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Una in focus

She stoops to conquer?

Guest blogger Michael Waldron, Assistant Curator of Collections and Special Projects at the Crawford Gallery, Cork, takes a closer look at Una’s 1959 painting, “Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain”.

On my first in-person encounter with this painting, shafts of autumn sunlight, filtering through Venetian blinds, fell across its surface. This serendipitous meeting of art and atmosphere added another dimension to an already striking composition. 

Assuredly contemporary, Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain ( oil on canvas, 78.74 x 58.42 cms) is of its time. Coming in the years following the Mother and Child Scheme, establishment of the Arts Council of Ireland (1951), completion of Busáras (1953), and the Marian Year (1954), this was an Ireland on the cusp of significant social change. (The first female recruits to An Garda Síochána (1959), the founding of RTÉ Television (1961), and the publication of Edna O’Brien’s bellwether novel, The Country Girls (1960), were just on the horizon.)

Although not avant-garde by any stretch, Watters’ painting, nonetheless, has its roots in the revolutionary aesthetics from earlier in the century. In its dynamic, slightly prismatic energy, there are resonances with the paintings of Mary Swanzy, Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone, Norah McGuinness, and to a lesser degree, of Louis le Brocquy and Colin Middleton. Rather than specific reference points, however, these may be taken to inform the stylistic territory that Watters was herself exploring.

In Watters’ painting there are faint echoes too of States of Mind: Those Who Go (1911) by Umberto Boccioni. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/78653. Dissolving into horizontal whisps, the downcast figures in this work of Italian Futurism seem to be the disillusioned heirs to the confident 19th century urbanites of Impressionism.

Such dynamic Cubo-Futurist fragmentation are also hallmarks of Giacomo Balla’s pre-First World War work. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giacomo_Balla. Within this art historical space, however, a stronger aesthetic equivalent to Watters is perhaps the second-generation Italian Futurist painter Alessandro Bruschetti (1910-1980), whose aeropaintings are stylistically similar, if politically very distant. https://artsandculture.google.com/entity/alessandro-bruschetti/g120vzl_v?categoryid=artist

Rainy, urban settings were among the subjects of a coterie of modernist artists during the later nineteenth century. In the case of the Impressionists, the atmospheric qualities of rain and its effects on colour and light – so celebrated in Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) by J.M.W. Turner – perhaps offered an opportunity to capture something ephemeral.

Exemplary of such renderings, Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) is a scene of fashionable Bourgeois individuals walking in a wintry Place de Dublin. Les Parapluies (The Umbrellas), Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s famed 1880s painting, is another fine example – this time with a more direct Irish context.  

In 1959, the year Watters painted Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain, a historic agreement was reached between Dublin and London which would see an alternation of Lane Bequest paintings displayed in the Hugh Lane Gallery and The National Gallery. Les Parapluies was – and still is – among this infamous group of works that drew together national politics, international relations, and the art world.

Moreover, this “1st Loan Agreement” came after decades of lobbying at the highest levels and would certainly have been spoken of in Watters’ social circles and home life. (Incidentally, Watters’ The People’s Gardens (1963) – written of previously here by Logan Sisley – is part of the Hugh Lane Gallery collection.)

While these may be circumstantial, even tangential contexts, it is worth noting them when attempting to situate Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain and Watters’ informed approach to subjects and style. Both, like Watters’ painting, possess a sense of solidity. But if either of these works was on the Irish artist’s mind when composing her painting, she decisively abandons their cooler grey-blue palettes in favour of red and peach tones that warm the sombre, inhospitable Dublin streetscape.  

Les Parapluies – Pierre August Renoir

Mary Morrissy has previously (and astutely) described Watters’ composition and suggested a thematic connection between her inclusion of John Henry Foley’s statue of Oliver Goldsmith (top left) and the mythological story of Danaë receiving the golden rain.

Searching for other meanings, we might look to the eponymous ‘girl’ as she passes in profile outside the railings of Trinity College: is there an implied reference to Archbishop McQuaid’s enforcement of the Catholic ‘ban’ on entering the institution between 1956 and 1970?

Or perhaps there is a simpler joke implied here: does our ‘girl’ (the artist?) – leaning slightly, yet resolutely into the rain – ‘stoop to conquer’ as per Goldsmith’s 1770s stage comedy? 

Michael Waldron

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News Una in focus

Found and lost

Woman Sewing (dimensions unavailable) is a work of Una’s that dates to 1958. It featured on the cover of the catalogue for her posthumous 1966 exhibition, organised by her husband Eugene, and held at the Dublin Painters Gallery on St Stephen’s Green, almost 55 years ago.

It’s timely to be considering this work today since we’ve finalised dates for our own retrospective of Una’s work (after a number of COVID- led cancellations) for March 11 – April 3, 2022, at the United Arts Club, 3 Fitzwilliam Street Upper, Dublin.

This show will feature as many of the works we can trace from the 1966 show – currently tallying at 26 out of 37 – plus her rediscovered watercolours ( the Emerald Ballroom series – see elsewhere on this site).

