Mary Morrissy curates this site. She is an award-winning novelist, short story writer and journalist. She has taught creative writing at university level in the US and Ireland for the past 20 years, and is also an individual literary mentor.
There’s been some good news that will go towards raising Una Watters’ profile in the artistic community. An essay, Una Watters: Total Eclipse, by this website’s curator, Mary Morrissy, was awarded a runner-up place in the inaugural Sarah Cecilia Harrison Essay Prize.
The new prize, set up by the National Gallery of Ireland, is aimed at recognising the “best new research and writing on the history of women in the visual arts in Ireland”.
Sarah Cecilia Harrison (1863–1941) was an accomplished artist and curator, as well as an advocate of social reform and women’s rights in Ireland in the early twentieth century.
The National Gallery acquired the Sarah Cecilia Harrison archive in 2019. Comprising over 400 letters from Sir Hugh Lane to the artist, the archive (dating from 1905–1915) provides insight into the world in which both Lane and Harrison lived and worked.
The prize, which will run annually, is funded by the descendants of the sister of Sarah Cecilia Harrison, Beatrice Chisholm, and was established to mark the launch of the Harrison archive to the public, and in honour of her legacy in the arts and as a social campaigner.
The winner of the inaugural prize was Chiara Harrison Lambe, a forthcoming PhD candidate in the Department of Art and Visual History at Humboldt University in Berlin. Her essay, Stella Steyn (1907-1987): A Name to Remember, explores why the Irish-Jewish painter and printmaker, who was one of the earliest illustrators of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and the only Irish artist known to have studied at the Bauhaus School in Germany, rarely appears in accounts of significant 20th-century Irish artists. You can read the award-winning essay here.
Today we mark the birth of Una Watters on this day 104 years ago. We thought we’d mark the occasion with a quick survey of one of her crowning glories – her depiction of trees. Una’s eloquent rendering of them was constantly evolving, from naturalistic to abstract to minimalistic, as our “tree of life” gallery demonstrates.
First in our gallery is the very early Dha Chrann (oil on canvas, 56 x43 cm) where a pair of what look like oak trees are depicted in a tonally soft naturalism reminiscent of Corot. The day is gently cloudy and the trees are in full leaf. A visitor to Una’s retrospective earlier this year remarked that this work seemed less like a study of trees than of relationship, the two giant oaks reaching out to embrace one another.
The autumnal hues of The People’s Park completed in the same year (oil on canvas, dimensions unavailable) with its shimmering golden leaves and delicate, balletic branches is a joyful, light-filled composition. This was a place (in Dublin) Una was fond of and she returned to it in 1963 with The People’s Gardens, acquired by the Haverty Trust and now in the Dublin City Hugh Lane Gallery collection. (See blogs May 6 and June 2,2020 and April 12, 2022.)
Next is the luminous moonlit scene in watercolour featuring a lake site near Ballinasloe. Una’s husband, Eugene, claimed The Doghole (dimensions unavailable), completed some time in the mid-1950s, was considered to be the finest of all Una’s river watercolours. “The picture was quickly blocked in one night as we drifted home downstream after a long fishing trip, & coloured afterwards,” he wrote.
“It is an early picture. . . but it already shows in perfect miniature the style she later developed on her own & which critics found unique. Briefly, the essence of that style is that a painting should have (at least) two meanings: that. . .while remaining true to the mood and shape of the natural scene, it should have other suggestions built into it – e.g. if you look closely, from a distance, any of the moonlit trees on the left, you will begin to see that they suggest the shape of a dog, with his tail towards the river. This gives a humorous & dreamlike quality to the whole concept. . .”
The Red Bridge (oil on canvas, 51 x 66cm), depicting a spot on the River Suck, also in Ballinsaloe, is an oil dating from around the same time (1956), in which the river-bank growth is rendered with brush strokes reminiscent of Mary Swanzy and tending towards cubist abstraction. The treatment of the foliage gives the Galway scene an exotic, jungle-like feel, “othering” what might be regarded as traditional subject matter.
