Una’s little book of Kells

This blog has tended to concentrate on Una’s paintings, but as noted elsewhere on this site, Una did a great deal of jobbing art and design work. During the 1950s, she provided illustrations and calligraphy for her uncle Brian O Higgins (1882-1963), the poet and patriot, whose portrait by Una is highlighted in a guest blog (May 19, 2020).

O’Higgins had founded a publishing company in 1924, whose output ranged from rousing political pamphlets (Unconquered Ireland, 1927) to devotional tracts (The Little Book of St Francis, 1958) as well as Christmas and greeting cards, all of which showcased the work of Irish artists and illustrators.

The cards, in particular, were a popular venture for the company. In the 1950s, a decade of mass emigration from Ireland (half a million people left the country between 1951 and 61), these were dispatched to the Irish diaspora all over the world, but particularly to the US.

The company’s publications reflected O’Higgins’ own passions – politics and prayer. He was a die-hard, anti-Treaty Republican figure, a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and a 1916 combatant. He was imprisoned several times between 1918 and 1921 and went on hunger strike during the Civil War. He served the Clare constituency as a TD until 1927 when he lost his seat. He resigned from Sinn Féin in protest in 1934 and sided against DeValera in 1938. O’Higgins was also a devoted Catholic. (He died aged 81 in St Anthony’s Church in Clontarf while attending Mass.)

But his political and religious agenda chimed with a broader economic nationalism, borne out of De Valera’s economic war of the 1930s which had rigidly promoted a policy of Irish self-sufficiency. Even though Seán Lemass was in the process of moving the economy away from this insular path in the late 1950s, O’Higgins was still clearly appealing to patriotic supporters of the “Buy Irish” strand of De Valera’s isolationism.

The craft skills of Irish artists were central to the publications he produced, honouring traditional skills – in particular calligraphy and Celtic design. These pamphlets promoted the arts and crafts movement in the Ireland of 1950s, as much as the Yeats’ sisters’ Cuala Press did during the same period.

O’Higgins’ publishing firm had an export market in mind. The subject matter of both the secular and religious publications might seem twee and verging on the “Oirishy” for contemporary taste but they were cannily serving their target audience. Prayer-book sized ( approx 10.5 x 14 cms), slim and light, and easy to post – remembering that large diaspora – they served as both devotional tools for the practising Catholic and nostalgic mementos for the lonely exile.

The difficulty for the Una Watters scholar is in identifying the specific publications she worked on. While the verses were clearly authored by O’Higgins (he was a prolific poet, balladeer and songwriter) or drawn from traditional sources, the art work for smaller items was not always credited. That’s why we’re really excited to have been a gifted a pristine copy of one of these publications – The Little Book of Blessing (1959) – which is very definitely one of Una’s with her name prominently on the cover. (see above)

Glenn Slaby – – came across Una Watters by chance when he was doing his own research on Brian O’Higgins after he had acquired a copy of the Little Book of Blessing. (He thinks he may have picked it up at a library sale or at the sale of a family library owned by a woman of Irish descent in New Rochelle, NY, where he lives. ) “I love, enjoy picking up old, and/or unusual books,” he writes. Adding to its rarity value, is the fact that this pamphlet is not listed among O’Higgins’ attributed publications.

Glenn has kindly donated the booklet to this site, and we intend to hold it as part of a material resource for scholars interested in Una’s work. In time, we will offer it for safe-keeping to a national institution.

Glenn included with the pamphlet a letter which he found inside dated June 22, 1967, in which Nora (no surname), the writer of the letter (based in Belfast), notes she is sending the booklet to Bernie in the US in the hope that “it will bring back happy memories of the Old Country & his Youth”.

Artistically, the influence of the great monastic scribes is obvious in Una’s Celtic designs. Compare Una’s frontispiece (see above) with this detail from the Book of Kells.

Una’s interest in and debt to manuscript illustration is also evident in her witty portraits in The Four Masters, (1959, oil on canvas, 60 x 70cms) the painting which now hangs in Phibsboro library. (See post: February 20,2022) and in private work done for family and friends – take a look at her St Patrick’s Breastplate on the Uncatalogued Work page on this site.

Once again, thank you to Glenn Slaby for his generous gift.

Below see some sample pages from The Little Book of Blessing.

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