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Una in focus

Social distancing in the park

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Mary Morrissy, curator of this site, takes a wander in the park and sees influences of Seurat and Kernoff in Una Watters’ The People’s Gardens (1963)  

Three park views, three different painters.  Una Watters painted the third of the sequence here, The People’s Gardens (oil on canvas, 40.6 x 50.8 cm) in 1963 but as a keen student of art,  it seems inevitable she was familiar with the other two – Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte (1886) and Harry Kernoff‘s People’s Gardens (1945).

Harry Kernoff  (1900-1974) was a near contemporary of Una’s and The People’s Garden, Phoenix Park Dublin (oil on board ,13.5 x 19.5 cm) was painted on the same site in 1945, nearly 20 years before Una’s.  Apart from the location it’s possible to see other influences, particularly in the animation of the figures and the way the shadows are rendered.  Kernoff and Una would certainly have known one another’s work through RHA exhibitions.  They showed together at least once in an Oireachtas exhibition in October 1965, where Una’s Sean Tithe (see in Uncatalogued Work on this site) appeared alongside work by Kernoff and two of  Una’s mentors,  Maurice McGonigal and Sean O’Sullivan. harry kernoff - st stephen's green

O’Sullivan was Una’s cousin, and would have been another link between her and Harry Kernoff.  (It’s recorded that Kernoff painted his 1936 St Stephens’ Green,  from a perch at the window of O’Sullivan’s studio at 126 St Stephen’s Green; see right.)

As well as a shared colour palette, Una’s and Kernoff’s paintings of the People’s Gardens  seem similarly motivated. Here are ordinary people observed in leisure, although Una’s rendering keeps its distance and is more stylised than Kernoff’s up-close, jaunty realism.  Artist Michael Kane writing in the Irish Arts Review described Kernoff as painting “the world around him as a kind of earthy, egalitarian paradise, and celebrated its gaiety and diversity with unapologetic optimism”.

That description would not be out of place when looking at Una’s urban work such as The People’s Gardens or Cappagh Road, discussed in an earlier blog on this site.

But Una’s The People’s Gardens also owes a major debt to Seurat’s 1886 pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte. In this work, now housed at the Art Institute of Chicago,  Seurat depicted the haute-bourgeoisie of Paris, statuesque matrons with their bonnets, bustles and brollies, accompanied by their prosperous, top-hatted gents and polite children, taking the air on the fashionable side of the Seine, dressed in their Sunday best.  The figures in Seurat’s painting stand, as one critic has described it, with the “solemnity of sculptures of the Parthenon”.

bathersCompare them with the figures in Seurat’s  Bathers at Asnières (1884) on the left here  – at the National Gallery London – which the painter saw as a companion piece to La Grande Jatte.  He imagined the two works  hanging side by side almost in a dialogue with one another. The male figures in the Bathers are working-class labourers lounging on the bank or immersing themselves in the waters of the Seine on a white hot muggy day,  with the chimneys of factories smoking in the background. All of the figures are gazing towards their right – at the more fashionable side of the river where the viewer can imagine the posher denizens of La Grande Jatte are strolling. The little boy on the extreme right waist-deep in the water with the red hat could even be cat-calling at his “betters” on the other bank.

The democratic spirit in Una’s The People’s Gardens depicting everyday people enjoying a day of leisure at a municipal facility, are more akin to Seurat’s Bathers. But there are definite painterly echoes of La Grande Jatte in Una’s composition.  Look at that sturdy little girl in yellow chasing a ball in the left foreground of Una’s painting; isn’t there an echo of the more sylph-like girl in red, skipping in the mid-ground of Seurat’s master-work?  The kite-flying figure in blue in full flight in the background of Una’s work is mirrored by the man in Seurat’s mid-ground left,  dressed in a rust-coloured suit with his spy glass raised. There are those pooled shadows again, and Una’s trees, with their solid angularity, have something of the same abstraction as Seurat brought to the pointillist cushions of foliage crowning his trees.

Sheila Smith, Una’s niece, has observed that Una liked to place people she knew – and sometimes herself – into her paintings.  In The People’s Gardens, Sheila has identified the elderly couple on the path, one of them leaning on a walking stick, as Una’s parents.

