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One painting, three titles

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.

Eugene Watters in Ballinasloe in April 1966 with the six paintings that made up an exhibition of Una’s historical paintings at Cullen’s, Society Street. Meditation is clearly visible under his right arm.
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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.