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Una in focus

Venus de Dublino?

It’s June and despite the poor weather, Una’s 1950 painting, Girl in Sand (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) seems an appropriately seasonal choice for this month.

This is an early work and perhaps her first foray into a more stylised technique that she developed later. The first question to ask is, is it a self-portrait? Una often smuggled surrogates of herself into group paintings – see The Ladies Committee, Wild Apples and Malahide – where the figure of a young woman, often in a red dress, stands in for Una.

(Her oeuvre also includes several traditional portraits in oil of others, including her husband Eugene, and her uncle, Brian O’Higgins, as well as many informal sketches of family and friends.)

The figure of the bather here is more enigmatic. Her downcast eye is all that’s visible. The rest of her features are eclipsed by a curtain of black hair, and her rather chunky figure doesn’t look like Una’s, although she is wearing Una’s traditional red. Perhaps she’s an archetypal figure – like the young woman in Girl walking by Trinity in the Rain (1959).

The body is rendered in broad brush strokes and the contours of the bather’s athletic figure are suggested by shadows on the limbs. The background, too, is impressionistic. The sand seems as fluid as a river-bed and rises up behind the young woman in large, swirling patterns that tend towards abstraction.

Una often presents nature in a semi-abstract fashion. Her trees are often more geometric shape than branch and leaf realistically rendered. Her fields can often be flat blocks of colour (see the gilted pasture of The Farm, 1964), or surreal as in Clonmacnoise (1958), where we get a striated view of an underworld beneath the surface.

The bather’s hand gestures in Girl in Sand are arresting. She holds back her hair with forked delicate fingers. Is she combing her wet hair? If so, it’s hard to make out the comb in her right hand, which points, delicately reminiscent of God’s hand in the Creation of Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco. Either way, she’s lost in a kind of trance that keeps the viewer at bay.

Her mystery, of course, may be that she’s not a real girl at all, but someone who’s sprung from her surroundings, a nymph or a selkie, an elemental creature, parting her hair to view this strange new world she’s landed in.

There’s something tossed and sea-weedy about the background, and the murky, churned-up sand seems to morph into a giant cloud or wave, as if in the aftermath of turbulence. (However, I should add, I haven’t actually seen this painting in the flesh and am working from an old photograph so the colours may well not be true.) A typical day at the Irish seaside, you might say.

But is it a stretch to see echoes of Sandro Botticelli’s Renaissance masterpiece, The Birth of Venus (c 1480) here? Contrary to its title, Botticelli depicts the moment the goddess Venus arrives at the shore after her birth in which she emerged from the sea fully-formed.

Remember those beautifully delicate fingers of Una’s bather and compare them to the gestures of Botticelli’s Venus. Perhaps it’s the same mythical scene and we’re looking at a Venus de Dublino?

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

A Game of Chess

Two men face one another across a chessboard in this 1955 painting of Una’s (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown).  It’s probable one of them is Una’s husband, Eugene, who was an inveterate and expert chess player.  According to family sources, the other player may be his brother, Tom.  

Both figures in the painting look like one another.  The same widow’s peaks and bushy eyebrows, similar indistinct mouths. Gesturally, they adopt the same pose, feet planted firmly apart, hands thoughtfully on chin, mirroring the doubleness of the game they play. They sport similar suits of clothes, though the player on the right goes tieless.

He looks like he’s just made a significant move – check? – while the player on the left is deep in thought, considering what to do next. Although they are static, the tension of the moment is implied in the set of their faces and in the hang of their clothes.   

If it’s not the two brothers, perhaps it’s a portrait of Eugene playing himself, something which keen players often do. Eugene was a frequent correspondent to the chess column in the British Catholic weekly magazine, the Tablet, which set problems for aficionados.  

His first novel, Murder in Three Moves (Allen Figgis, 1960) – under the barely disguised pseudoynm Rutherford Watters – featured Gadarene Blake “the most brilliant problemist (chess) in England” and was  dedicated to D. M. Davey, the Tablet’s chess editor “master of many enigmas”.

The form of Una’s work mirrors the content –  a concentrated study of concentration. The figures are crowded into the pictorial space; indeed, they seem barely to fit in, their backs hunched under the frame of the painting.    

Such airlessness echoes the domestic interiors of the French painter Édouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940) who often crushed the women in his paintings (his mother and sister) into bent and uncomfortable positions, as if their house was literally bearing down on them.