The location of both Una’s and Kernoff’s painting is an area of the Phoenix Park in Dublin originally called the Victorian People’s Flower Gardens. It was a site Una had already painted in The People’s Park, below, a watercolour from 1943 and she returned to it in 1963 with The People’s Gardens, now housed in the Hugh Lane Gallery.  (Logan Sisley, acting head of collections at the Hugh Lane Gallery,  has written elsewhere on this blog about the painting.)

The Gardens were initially established in 1840 as the Promenade Grounds and consist of about 22 acres.  They were set up to display Victorian horticulture at its best with ornamental lakes, a children’s playground, a picnic area and formal bedding schemes. The statue that’s visible in Una’s watercolour, below, may well be the bust of executed 1916 leader Seán Heuston, a memorial in stone executed by sculptor and painter Laurence Campbell and erected in the park in 1943.

 

The People’s Park (1943) Una Watters; Statue of Sean Heuston (credit William Murphy); early 20th century postcard of the People’s Gardens, Phoenix Park.

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Una in focus

Self-Portrait in Green

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Art historian Dr Éimear O’Connor HRHA, takes a close look at Una’s 1943 self-portrait and finds the influence of an early mentor,  the prolific painter and portraitist, Sean O’Sullivan.

Painted during what became known as The Emergency in Ireland (1939-1946), which took place in the context of World War Two, the artist’s simple peplum-collared blouse in Self Portrait in Green, (oil on canvas, 25 x 30 cm) was typical of the era. So too, her soft, behind the ear hairstyle is one that we might now recognise from film and photographs of the time.

Watters gazes at her viewer with confidence, and yet with a hint of reticence, her asymmetrical features filling the canvas with an honesty that is typical of the use of the mirror while working on the painting. Her demeanour and the centralised composition of her self-portrait are characteristic of the self-confidence of Irish women artists in the post-Treaty years, many of whom, including Watters, engaged with modernist art forms such as cubism and abstraction, to develop personal, and highly individual styles.

Watters was 25 when she painted Self Portrait in Green, a highly accomplished work that warrants consideration about the artist’s training. During her teenage years she received guidance about painting in general, and likely, portraiture in particular from her cousin, artist  Sean O’Sullivan. That she received such guidance suggests that Watters demonstrated artistic talent at an early age, the evidence for which in terms of earlier works may yet come to light, but which certainly seems to have caught the attention of her cousin.

Moreover, Self Portrait in Green is reminiscent of O’Sullivan’s method of portraiture at the time. In the late 1930s, Watters was taught by artist,  Maurice MacGonigal at the School of Art in Dublin. It would appear, however, that she was sitting in on classes during her spare time, as her name does not appear on the student registers. That she was doing so is quite possible; O’Sullivan might well have made the necessary arrangements with MacGonigal at the time. Importantly too, Watters worked as a librarian, so she would have had access to books, and journals about the history of art, and about contemporary art, all of which would have contributed to her artistic education.

Self Portrait in Green reveals a great deal about Watters’ innate talent and artistic education in terms of composition and colour balance. Her simple blouse was chosen to highlight the colour of her eyes, which, in turn, are lightly shaded with a similarly toned shadow. Her lipstick, typical of red shades made so popular during the Second World War, was chosen to contrast with her green blouse, a painterly decision that gives extraordinary life to the work.

The same colour is used to highlight her cheeks, much as a make-up artist might do nowadays. The overall effect of the controlled palate of colour gives a softness to the work that is gentle on the viewer’s eye. Her face is lit by natural light from the viewers’ right, thereby casting the opposite side in shadow that delineates her youthful features.

It is in the painterly treatment of her eyes that the viewer can really appreciate the artist’s flair, and her training. Deliberately composed so that her gaze appears above the centre of the canvas, her eyes appear as mountains might above the horizon in a landscape. Large, and well defined, her steady gaze draws the viewer in to the shy determination that shines from within. The few flicks of white paint around her dark and enlarged pupils, are a tiny detail, and yet, they are the touches that bring her face to life.

A powerful portrait for an artist of such youth, Self Portrait in Green prefigures the outstanding range of post-impressionist and modernist inspired work that Watters undertook throughout her career. Unafraid to experiment, Watters was a woman of immense artistic ability. How wonderful it is to see her career re-examined, and reinstated within the context of the art and artists of her day.