The Pine Wood ( oil on canvas, 1961, dimensions unavailable), which appeared in the original 1966 exhibition but didn’t make it into our retrospective, shows Una at her most expressive. Another Ballinasloe location – Garbally Park – the umbrella-like crowns of the trees shimmer in a blurry haze as if the wood itself was on the march, and coupled with the sensuous dips and hollows of the ground, plunges the viewer into a mysterious verdant realm.
In Wild Apples, (oil on canvas, 1964, 56 x 43 cm), which featured in the retrospective earlier this year, the trees have been reduced to sharp-edged geometric impressions, almost like maps of colour on the canvas. (For a more detailed exploration of this work see our blog, June 24, 2020)
Finally, a rare chance to see one of the Emerald Ballroom watercolours that has unfortunately been lost. (See separate page on this site dedicated to the series.) This untitled piece featured on the reverse of one of the watercolours reframed for the 2022 retrospective and so could not be saved. However, the digital image of this and four other reverse images remain. These are another example of Una’s very late work, completed in the first weeks of November 1965 before her death on the 20th of the month.
Here the trees are bare and the outstretched branches have a vaguely supplicant air. Once again, as in her earliest work, there are two trees visible, but unlike Dha Chrann they’re not reaching out, but separated in a washed-out, grey landscape, lending the work a bleak, mid-winter mood and suggesting, perhaps, an eerie sense of premonition.
Una Watters will be making a return to Ballinasloe this autumn when two of her late-period watercolours will be presented to the Ballinasloe Library by Una’s family. The presentation will happen on Culture Night (September 23).
The watercolours are part of a set that hung for over 50 years on the walls of the bridge room in the old Emerald Ballroom on Society Street, now Ballinasloe’s community and jobs hub. Several of the series featured in our retrospective – Una Watters: Into the Light – held earlier this year at the United Arts Club, Dublin.
When the watercolours were being reframed in preparation for the show, five more were found on the reverse sides, bringing the total rediscovered to 19 out of the original 25.
They depict impressionistic landscapes and flowers executed swiftly and are delicate and ethereal in mood. They were were perhaps studies for a bigger work, though they have a real minimalist charm in their own right. Her husband, Eugene, documented how the paintings, probably her last works, were painted very shortly before Una’s unexpected death on November 21, 1965.
“About a fortnight before the end,” he wrote, “she painted a remarkable series of watercolours, in a style and technique she had not used before. These pictures, 25 in number, were all painted in a single day, the artist working at high speed, as if hypnotised, in a final burst of creative energy. The room at Cappagh Crossroads (looking out on the late-autumn garden, trees, cornfields, and the Dublin hills) was simply littered with watercolours; and so absorbed was the artist that she did not wait to get fresh paper but painted new aspects of the developing theme on the backs of those already dry.”
The two watercolours from the so-called Emerald Ballroom series – see separate page on this site – will be on permanent display in the library on Society Street. It’s a particularly fitting location given that Una spent her working life as a librarian.
In another Ballinalsoe development, the sign outside Creagh Cemetery has been altered to include reference to Una’s final resting place. Although she was a native of Cappagh, near Finglas, Co Dublin, Ballinasloe had become a second home during her marriage because Eugene hailed from Ballinasloe. Hitherto, only Eugene’s name was listed, but on the instigation of Enda Creaven, and with the support of Una’s niece, Sheila Smith, the new sign went up over the summer giving Una prominence. She was buried in Creagh in 1965. The inscription reads: Here is the beloved clay which they inhabited.
Una was very attached to Ballinasloe and its environs. She and Eugene spent every summer with Eugene’s family, writing and painting as well as fishing on the River Suck, at which Una became a verified expert. Her watercolours often recorded this river life – see blog “Wild Apples” June 24, 2020. As Eugene remarked about that painting, the river depicted could be any river, “but it is a real river, our Suck; an actual landing and landing place, in a grove of bog-ash and hazel in the wilderness near the mouth of the Killeglin river”.
The presentation of Una’s paintings to Ballinasloe Library, Society Street, takes place as part of Culture Night celebrations, Friday, September 23. Time and details TBA.
Top of the post: Dawnscape in Grey Limestone (24 ) – see our dedicated Emerald Ballroom Watercolours page – one of two watercolours being donated to Ballinsaloe Library.