In Interior: Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893), Vuillard’s sister is described in the MoMA catalogue, where the painting is held, as “pressing herself awkwardly against the wall, she bends her head and shoulders, apparently greeting a visitor but also, it seems, forced to bow if she is to fit in the picture’s frame”.https://images.app.goo.gl/NaGcWhUSzUxTqKoU8

The Game of Chess is, similarly, a psychological study. The players’ eyes are fixed on the board. Their identity and personal characteristics are not as important as the concentration they exhibit, and Una applies her artistic concentration to theirs.  The colours are sombre and echo the duochromatic palette of the chess pieces (except for the pale blue collar of the tieless player). The floor is rendered in indistinct grid-like squares – a technique Una often used – mimicking very faintly the squares on the board.  Otherwise, domestic detailing is at a minimum. The players sit on a pair of solid-looking, mid-century kitchen chairs at a small wooden table.

In this painting, the game’s the thing.  The players’ closed-off expressions suggest it’s no game for them, but a serious intellectual challenge that is fully absorbing them. 

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

The Whistleblower

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The Greek god Pan, or a close study of a musician? Either way, it’s the colour that enchants in this 1953 work.

Una Watters’ Flute Player (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) is another of those works that has travelled in the world under an alias. Listed in the 1966 posthumous exhibition catalogue as Fluteplayer,  the painting is known as Pan by the family to whom Eugene donated the work after Una’s untimely death

This may have been Eugene’s title for it, but either way the allusion is clear; the subject of the painting is a whistleblower. (The pencil-thin instrument he plays seems too small to be a standard flute; it looks more like a piccolo.) This is one of Una’s most elegant compositions and it’s easy to see why this idealised figure might have been mistaken for a Greek god, although Pan’s reputation is distinctly hedonistic whereas this young man is much more refined.

To the Greeks, Pan – god of the natural world – was a shepherd, half-goat, half-man. He played the pipes and was lusty in his appetites. He was, apparently, the favourite god of the Greek people. In Una’s work the flute player seems to be placed outside – rather than in a smoke-filled bar – perhaps a nod to the god of nature? This “Pan” is standing on what seems to be a wide open strand with only the far distant and very low horizon (or shoreline?) to give us our bearings. (See also Una’s Girl Walking by Trinity in the Rain for a similar low viewpoint.)

Fluteplayer is a three-quarter, highly stylised portrait, in which the body is viewed straight on but the head is seen in profile, catching the typical sideways stance of a flute player. There is little suggestion of effort in this graceful portrait bar the thin pale band sweeping from the musician’s sideburn to his chin and seeming to meld with his very balletic fingers. This application of paint to supply gesture is a technique Una used often.

His prominent upper lip clamped to the flute’s tone holes is the only other evidence of exertion. Otherwise, the musician’s face is quite bland and impassive – neat hair carefully combed, an unexpressive eye. So perhaps it’s not a particular player Una has in mind but a generic portrait of a man who’s defined by his instrument, someone who has become one with the music.

If his personality is communicated at all it’s by his clothes. At first glance, this reads as a static portrait of a stylish traditional musician sporting a three piece suit, collar and tie. However, on closer scrutiny, we see that the rendering of the clothes is full of movement.

Here is where the musician’s personality resides. His jacket is actually fluid, the tails literally dancing. The lapels are serpentine and the jacket seems to morph into a waistcoat, or is he wearing a sleeveless jumper underneath? Or is it the lining of his jacket that appears to swing to the music being played? This cubist-style capturing of overlapping actions and the subtle use of shadow give the work a subterranean energy, while the surface is preternaturally calm.

The colour palette is delightful – a mix of delicate blues, a heathery purple and dove grey. Details such as his slicked-back hair, the trio of buttons on his jacket sleeve and his tie are picked out in a rich brown. But the overall tone is cool, Zen-like, an almost meditational serenity.

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

In the Tower

Una Watters’ 1956 work, “Silken Thomas in the Tower” is her only history painting on a nationalist theme.

Ideas of nationhood appear in Una’s work e.g. Thar an GPO (1965) – discussed in the blog of November 4, 2020 – with its ideal republic undertones, and her winning design for the 1966 Easter Rising commemorations which drew on Celtic and nationalist myths. But Silken Thomas in the Tower (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) is overt in its intentions.

