Film Institute (IFI). This material is available to researchers through NIVAL and the IFI, and access can be arranged by contacting the archives directly.