One of our hopes for the recent Una Watters retrospective, Into the Light (March 10 – April 2) was that more works from the original posthumous show of 1966 might turn up. (There are 8 of the 37 works from that show that we haven’t traced.) That didn’t happen, but what we did discover was that one of the works from the 1966 show, which we thought lost, might well have been hiding in plain sight.
Meditation (oil on canvas, undated, 61 x 70cms) has always been a bit of an outlier in terms of Una’s work. It seems like a quasi-religious work with its nun-like/madonna central figure sitting beside a source of fire, or perhaps a sacred illumination. (See blog August 16, 2020)
In comparison to Una’s other titles, Meditation is most untypical. Generally, she didn’t go for abstractions like this. She named her work with unstinting pragmatism – Malahide, The Ladies Committee, Thar an GPO,The Red Bridge. The other unusual detail about Meditation is that it’s the only work of hers that’s undated.
The biggest mystery, though, was why Meditation, a large and ambitious work in terms of its style and content, did not appear in the 1966 posthumous show organised by her husband, writer Eugene Watters, a year after her death.
We know that Eugene had the painting in his possession in April 1966 because he was photographed with a group of Una’s paintings he had shipped to his native Ballinasloe for an Easter Rising commemorative lecture he gave – “The Spirit of Sixteen” – at the Town Hall.
The lecture was accompanied by a small show of Una’s “historical” paintings. Six are listed – Thar an GPO, The Four Masters, Silken Thomas in the Tower, Portrait of Brian O Higgins, St Michael’s Church and lastly, a work entitled Mise Eire – lent by S. E Allen Figgis. All of these paintings are identifiable in the photograph (see below) and Meditation is clearly visible as one of the six. So if Eugene had access to the work, why did it not appear in the 1966 show he organised for November of that year?
That mystery set Eugene’s niece, Georgina O’Donovan, a stalwart supporter of this site, thinking and she has come up with a theory.
In the 1966 show, there was a painting listed under the title Old Woman, lent by Allen Figgis (the same S. E. Allen Figgis mentioned previously). He was a publisher and proprietor of Hodges Figgis bookshop, a collector of art and a friend of Eugene Watters. (He published De Luain, Eugene’s Irish language novel about the Easter Rising, in 1966).
Old Woman was one of the 1966 paintings we didn’t manage to trace for the 2022 show.
Georgina wondered if this painting could, in fact, be Meditation. If so, Mediation/Old Woman would have been painted in 1951, according to the 1966 catalogue, giving the lie to our supposition that it was a late work.
If you depend on the 1966 show title, the work could be read as a depiction of an elderly woman crouched by a fire, rather than a Madonna-like figure contemplating a source of heavenly illumination. Georgina wondered if Meditation was a title appended to the painting afterwards and not by Una at all.
In a further twist, given the photographic evidence, it appears that the work could have had a third title.
The mysterious Mise Eire mentioned in the list of paintings used to illustrate Eugene’s lecture in Ballinasloe is a work we’ve never come across in Una’s portfolio. And there’s no work in the photograph that matches it, if you discount Meditation, which is not named at all. Could Mise Eire also be Meditation – perhaps renamed by Eugene for the purpose of the lecture? (It would be tempting to reinterpret the old woman/ madonna figure of the painting as Mother Ireland and the golden flame as the igniting fire of the rebellion.)
If this is so, it wouldn’t have been the first time that Eugene had a hand in naming Una’s work. We know he titled the Emerald Ballroom watercolours because Una hadn’t got around to naming them before her untimely death and, indeed, probably did not see them as finished pieces.
There’s also the possibility that he retitled the last oil Una worked on her before her death now known as Harvest. This depicts a small girl in red (Una’s alter-ego in much of her work) carrying a billy can of tea to workers bringing in the hay at Cappagh. (Her father, wearing a hat, is clearly identifiable in the painting.) However, among the family, this work was known as “Tea in the Fields” – a much more typical Una title, or perhaps it was just a working title.
Given its significance as the last oil Una worked on, could Eugene have given it a more valedictory name?
Another example of double-naming is The Fluteplayer (in the 1966 exhibition but not available for the 2022 retrospective) which was gifted by Eugene to a family who’ve always referred to it as “Pan”, the Greek god of music. Is this how Eugene described it to them?
