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The Gardens Revisited

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.

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Una goes live!

Una Watters’ first retrospective in over 50 years is going into its second week and there has been lots of interest in both the exhibition and in the painter, whose work has been hidden for so long. There has been much media interest in the show and both the Sunday Independent and The Irish Times have covered the exhibition. RTE Lyric FM also ran a broadcast in its Culture File slot.

For those of you who might have missed it, see below for links to the media coverage of Una and her work.

Irish Times:

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/new-exhibition-shines-a-light-on-one-of-ireland-s-great-lost-modernist-painters-1.4828338

Sunday Independent:

https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/theatre-arts/the-forgotten-genius-of-dublin-artist-una-watters-41436197.html

RTE Lyric FM:

https://www.rte.ie/radio/lyricfm/clips/22074207/

Una Watters: Into the Light continues until April 2. Opening hours: Mon-Wed: 12-4/Thurs,Fri: 12-11/Sat: 6-11/Closed Sundays

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After 56 years

This striking poster designed by Kieran O’Connor and featuring Una Watters Self-Portrait in Green (1943), is a fitting showcase for a new retrospective of Una’s work opening on March 10 at the United Arts Club, Dublin.

Fifty-six years ago in November 1966, a year after her death, Una’s husband, Eugene, organised her first retrospective. That event was hosted by the Painters’ Gallery on St Stephen’s Green, only a stone’s throw from the United Arts Club on Fitzwilliam Street. The intervening half-century has seen the virtual disappearance of Una’s work from public view. That’s why we think this show is important.

Although this is a smaller show – featuring over 20 works from the 1966 show, plus some newly discovered watercolours – we’re hoping that the exhibition will help to put Una’s name in lights, where it belongs.

Una Watters: Into the Light will be launched by Dr Roisin Kennedy (UCD) on Thursday, March 10 @ 6pm. All welcome.

The invite for the original retrospective in 1966
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Una in focus

Mistress of the Four Masters

History comes wittily alive in Una Watters’ jaunty rendition of The Four Masters (1959, oil on canvas, 60 x 70cm) which will be on show at her retrospective coming up at the United Arts Club in Dublin opening on March 10 – see details below.

It’s one of only three of Una’s works in public ownership. The painting was presented to the public library branch in Phibsoboro, Dublin, where Una worked as a librarian before she married in 1945. It shows the authors of the Annals of the Four Masters, a seminal early manuscript written in Irish and compiled at a Franciscan friary in Co Donegal between January 22, 1632 and August 10, 1636.

“The Annals are a chronicle of Irish history from A.M. 2242 to A.D. 1616 and contain records under successive years of the deaths of kings and other prominent persons, both ecclesiastical and lay, along with accounts of battles, plagues, etc,” according to the Royal Irish Academy. “They end with the death of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, in 1616. The compilation was largely derived from older manuscripts, many of which have not survived.”

The various hands in the manuscript are, according to the RIA, clear, legible and it was swiftly written with a pointed quill.

The annals were put together at a time when the Gaelic heritage was under grave threat from the combined effects of enforced plantations, religious persecution and the military defeats suffered by the Gaelic lordships, all of which facilitated the encroachment of English culture and language.

Image courtesy of the Royal Irish Academy

Una’s depiction of the four monks stands out, primarily, for its witty humanity. Her monastic scribes are not from central casting; they are clearly four individuals with defined personalities. The chinless younger monk in the right foreground is clearly shocking the bearded white elder on the left, who is wide-eyed and incredulous. Meanwhile, behind them, the tonsured black-haired monk on the left is in deep discussion with his older mentor – clearly, an ecumenical matter is being discussed.

Often, Una created facial expressions with broad brush strokes, relying on gesture rather than detailed rendering of physiognomy. Here she departs from this practice. Perhaps she wanted to humanise these historical personages and make them seem like real people, engaged in spirited discussion? This is clearly a work meeting with the tools of the trade clearly evident all around them – manuscripts, quills and books.

Through the apse window behind them, the outline of a blue mountain can be seen – referencing the hills of Donegal? – just like the glimpses of Italian hill towns in religious paintings of the High Renaissance.

For those of you interested in the other of Una’s paintings in public hands, you can view Portrait of Brian O’Higgins (see blog May 19, 2020) at Navan Public Library on request.

