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.
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.