The painting depicts the tenth Earl of Kildare, Lord Thomas FitgGerald, who was imprisoned by Henry VIII, for leading a Geraldine rebellion against the crown in 1534, as stoic hero.

He was known as Silken Thomas because of “the gorgeous trappings of himself” according to Patrick Weston Joyce’s A Concise History of Ireland (1910).

His is a tale of fake news and plague.

In 1534, the young lord – he was just 21 – was left in charge by his father, Garret Og, who had been summoned to London by the king. As soon as he was gone, his father’s enemies in Dublin spread the rumour that he had been beheaded. The rash young Silken Thomas reacted immediately. He gathered a force of a couple of hundred men, showed up at St Mary’s Abbey (off Capel Street in Dublin where the king’s council met) and openly renounced his allegiance to Henry, intent on avenging the death of his father.

He laid siege to Dublin, where the denizens of the city weakened by plague, admitted him. In the course of the fighting, Archbishop John Allen, appointed by Cardinal Wolsey and a sworn enemy of the FitzGeralds, tried to escape. He had got as far as Artane when Silken Thomas and his band caught up with him. The young lord reportedly ordered his men to “take away this churl” – his followers took him at his word and murdered the archbishop. Afterwards, Thomas maintained that he meant only that the archbishop should be remanded in custody. For that crime he was excommunicated.

In the meantime, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, his father – not dead, after all – hearing of his son’s rebellion, fell seriously ill and died within days.

Although Thomas had gathered allies among the Irish tribes – the O’Neills, the O’Connor Falys, the O’Moores, the O’Carrolls and the O’Briens – his rebellion foundered when Maynooth Castle, a FitzGerald holding, was overwhelmed after a nine-day siege. His support among the chieftains began to dwindle and Thomas surrendered on condition that his life be spared.

In 1535 he was brought to England where he spent eighteen months locked up in the Tower where conditions swiftly deteriorated. In a letter to a servant, quoted in Weston Joyce’s book, Silken Thomas asked for a loan of £20 to buy food and clothes.

“I never had any money since I came into prison but a noble, nor I have had either hosen, doublet, nor shoes, nor shirt but one; not any garment but a single frieze gown for a velvet furred with a budge [a velvet cloak with lambskin fur] and so I have gone wolward [shirtless] and barefoot and barelegged divers times (when it hath not been very warm); and so I should have done still, but that poor prisoners of their gentleness hath sometimes given me old hosen and shoes and shirts.”

But worse was to happen. On this day, February 3, 1537, despite guarantees that he would be saved, Silken Thomas and his five uncles were put to death – hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

In Una’s depiction, the young lord’s clothes – whether his own or borrowed – are given due emphasis. (As has been remarked elsewhere in this blog, Una was very interested in clothes herself and was an accomplished seamstress.) He wears a camel-coloured diaphanous cloak – the single frieze gown he describes in his letter? – over a cream shirt of silk – what else – a red cummerbund and a rather dainty pair of slippers. I’m never sure whether the mark on his cheek is a scar or some fancy barbering but his well-tended hair and general style support his reputation as a dandy, though the gauziness of his clothes seem entirely unsuitable gear for the dank Tower of London.

They reflect both his “gorgeous” trappings and the ultimate frailty of his rebellion in the face of the might of Henry VII’s monarchy. His cell in the tower, is in comparison, heavy, solid, impenetrable; a flinty facade like Henry’s himself. Una was fascinated with stonework – see Clonmacnoise (1958) or Girl Walking by Trinity in the Rain (1959) – where the textures and formations of the built world are rendered with great brio.

While this work may lack the animation and abundant colour of much of Una’s other work, the mood, in keeping with the subject matter, is sombre (it’s literally a brown study) and the figure of Silken Thomas is represented in a regal pose, rather than individualised. It begs the question whether this was a commissioned piece.

The son of the owner of the painting (to whom it was gifted) told me his father, a friend of Eugene Watters, was involved in amateur dramatics and he believed the painting had been used as part of a theatre set. But it’s unlikely that was its original purpose. Perhaps like Thar an GPO, it was earmarked for an Oireachtas exhibition.

A writing quill is the only prop in the cell, an ironic touch, perhaps, given Thomas’s reputation as a man of the sword.

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

The Grim Reaper

“Harvest” has a valedictory air because it was painted very near the end of Una’s life. But could this work also have been the key to a new artistic direction?