The People’s Gardens (May 6,2020) which is held by the Hugh Lane Gallery is not on public display. It was donated to the gallery in 1967 by the Haverty Trust which funded the purchase of paintings by Irish artists for public galleries and institutions.

Unfortunately, the Hugh Lane Gallery has declined to lend the painting for Una’s retrospective, which is a great shame. But if you’re a fan of Una’s work, you could always visit the gallery and request that they show it at some stage so the wider public can see Una’s work in the flesh.

It could be a case of People Power for The People’s Gardens!

Una Watters: Into the Light runs at the United Arts Club, 3 Upr Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin 2, March 10 – April 2, 2022.

Opening times: Mon – Wed: 12 – 4pm /Thurs, Fri: 12 – 11pm/ Saturday: 6 – 11pm

Admission is free.

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Show time for Una!

We’re very pleased to announce that the retrospective exhibition we’ve been working towards for the last two-and-a-half years, Una Watters: Into the Light, will go ahead at the United Arts Club in Dublin next month. (Details below)

Our aim is to recreate as closely as possible the last retrospective of Una’s work, a posthumous exhibition organised by her husband, Eugene Watters. We used the catalogue of this exhibition as a guide in our quest to trace Una’s “lost” paintings. Because we didn’t manage to find all 37 works in that show, the 2022 retrospective is, by necessity, smaller. However, it does feature some work not in the 1966 exhibition and some newly discovered watercolours.

Although Una Watters: Into the Light is by its nature a backward glance at Una’s work, we like to think it’ll be a step forward in terms of her visibility and reputation.

The Farm, featured above, (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) is one of the paintings that you’ll be able to see in the show which will run from March 10 to April 2.

It’s a late work (1964) and represents territory very close to Una’s heart, featuring as it does her parental home and the land around it at Cappagh Cross, Finglas.  The same landscape is depicted in Harvest (see our blog, “The Grim Reaper”, Nov 21, 2020) and even tangentially in the background of Flowerpiece (“A Time of Gifts”, Dec 22, 2021)

What probably isn’t clear from the reproduction here is that Una used gold leaf for the meadow that dominates the painting, devouring over half of the pictorial space.  Gold leaf is more often associated with religious paintings although the modernist painter Patrick Scott (1921 – 2014), a near contemporary of Una’s, and one of the first Irish exponents of pure abstraction, incorporated geometrical forms in gold leaf against a pale tempura background in his iconic mature work.

Meditation Painting 28 – Patrick Scott. Photograph: IMMA

Some of Una’s early work concentrated on religious themes e.g. Annunciation (1943) which was shown in the original 1966 retrospective and is now, unfortunately, lost.  Another painting, The Flight into Egypt, is mentioned in correspondence. Due to an oversight by Una’s husband, Eugene, it was not included in the 1966 show although it was in the possession of Una’s sister at the time. This work, too, has not been located.

Una’s use of gold leaf in The Field, a secular work, is an interesting choice. It lends a spiritual emphasis to the pastoral idyll, elevating nature to the sacred realm. Harvest, one of her last works, has the same golden glow, though without gold leaf so its atmosphere is predominantly nostalgic.  (The work is known colloquially among family members as Tea in the Fields.)

One of the figures in The Farm might well be Una herself and it, too, might be a recollection of a childhood scene.  The naieve depiction of the farm buildings and house, the ducks in the pale blue pond, even the expanse of the meadow suggest a child’s eye perspective, intimating the vastness of the landscape and, temporally, the seeming endlessness of summer days.

It’s unclear what the figure in white is doing – pointing to something or perhaps she’s picking blackberries? Is that a pail in her left hand? Compare the stance of this figure to the two gambolling girls – Eugene Watters’ nieces – in Wild Apples (“Wild Apples”, June 24, 2020). Another female figure is lolling against a green mound while on the far right a calf, or is it a large dog, stands motionless in the sunshine. So far, so figurative. But the long, stalky green shadows and those trademark cubist trees show Una’s late abstract tendencies, as does the patterning of the landscape.

It’s unlikely that Una would ever have travelled to the far-reaches of abstraction that Patrick Scott inhabited, although his early work was, like Una’s, highly representational. (He jokingly referred to himself as an Irish Grandma Moses.) But it does beg the question – would Una, like Scott, have moved further into abstraction had she lived?

Una Watters: Into the Light runs at the United Arts Club, 3 Upr Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin 2, March 10 – April 2, 2022.