Una in focus

Crowning glories

Today we mark the birth of Una Watters on this day 104 years ago. We thought we’d mark the occasion with a quick survey of one of her crowning glories – her depiction of trees. Una’s eloquent rendering of them was constantly evolving, from naturalistic to abstract to minimalistic, as our “tree of life” gallery demonstrates.

1 .Dha Chrann (1943)
2 .The People’s Park (1943)
3.The Doghole (1950s)
4. The Red Bridge (1956)
6. Wild Apples (1964)
7. Untitled watercolour (Emerald Ballroom series) Copy – (1965)

First in our gallery is the very early Dha Chrann (oil on canvas, 56 x43 cm) where a pair of what look like oak trees are depicted in a tonally soft naturalism reminiscent of Corot. The day is gently cloudy and the trees are in full leaf. A visitor to Una’s retrospective earlier this year remarked that this work seemed less like a study of trees than of relationship, the two giant oaks reaching out to embrace one another.

The autumnal hues of The People’s Park completed in the same year (oil on canvas, dimensions unavailable) with its shimmering golden leaves and delicate, balletic branches is a joyful, light-filled composition. This was a place (in Dublin) Una was fond of and she returned to it in 1963 with The People’s Gardens, acquired by the Haverty Trust and now in the Dublin City Hugh Lane Gallery collection. (See blogs May 6 and June 2,2020 and April 12, 2022.)

Next is the luminous moonlit scene in watercolour featuring a lake site near Ballinasloe. Una’s husband, Eugene, claimed The Doghole (dimensions unavailable), completed some time in the mid-1950s, was considered to be the finest of all Una’s river watercolours.  “The picture was quickly blocked in one night as we drifted home downstream after a long fishing trip, & coloured afterwards,” he wrote.

“It is an early picture. . . but it already shows in perfect miniature the style she later developed on her own & which critics found unique.  Briefly, the essence of that style is that a painting should have (at least) two meanings: that. . .while remaining true to the mood and shape of the natural scene, it should have other suggestions built into it – e.g. if you look closely, from a distance, any of the moonlit trees on the left, you will begin to see that they suggest the shape of a dog, with his tail towards the river.  This gives a humorous & dreamlike quality to the whole concept. . .”

The Red Bridge (oil on canvas, 51 x 66cm), depicting a spot on the River Suck, also in Ballinsaloe, is an oil dating from around the same time (1956), in which the river-bank growth is rendered with brush strokes reminiscent of Mary Swanzy and tending towards cubist abstraction. The treatment of the foliage gives the Galway scene an exotic, jungle-like feel, “othering” what might be regarded as traditional subject matter.

The Pine Wood ( oil on canvas, 1961, dimensions unavailable), which appeared in the original 1966 exhibition but didn’t make it into our retrospective, shows Una at her most expressive. Another Ballinasloe location – Garbally Park – the umbrella-like crowns of the trees shimmer in a blurry haze as if the wood itself was on the march, and coupled with the sensuous dips and hollows of the ground, plunges the viewer into a mysterious verdant realm.

In Wild Apples, (oil on canvas, 1964, 56 x 43 cm), which featured in the retrospective earlier this year, the trees have been reduced to sharp-edged geometric impressions, almost like maps of colour on the canvas. (For a more detailed exploration of this work see our blog, June 24, 2020)

Finally, a rare chance to see one of the Emerald Ballroom watercolours that has unfortunately been lost. (See separate page on this site dedicated to the series.) This untitled piece featured on the reverse of one of the watercolours reframed for the 2022 retrospective and so could not be saved. However, the digital image of this and four other reverse images remain. These are another example of Una’s very late work, completed in the first weeks of November 1965 before her death on the 20th of the month.

Here the trees are bare and the outstretched branches have a vaguely supplicant air. Once again, as in her earliest work, there are two trees visible, but unlike Dha Chrann they’re not reaching out, but separated in a washed-out, grey landscape, lending the work a bleak, mid-winter mood and suggesting, perhaps, an eerie sense of premonition.

Mary Morrissy

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.

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.

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.

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, 61 x 81 cm) 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. 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. 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.

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