Harvest (oil on canvas, 70.5cm x 57 cm) was, according to family sources, Una’s last painting before her death on November 21, 1965, although Eugene Watters’ biographer Máirín Nic Eoin gives that honour to Thar an GPO, discussed in our last post. Either way, both Thar an GPO and Harvest were completed very shortly before her death and can be seen as companion pieces.

While Thar an GPO is a public work, capturing the transcendent light of the new Republic at the origin location of the national story,  Harvest is intensely private. Its territory is the past, the idyllic days of childhood when the land around the McDonnell family home was being farmed – see also The Farm (1964). But there are similarities in composition.  Both feature child figures through which the action of the painting is narrated, and it’s likely that both represent Una as a young girl.    

In Harvest, “Una” holds almost centre stage in a painting that is divided into three planes – a technique seen in also in Wild Apples (see blog June 24).  The foreground inhabits a luminescent realm, the pearly light set out in almost architectural blocks. Una is standing in the brightest quadrant, a perky child in a rose pink dress bearing a tea caddy to the workers bringing in the harvest. Nearby is an agile brown dog, tail up, gambolling around all the activity.  

In Una’s plane of the painting three men are stacking bales of hay. The man to the right with the hat (and jacket?) may possibly be Una’s father – again that theatrical use of prop. The hat speaks of authority and seniority, while of the other two workers, both are in their shirtsleeves, one is hatless and the other sports a soft cloth cap.  The stooks of harvested hay look solid and sculptural but they also manage to suggest mobility. Despite their geometrical aspect ( like the trees in the background) the bales look animated and the men look as if they’re trying to tame them rather than stack them.  

The mid-ground is taken up with a wide band of uncut field, like a golden wall bisecting the work.

The background portrays a different mood altogether. Unlike the foreground which is drenched in light, the sky is greyly overcast and the hills are pewter-coloured.  There is no sign of the sun that bathes the rest of the painting. The threshing machine, rendered in black, seems to meld with the very sharply angular trees and the silhouettes of farm buildings to lend a brooding presence to the top of the canvas, as if a very black mood is descending.  The machine dominates, a large prehensile beast, driven relentlessly on by a man intent on his work.  The grim reaper associations are inescapable.

It’s tempting, perhaps, to read too much significance into such painterly tropes, when we know as viewers that Una’s death is close, but there is a symphony of mood in this work, a range of competing emotions – nostalgia, melancholy, presentiment – that suggest existential concerns. Gone the one-note cheery realism of The Ladies Committee, or the witty outward-looking social observation of Cappagh Road.

Although the work is listed in the posthumous 1966 exhibition catalogue as Harvest, it’s referred to colloquially among Una’s family as Tea in the Fields – a much more Una-like title.  We’ve remarked before how straightforward her titles were – Girl Walking by Trinity in the Rain, The Ladies Committee, The People’s Gardens – so it is possible that Eugene may have titled it for the 1966 exhibition.  (On the other hand, the work may have had two titles – one as a work-in-progress, another when the painting was finished.)

But the titling issue recurs in relation to The Emerald Ballroom Watercolours (see dedicated page on this site) which were executed in the weeks prior to her death. It’s a moot point if Una would have titled these works at all since they appear to be studies towards a bigger idea. 

However, when Eugene was donating them to the Ballinasloe Bridge Club, he added titles to the 25-strong collection  – e.g. Dawnscape in Grey Limestone, Duskscape in Harvest, Nightscape in Black Basalt – which bear the hallmark of his poetic imagination rather than Una’s. Of course, titling them was also pragmatic; paintings without titles are like orphans sent out into the world without their name tags. By identifying them and keeping them together as a body of work, Eugene accorded Una’s swansong the significance he felt was their due.

“About a fortnight before the end,” he wrote,” she painted a remarkable series of watercolours, in a style and technique she had not used before.  These pictures, 25 in number, were all painted in a single day, the artist working at high speed, as hypnotised, in a final burst of creative energy.”

Although this may have been a new departure, there’s some evidence that in this flurry of artistic activity Una was also revisiting the past, even if it was only the past of her most recently completed oil.   Duskscape in Harvest, no 7 in this sequence, bears a striking resemblance in mood and tone to Harvest and is the only watercolour in the impressionistic sequence that suggests figures in a landscape. 

As well as being valedictory, could Harvest have represented the new beginning hinted at in the watercolours, work Una Watters never got the chance to complete?

Mary Morrissy