Dr Eimear O’Connor

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Una in focus

Portrait of Brian O’Higgins

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Brian O’Higgins (1963)

Una Watters’ niece, Sheila Smith and her daughter Karen, write about the background to one of Una’s large, late-career portraits which demonstrates her unusual textured approach to portraiture. 

One of Una Watters’ strengths was portraiture as evidenced by the sheer number of pencil sketches and drawings of family and friends in her portfolio of work. Subjects frequently testify to the great likeness that Una achieved in these works. Late in her career, she also completed several portraits in oil, which featured in the 1966 retrospective exhibition, including one of her husband, E R Watters (1965), another of Tomás O’Muircheartaigh (1962), which we have still not managed to trace, and a portrait of Brian O’Higgins (1963).

The O’Higgins portrait (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) was completed after the subject’s death. There was a family and professional relationship with Una Watters as O’Higgins had commissioned artistic work from her and was also her uncle. (His wife, and Una’s mother, were sisters.)

Brian O’Higgins (1882–1963) was a distinguished Irish language poet, soldier and patriot. He was a travelling teacher with the Gaelic League and a founder member of the Irish Volunteers.  He took part in the 1916 Easter Rising and was imprisoned in Frongoch in Wales, one of several imprisonments he endured. While in prison, he wrote extensively – prayers, spiritual pieces and poetry. Sometimes known by his pen name, Brian na Banban he also composed both inspirational verse and marching songs, such as “Dawning of the Day”, “Eight Millions of Englishmen” and “Marching Song of Na Fianna Eireann”.

In testimony to the Bureau of Military History, Sean Prendergast, an army captain whom he fought with in 1916, said O’Higgins’ verses and songs “had stirred us to such depths during the past number of years. Few men could be so sincere and so true than he”. Most famous of his songs is undoubtedly “A Stóir mo Chrói” (Treasure of my Heart), a haunting ballad which is still covered by contemporary singers such as  Maura O’Connell, Bonnie Raitt and The Chieftains.

In 1924 O’Higgins set up a publishing house which printed devotional and patriotic booklets with rallying titles such as Unconquered Ireland (1927)and featuring beautifully decorated covers with stylised Celtic designs. He also published and edited the Wolfe Tone Annual between 1932-62. From the 1950s, Brian and his son, Criodán, extended their range into Irish Christmas cards, again utilising Celtic calligraphy and featuring verses written by Brian. The cards were sent all over the world and were particularly popular in the US.

When they needed another illustrator, Una’s sister, Sheila – mother of Sheila Smith, one of the authors of this article – suggested Una since by this stage she was an accomplished artist. As well as the Christmas cards, Una also illustrated a number of devotional pamphlets produced by the company including Little Book of St Patrick (1957), Little Book of St Francis (1958), Little Book of Exile (1959) and the Little Book of Memories (1960) – see first two images below.

Although Una was keen to paint her uncle, she didn’t manage to do so before his death.  She executed the portrait using photographs and her personal recollection of him, according to an article in the Irish Independent on June 2, 1964. “All who have seen it have acknowledged that the attitude is typical of the man they had known in his many moods. Certainly, in painting it, Mrs. Watters has treated her deceased subject with great sympathy and affection.”

It is a large work and done in the angular style Una favoured, especially so in the rendering of the domed head. O’Higgins is looking directly out of the frame, which engages the viewer immediately. His tweed jacket looks almost tactile – the design of the cloth stands out from the painting.

The portrait is one of only three of Una’s works on public display.  The others are The People’s Gardens in the Hugh Lane Gallery Hugh Lane Gallery (see Logan Sisley’s blog of May 6 on this site) and The Four Masters in Phibsboro Library.

The O’Higgins portrait hangs in the Local Studies Room in Navan Library It was presented to the library by the O’Higgins family, having previously hung in the offices of the publishing house on O’Connell Street.  When the libraries reopen after the COVID-19 crisis, it will be possible to view the painting in situ. However, as it is not in the main library, a call in advance is advisable. (046) 9021134

 

Sheila and Karen Smith

 

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Una in focus

Going Nationwide

 

Mary Morrissy, the curator of unawattersartist.wordpress.com, recounts how an essay by a ten-year-old schoolgirl introduced Una Watters to a national audience. 

