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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.

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Una in focus

A time of gifts

Just in time for Christmas, we’ve discovered another Una Watters. This one, an early oil from the mid-1940s, was a gift to the father of the present owner of the work, who now lives in the UK. But unlike a lot of Una’s paintings which were distributed by her husband Eugene Watters after her untimely death, we know Una gifted this one herself shortly after it was completed.

We know the approximate date of the work (45.2cms x 55.2cms) because it’s signed with her married name. So it was most likely completed after Una’s marriage in 1945 and before the end of 1946, since it was a wedding gift to the recipients who married in that year.

“The picture used to hang in in our dining room in Blanchardstown,” the current owner recalls. “My father was the GP for the area at that time. Apparently, Una was a patient of his and the painting was a wedding gift to my parents from her.”

The owner made contact after seeing a post on the excellent “Dublin of Ould” Facebook group, which marked Una’s birthday anniversary in November. Thank you to them for being the conduit for this new Una Watters’ discovery!

The painting is a still life, unusual for Una, showing an arrangement of flowers, mop-headed chrysanthemums in white, pink, crimson and yellow in a dark, opaque vase which may itself be decorated. (An eagle-eyed follower of this site has suggested that, in fact, the vase is transparent and the reflections of the blossom heads can be seen in the glass – see comments above) A saucer stands nearby and the vase seems to be sitting on a brown surface, probably a table. The background is a parchment shade, but it’s vaguely illuminated by an unspecified light source outside of the frame.

Despite this illumination, the mood of the painting is sombre, although, of course, we’re only going by photographs here which can be deceptive in terms of light. But the chrysanthemums look like they might be on the turn, or are certainly a bit windblown, and the leaves are very stark against the subdued background.

Una returned to still life in her very late work – see the impressionistic Emerald Ballroom watercolours elsewhere on this site – and in one of the works that featured in the 1966 posthumous exhibition.

Flowerpiece (1965 – dimensions unknown) also depicts a flower arrangement but the mood couldn’t be more different. The flowers are rendered in Una’s late geometric style so the bowl and the blooms – pansies? – seem cut from the same material, both solid and structural, but also airy. The lighting here is almost celestial glancing off the cut-glass bowl and refracting out into a lemony haze beyond the glass, uniting the pale blue sky and the tender greenery visible beyond the metal window frame (almost certainly the view from the Watters’ cottage in Cappagh Cross.)

The mood is joyful, transcendent. These are not flowers on the turn, but abundant and gloriously in tune with nature, as it would seem is their creator.

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Una soars with Finglas ravens

Another reason to celebrate Una Watters’ birthday month, is a new sculpture to be launched in Kildonan Park, Finglas, this week that pays homage to Una’s work

The Bridge: Finglas Ravens Soar, is a seven-metre-tall steel sculpture by Sara Cunningham-Bell, commissioned by Dublin City Council/Sculpture Dublin, for the 20-acre public park comprising two figures with arms raised holding high a mirrored steel ‘river rug’.

The sculpture is a compendium piece, threaded through with symbols and motifs reflecting the artistic and cultural life of the locality – including the figures of running schoolboys from Una Watters’ seminal painting, Cappagh Road, and representations of An Claidheamh Soluis (Sword of Light), the symbol she designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 – see elsewhere on this site.

Coincidentally, the sculpture was installed on November 4, Una’s 103th birthday.

Inspired by the Irish translation of Finglas – ‘Fionnghlas’ (clear streamlet) – the sculpture draws on other influential figures associated with the area, such as Sophie Pierce-Healy, an aviatrix who flew her plane, “The Silver Lining”, from Kildonan Aerodrome, Ireland’s first commercial airport in the 1920s, along with celebrated uileann piper Séamus Ennis.

The Kildonan Park work was a ‘participative’ commission. Over the past year, hundreds of local residents have engaged with Sculpture Dublin by taking part in over 40 creative workshops, focus groups, public meetings and other engagement activities related to the installation.

The Bridge: Fiacha Dhubha Fhionglaise ar Foluain’ will have a public launch on site at Kildonan Park on Saturday, November 13, at 2pm.

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Una in focus

Happy Birthday, Una Watters

Una Watters was born 103 years ago on this day. We celebrate her birthday with this charming early self-portrait. This is one of the few oil paintings that she signed with her maiden name, Una McDonnell. (She married Eugene Watters in 1945.) So it’s a portrait of the artist as a young woman.The painting (oil on canvas, 23 x 31 cm) dates to 1942 when she was just 24. It may well have been completed while she was studying at the National College of Art where she attended part-time on the encouragement of Maurice MacGonigal, the college’s director.

Like the 1943 Self-Portrait in Green, featured elsewhere on this site, the sitter’s gaze is clear and candid, although there is something tentative about the expression. The graceful contour of her neck is accentuated by a gold crucifix on a delicate chain. The colourful floral dress looks more girlish than the sophisticated presentation in Self Portrait in Green and although Una looks straight at us, she is slightly off-centre in the composition, her right shoulder out of frame. This adds to the impression of uncertain youth. It lacks the forthright pose of the 1943 work. Although painted only a year later, the confidence of the “green” portrait is noticeable, perhaps as a consequence of the formal training she was receiving.

As far as we know, this portrait was never exhibited (it wasn’t in the 1966 exhibition, for example) and remained in the McDonnell family endorsing the notion that it may well have been an apprentice work.

As Frances Borzello remarks in Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits, self-portraits are often done for practice, or alternatively for self-promotion. “A comparison of the artist with a painted subject was the best way to prove one’s skill at catching a likeness.”

Una’s interest in portraiture was established early. She did impromptu sketches of family and friends from a young age. She went on to complete several accomplished oil portraits – of Eugene Watters, Brian O’Higgins and Tomas O Muircheartaigh – where according to the sitters or their familiars, she had the skill of achieving great likenesses.

As Colbert Kearney remarks of her portrait of Eugene Watters: “Seeing it again more than a half a century later, was a Pygmalion moment: I expected the image in the frame to turn and talk to me so miraculously had the artist captured not only the appearance, but also the essence of the man.”

So are we seeing the “real” Una here? Well, perhaps, though as Dr Eimear O’Connor pointed out writing about Self Portrait in Green, the self-portrait is more than autobiographical statement. It’s also about technique – the compendium of painterly decisions on light, colour and composition that reflect the artist’s innate talent.