Woman Sewing has a strangely anatomical quality as if we’re seeing the subject with x-ray vision – down to her very bones. Look at her arms, or her clearly delineated breasts like perfect moon-like globes under her workaday pinafore. Her sewing hand is minutely rendered, the slender tapering figures, the translucent fingernails and the precise grip of the needle. Light blossoms at her throat in a rounded countour that echoes her breasts and even the pattern she’s embroidering. So although the painting is figurative, there’s a geometrical abstraction at work here as well.

The blue/black palette is reminiscent of Meditation, an undated work of Una’s that we’ve discussed elsewhere in the blog, (August 16,2020) but unlike Meditation this work is not delving into the mystical, but observing more earthy pursuits.

Here is a woman absorbed in craft work. The expression on her face is inward-looking, her eyes downcast, a smile playing on her lips. It’s a depiction of someone taking pride and pleasure in artistic work. It could even be seen as a stylised self-portrait ( Una was a talented seamstress).

The sad thing about Woman Sewing is that although we’ve traced the owner of the work, he cannot locate it, so it’s both found and lost. His family came into possession of it after the 1966 show, he told me, and he remembers it being on display in the house in the 1960s. But at some stage it was put away and now he’s not sure where it might be.

We’re hoping if he reads this he might send another search party into the attic so that it can join its companions in the upcoming show. As the shop window image for her original retrospective, Woman Sewing really needs to be in the 2022 show.

Addendum: Please go to comments at the top of this post where similarities are drawn by one of our followers between Una’s Woman Sewing and the work of Fernand Leger. I include the images referenced here.

Fernand Leger: Woman with a Cat (1921)
Fernand Leger: Woman Sewing (1909)

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

Una’s underworld

At first sight, Una’s 1958 depiction of the sixth century monastic site Clonmacnoise (oil on canvas, dimensions not known) seems straightforward enough. It’s a partial view of this seven-acre heritage site that comprises a relict monastic city with two round towers, a cathedral and nunnery, nine churches and 700 early Christian grave slabs.

It boasts several original High Crosses, including the magnificent 10th century Cross of Scriptures (914 A.D.)

St Ciaran founded Clonmacnoise in 544 A.D. Like most monastic settlements it was established in a strategic spot on the banks of the Shannon where the river meetsc the Esker Ridge, a pilgrim route that ran through central Ireland.

There’s a serenity in Una’s rendering of Clonmacnoise, notwithstanding the layered and brooding sky. The buildings sweep up from the grass looking, for all the world, as if they grew there. The viewers gets less of a notion of something in ruin, as of something organic still in process. The limestone buildings are illuminated with splashes of white, perhaps lichen? It can’t be from reflected sun given the thunderous clouds overhead.

Una was interested in the physicality of stone – see Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain (1959) or Silken Thomas in the Tower (1956). Her city paintings show a materialistic exactitude about the built environment, evident in Cappagh Road (1960) or City Bridge (1965), both discussed elsewhere on this blog. But even though Clonmacnoise is a static scene, and is, unusually for Una, not animated by human figures, there is a great deal of movement and emotion in the painting.

It’s expressed in the louring sky and in the mobile rendering of the earth beneath the gravestones. It’s as if the ground is a green pool lapping up against the stone and reflecting what’s going on above the surface. Inevitably, there are dips and hollows in any graveyard where the earth subsides and where there is footfall. Una’s sensuous brushstrokes capture the surface undulations, while at the same time, creating a sense of depth, as if she’s also giving us a glimpse of an underworld that is as mobile and moody as the sky.

The first time I saw this painting I was reminded of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s 1950 Irish language masterpiece, Cré na Cille. There was a copy of the novel in the bookshelves when I was growing up, and as a child, I was fascinated by the cover which shows a jumble of graveyards on a stoney hillside in Connemara. There’s no doubt that there would have been a copy of Cré na Cille in Eugene and Una’s cottage in Finglas, and that Una would have been familiar with the painter behind the cover.

Armagh-born painter Charles Lamb (1893-1964) designed the book jacket and also provided drawings of all the main characters in the story in the first edition of the novel from publishers Sairséal agus Dill.

The comic twist in the plot of Ó Cadhain’s novel is that all of the characters in Cré na Cille are dead. They are not ethereal ghosts but loud coffin-bound corpses who bitch and moan, boast and gossip about one another incessantly in a raucous chorus.

Una’s underworld may be a more dreamy and abstracted location, but like Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s graveyard, it’s very lively. Whatever it is, it’s certainly not dead. The buildings, as Una paints them, seem solid and stalwart, despite the turbulence overhead and underground. They stand as a symbol of faith – the painter’s own, perhaps, since she was a believer? – in an unstable world.

Eugene Watters described this duality as the essence of Una’s style i.e that her work had at least two meanings. “While remaining true to the mood and shape of the natural scene, it should have other suggestions built into it.” 

Some of Una’s early work was of religious subject matter and there is a meditative, harmonious quality to even her most social of paintings. A year later, in 1959, she would return to monastic Ireland with The Four Masters, which hangs in Phibsborough library where she worked as a librarian before her marriage.