On March 6, in association with the Herstory project, the RTE  Nationwide programme dedicated a show to Una Watters.  Una’s niece, Sheila Smith, and her nephews Garry and Gerry Byrne, came to EPIC The Emigration Museum in Dublin armed with a selection of Una’s work that is still in the family’s possession and spoke to the show’s presenter, Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh

The Herstory project was founded in 2016 to showcase authentic female role models and to set up an education programme to foster interest in forgotten women achievers. In association with RTE Junior, Irish schoolchildren were asked to nominate their “lost” heroine.

Alexa Bauer (10) of Dublin 7 Educate Together school, nominated Una Watters for the project and wrote an accompanying essay on The Ladies Committee (1964) explaining her choice.

My great aunty Rosie (still alive) and my great-grandmother Molly were both good friends with . . . Una. In our living room, we have a painting by her called “The Ladies Committee” and my great-grandmother is apparently in it, as well as a catalogue of all her [Una’s] paintings. . .

Una Watters should be one of Ireland’s most famous painters, but has sadly faded away.

Alexa’s great-grandmother, Molly Smith, who owned a shop in Finglas close to where Una Watters lived, is the woman dressed in black in the centre of the painting.

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Alexa was also interviewed by Nationwide and was present at the EPIC museum to celebrate the launch of the Herstory Festival 2020 which included a series of illuminations on the facade of the GPO to mark St Brigid’s Day Una’s stylised image, which was featured in the illuminations (below) was designed by National College of Art and Design student Rebecca Sodegrad.

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Images, apart from The Ladies Committee, courtesy of Nationwide, RTE.

Mary Morrissy

 

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Una in focus

The People’s Gardens

In the second of a series of  occasional blogs considering individual paintings of Una’s, Logan Sisley, Acting Head of Collections at the Hugh Lane Gallery, discusses “The People’s Gardens”.

Una Watters is represented by one painting in the Hugh Lane Gallery Collection, a charming Dublin scene painted in 1963 called The People’s Gardens (oil on canvas, 40.6 x 50.8 cm). It shows Watters’ distinctive angular modernist style with contrasts of light and shade and areas of pure colour.

It is one of a number of paintings by Watters depicting Dublin life. The People’s Gardens is a public garden within the Phoenix Park near the Parkgate Street entrance. It opened in the mid-1860s in order to address the lack of public recreational space in Dublin. It contains an ornamental lake, children’s playground, picnic areas and Victorian bedding schemes. Watters captures the undulating terrain of the gardens.

As is typical of her work, the trees and figures are pared down to angular forms. This shows the influence of earlier modern art movements such as Cubism and Futurism, albeit interpreted in her own style. Her clever use of shadows adds depth – notably under the trees and in the figure of the girl kicking the ball, the man reading a paper and the duck taking off (or landing). These also demonstrate a keen observation of people and an eye for detail. The strong shadows and summer dresses suggest a warm sunny day, yet the elderly couple walking arm-in-arm on the path are still dressed in heavy coats and hats.

Leisure scenes in outdoor settings such as this have been a popular subject for painters since the 19th century. Other examples at the Hugh Lane Gallery include Edouard Manet’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1865), Eugene Boudin’s Normandy beach scenes (1867 and 1893), Edgar Degas’ Beach Scene (c. 1876-1877), John Lavery’s river scene, Sutton Courtney (1917) and William Leech’s Beach, South of France (1921-6).

The People’s Gardens was shown at the 1964 Royal Hibernian Academy Annual Exhibition. The Thomas Haverty Trust bought the painting and lent it for Watters’ posthumous retrospective exhibition in 1966. The following year the Trust donated the work to Hugh Lane Gallery. 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).

As an artist so intrinsically linked to the city, it is fitting that Watters’ work found a home in Dublin’s city gallery. She painted while working for Dublin Corporation’s libraries and met her husband Eugene at a dance at the Teachers’ Club, one of the gallery’s neighbours on Parnell Square.

Logan Sisley

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Logan Sisley and Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh discuss The People’s Gardens at the Hugh Lane Gallery for RTE Nationwide programme  on March 6, 2020.