Mary Morrissy considers the joint imaginative territory that Una Watters shared with her poet husband, Eugene, epitomised by today’s featured painting, Malahide.
Malahide, Saturday. Clouds come
Henna with heat. Salt and sun
Leave all flesh lazarous –
So wrote Eugene Watters (Eoghan O’Tuairisc) in “Smithson’s Glimpse of the Three Graces” a long poem published in PEN magazine in September 1961.
It’s almost a perfect transcription of his wife Una’s painting, above, Malahide (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) except that Una’s painting was not completed until 1964, three years after Eugene’s poem was published.
Smithson, the speaker of the poem, a barber, is on his afternoon off at the beach “within the shadow of his wife stretched” – very much as the horizontal figure on the left of the painting. “Drowses with one leg in the sun/Lazily like Italy on a warm day,”. While his wife knits – see the grey-haired woman in the black-and-white patterned dress with her knitting bag clearly visible on the sand – Smithson fantasises about the three young women who pass by loudly chatting – “Calling Freda for Christsake to hurry”. He imagines them as the three Graces, Alglaia (elegance) Thalia (youthful beauty) and Euphrosyne (mirth).
When two artists live and work side-by-side as Eugene and Una Watters did for over 20 years, it’s inevitable that their creative impulses would become entwined. And nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Malahide.
Eugene’s work often drew on classical allusions – the poem’s epigraph is from Ovid and Smithson equates his own sense of isolation with the Roman poet’s lifelong exile. He also references the “lacrimae rerum” line from Virgil’s Aeneid (Book 1, verse 462) – “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentum mortalia tangunt” translated by Séamus Heaney as “there are tears at the heart of things”.
This melancholy imbues the poem – “Drowning is as lonely an experience as living” – as does Smithson’s sense of being at odds with the mundane world around him. That said, the Three Graces Smithson spies (or conjures up) on the beach at Malahide seem to spring fully-formed from Una’s joyous painting.
Typists like graces coming together,
From the Four Courts, the King’s Inns,
Loosed and let go. Towels trailing,
Uncertain and half-naked go
The great mothers of mankind.
Look at the three girls in their bathing costumes who draw the eye deep into the painting, towels aloft or trailing, tiptoeing on the hot sand. Don’t they fit the description of Eugene’s Graces? However, Una’s expressive use of movement seems intent on giving us the character of these girls as girls, rather than as metaphors. The sprawled “Smithson” figure, likewise, or the young mother in red who cradles a white-clad baby trying to pacify it. Or the two children at her feet who are bent to the serious work of building sandcastles. Although each “character” seems to invite a story, their features, as in many of Una’s paintings, are effaced.
Perhaps they are inspired by real people as Una’s other group compositions in public spaces have been? Una might well have played with the dramatis personae of Eugene’s poem and inserted herself into the painting, as she often did, in the figure of the woman in the sand-coloured dress reading, while the dreaming, outstretched man might be Eugene – just as Smithson stands in for him in the poem.
Either way, Una’s painterly concern here seems to be the thing itself. (The pragmatic titling of her paintings shows us that – The People’s Gardens, Woman Sewing, The Flute Player, The Game of Chess. They do exactly what they say on the tin.) Here it’s the depiction of a summer’s day at the beach. There’s the saturated blue of the sea, the white sailboat, the tossed flecks of gulls (“birds rise to the life of the wind changing”), the cratered, undulating dunes scattered with towels and discarded clothes. And peeping from the reading woman’s brown satchel, a flask and maybe sandwiches for later?
Although not completed till 1964, Una’s Malahide could have been several years in the making, sitting on the easel in the kitchen at Cappagh Cross, providing a subconscious terrain as Eugene wrote the poem. Or conversely, perhaps Una created on canvas the Malahide backdrop Eugene suggested in his Ovid-inspired modernist lament, and then peopled it with the characters he described after reading the poem?
Or is this a re-enactment of an actual day they shared at Malahide, a day enshrined in memory and responded to by each of them in their own individual way? For Una, a day of simple pleasures at the seaside, harmonious, full of recognisable types and some familiar faces: for Eugene, a springboard for the classical fugues of a brooding, mid-century man alienated from the world.
Generations go by shouldering death,
Time winks like cuts of scissors,
He lies on the backbone and suspects a sky.
The medium is crisscrossed with dawn and evening,