All of this, of course, is mere speculation and in the case of Meditation, it may not have been Eugene who renamed it at all. The painting went under the hammer twice in the early Noughties, so an art dealer might have advised a less generic name than Old Woman for the market.
The amateur art lover might believe that the artist has last dibs on the naming of her work, but this is not necessarily so. Curators, dealers and patrons can all have a say in giving a painting a name.
In formalist doctrine, the words beyond the picture frame are not supposed to influence the understanding or appreciation of visual forms. However, for most of us, as art historian E.H Gombrich asserted, the title is a significant contextual factor in interpreting a piece of work. Titles tell us how to look at a work.
When a painting has three titles, then the interpretations proliferate.
One of the legacies of the Una Watters: Into the Light retrospective at the United Arts Club, Dublin (March 10 – April 2, 2022) was that although the Hugh Lane Gallery didn’t lend us the The People’s Gardens (1963, oil on canvas, 40.6 x 50.8cm) for the show, they did agree to a public viewing of the painting on April 5.
The work has been in the Hugh Lane collection since 1967. It was shown at the Royal Hibernian Academy Annual Exhibition in 1964 after which the Thomas Haverty Trust bought the painting. The trust lent it for Una’s posthumous retrospective in 1966. The following year they donated it to the Hugh Lane.
The Haverty Trust was established following the death of the artist Thomas Haverty who left a sum of money for the purchase of paintings by Irish artists for public galleries and institutions. Between 1935 and 1966, the Trust gave the Hugh Lane Gallery over 40 works including paintings by Mary Swanzy, William Leech, Brigid Ganly and Maurice MacGonigal (who encouraged Watters in her art studies).
Although the gallery does not have pre-computerisation records of showings of the works in their collection, there is anecdotal evidence that The People’s Gardens was shown in the Hugh Lane in the 1970s – Una’s niece, Eva Byrne, remembers seeing it there as a child with her mother. But it hasn’t been exhibited in recent times.
However, that does not mean that it hasn’t been seen. According to gallery records, it was on loan to the City Hall between 1969 and 1974 and again in the 1980s where it hung in the office of Mr P O’ Muirgheasa (my namesake, but no relation!) Unfortunately, it sustained “biro damage” during this time which had to be repaired although the note in the gallery file says traces of the biro marks remained underneath the central figure.
It was also hung in the ILAC Centre library in 1987 along with a number of other works on loan from the Hugh Lane – including Harry Kernoff, John Leech and Lizzie Stephens – all of them depicting scenes of Dublin.
Acting Head of Collections Logan Sisley who facilitated the showing, and who has contributed to this blog, (May 6, 2020) was on hand to answer questions on the work. He pointed out the cubist renderings of the trees – (see also blog on Wild Apples, June 24, 2020) – and the application of a dabbing technique to create texture in the grassy area in the foreground.
But the gallery viewing also brought to light some more biographical information about the painting.
We already knew that the elderly couple on the path in the centre of the work are Una’s parents, but the other figures have also now been identified. Georgina O’Donovan, a niece of Eugene Watters, says the little girl in yellow in the foreground is her sister, Linda, and that the male figure reading the newspaper is Eugene. She herself can be glimpsed in a white dress behind a tree and the figures beside her are her parents and her baby brother in a pram. It’s also likely that Una is the woman sitting sheltering under the trees. Although she’s not wearing her trademark red, her pose is reminiscent of other works in which she places herself as an observer of the scene she is painting.
The presence of Eugene’s family from Ballinasloe in what is essentially a Dublin painting is surprising, though Georgina remembers several outings to the park on trips to Dublin, although she believes this may be a composite record of those expeditions, rather than one particular day.
Either way, without the public showing, we might never have learned the background to this work. The viewing of The People’s Gardens provided a focus for memories and connections to be made by those who knew Una and to shed light on her artistic practice and inspiration.
It also highlights Una’s work in the context of the city’s social history. As Dr Roisin Kennedy remarked at the opening of the exhibition many of Una’s paintings record the public life of Dubliners in the 50s and 60s, a life now vanished – see The Ladies Committee in the image gallery on this site ( 1966 Exhibition page) or Malahide (see blog of July 22, 2020).
One more good reason for the Hugh Lane to show Una Watters to the world.