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Una in focus

Venus de Dublino?

It’s June and despite the poor weather, Una’s 1950 painting, Girl in Sand (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) seems an appropriately seasonal choice for this month.

This is an early work and perhaps her first foray into a more stylised technique that she developed later. The first question to ask is, is it a self-portrait? Una often smuggled surrogates of herself into group paintings – see The Ladies Committee, Wild Apples and Malahide – where the figure of a young woman, often in a red dress, stands in for Una.

(Her oeuvre also includes several traditional portraits in oil of others, including her husband Eugene, and her uncle, Brian O’Higgins, as well as many informal sketches of family and friends.)

The figure of the bather here is more enigmatic. Her downcast eye is all that’s visible. The rest of her features are eclipsed by a curtain of black hair, and her rather chunky figure doesn’t look like Una’s, although she is wearing Una’s traditional red. Perhaps she’s an archetypal figure – like the young woman in Girl walking by Trinity in the Rain (1959).

The body is rendered in broad brush strokes and the contours of the bather’s athletic figure are suggested by shadows on the limbs. The background, too, is impressionistic. The sand seems as fluid as a river-bed and rises up behind the young woman in large, swirling patterns that tend towards abstraction.

Una often presents nature in a semi-abstract fashion. Her trees are often more geometric shape than branch and leaf realistically rendered. Her fields can often be flat blocks of colour (see the gilted pasture of The Farm, 1964), or surreal as in Clonmacnoise (1958), where we get a striated view of an underworld beneath the surface.

The bather’s hand gestures in Girl in Sand are arresting. She holds back her hair with forked delicate fingers. Is she combing her wet hair? If so, it’s hard to make out the comb in her right hand, which points, delicately reminiscent of God’s hand in the Creation of Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco. Either way, she’s lost in a kind of trance that keeps the viewer at bay.

Her mystery, of course, may be that she’s not a real girl at all, but someone who’s sprung from her surroundings, a nymph or a selkie, an elemental creature, parting her hair to view this strange new world she’s landed in.

There’s something tossed and sea-weedy about the background, and the murky, churned-up sand seems to morph into a giant cloud or wave, as if in the aftermath of turbulence. (However, I should add, I haven’t actually seen this painting in the flesh and am working from an old photograph so the colours may well not be true.) A typical day at the Irish seaside, you might say.

But is it a stretch to see echoes of Sandro Botticelli’s Renaissance masterpiece, The Birth of Venus (c 1480) here? Contrary to its title, Botticelli depicts the moment the goddess Venus arrives at the shore after her birth in which she emerged from the sea fully-formed.

Remember those beautifully delicate fingers of Una’s bather and compare them to the gestures of Botticelli’s Venus. Perhaps it’s the same mythical scene and we’re looking at a Venus de Dublino?

Mary Morrissy

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Una inspires!

Una Watters will be commemorated in her native Finglas by a sculpture commissioned by Dublin City Council in association with Sculpture Dublin. https://www.sculpturedublin.ie/news-events/ The piece, a six-metre corten steel figure, will be placed in Kildonan Park in Finglas West, and the artist who won the commission, Belfast-born Sara Cunningham Bell, has already been in consultation with local people who suggested Una as one of the inspirations for the piece.

“She (Una) carries the importance of others with her in the sculpture form,” Sara has said. 

Sara’s sculptural creations are “figurative in form and documentary in approach”.

“The idea for the artwork has been informed by listening to, and learning from the people of Finglas. It is driven by a desire to produce a significant sculptural form, that can be interacted with, and enjoyed as a feature of the park, which represents a positive and uplifting presence in the locality.”

Una was born, raised and lived all of her adult life at Cappagh Cross, close to Kildonan, which is about 2.5 kilometres from Finglas village. The area – both rural and urban – featured in much of her work. (A shout-out here to anybody in Finglas who might have two of her urban paintings – School Break and Building Scheme – which feature the new suburb in the 1960s, which we have still not located.)

The bungalow which Una shared with her husband, Eugene Watters, was set in picturesque countryside and still stands today, although her former family home right beside it was demolished in recent years. The once rural setting of Cappagh Cross has now been overtaken and degraded by motorway development, which makes it unrecognisable as the rural idyll Una depicted in her paintings such as The Farm (1964) and Harvest (1965).

More public consultation will go ahead in the coming months and Sara’s piece will enhance the refurbishment of the 20-acre park. The sculpture project is supported by the Hugh Lane Gallery, Visual Arts Ireland, the Parks and Landscape Offices and the City Arts Office.

Sara Cunningham-Bell has undertaken many public art commissions, including pieces for the Ulster University, Kingspan Stadium, DECAL, IRFU, The Mater Hospital, Victoria College Belfast, European Union Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, Bass Ireland, and the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. You can see her work on https://www.cunninghambell.com.

The photograph shows Sara Cunningham-Bell at work on “Towards Tomorrow” for the Lodge Road roundabout in Coleraine. Photograph: courtesy of the artist.