Mary Morrissy, curator of the site, writes about the latest Una Watters painting to be “discovered”.
It’s always exciting to come across a “new” Una Watters – at least new to us, particularly almost a year-and-a-half into our quest to trace Una’s extant work.
The original call we ran for Una’s paintings in an article in the Irish Times in July 2019 produced quite a flurry of work; similarly, the March 2020 edition of the RTE Nationwide programme and the Liveline radio programme around the same time, but since the COVID-19 pandemic, everything had gone very quiet.
Then, last week, just when we thought the 10 untraced works from Una’s 1966 exhibition – see elsewhere on this site – were going to remain stubbornly elusive – one of them, miraculously, turned up.
City Bridge (oil on canvas, 55 x 75cm ) was painted some time in 1965, the year of Una’s untimely death. It was a very prolific year for Una as it turned out. She completed five major oil paintings that we know of, as well as designing the Easter Rising Jubilee symbol after winning an Arts Council competition for the commission. (Poignantly, Una’s sister, Sheila Byrne, recalls that the award and prize money arrived on the day her funeral cortege left for Ballinasloe for burial.) In the weeks immediately before her death she also completed a set of experimental watercolours – see “The Emerald Ballroom Watercolours” page on this site.
City Bridge was exhibited in the Oireachtas exhibition of 1965 with a price tag of £35. Whether it was sold then or not is not clear, but it’s unlikely. The painting appeared in the 1966 memorial exhibition organised by Una’s husband, Eugene, a year after her death. There was no owner attribution in the catalogue, so it’s likely it was gifted, like much of Una’s work, to a friend or acquaintance after the 1966 show.
Where it’s been since then is a matter of speculation but we now know that it was acquired in the early 2000s by the late art dealer Sean O’Criadain, along with another of Una’s paintings, Meditation (not featured in the 1966 exhibition). Meditation was subsequently sold at auction but O’Criadain held on to City Bridge.
O’Criadain was a legendary figure in the Irish art world (as well as being a poet, literary editor and Harvard lecturer) who championed, in particular, artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as William John Leech, Harry Clarke and Roderic O’Connor, long before it was fashionable. Una’s painting has remained in O’Criadain’s collection and we’re grateful to David Britton and Peter Lamb for alerting us to the fact.
Having not seen the painting itself, due to current circumstances, it’s probably not fair to comment on it, but from the image it’s certainly one of Una’s more complex and enigmatic works. The bridge motif is clear in the jigsaw-like quadrants of colour she employs – dove-greys, moss greens and various shades of blue. This geometric patterning was a feature of her later work, but here it’s used in a much more abstract way. In its style and colour palette, Una seems to be harking back to a kind of fluid pre-cubism.
The bridge of the title is fragmented, broken-up, dismembered. The shafts of shadow – or is it stone? – seem to be in balustrade shapes, and the river seems to dive into the layered grey city that crowds the background in shortened perspective.
Una’s characterful figures animate the painting as usual – the idling, dark-skinned boy in the left foreground lolling against the bridge parapet, the policeman – or lockhard? – in his peaked cap in the left foreground, the white-haired matron with the serious hat on the far right. But there are other more enigmatic figures. Who is the jaunty man in a pink coat with flying tails and the hint of a tricorn hat who looks like a refugee from the regency city? The figure in the black bowler hat and cloak in the centre of the canvas also looks distinctly anachronistic.
The blocky curvature of the upper-decks of buses suggests this has to be Dublin, as does the street furniture – look at that lamp standard. But which bridge is it? Or is it an amalgam of all the city’s bridges? Or is it none of them?
Or is this the bridge of time itself linking the city of the present to the past?
The thoughts of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses at the funeral of Paddy Dignam in Glasnevin cemetery come to mind: – ‘How many! All these here once walked around Dublin. Faithful departed’.