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Una in focus

Wild Apples

wild-apples

Today’s featured painting is Wild Apples completed by Una in the autumn of 1964, which  records an idyllic time in the artist’s life, writes Mary Morrissy

Like much of Una’s work, Wild Apples (oil on canvas, 56 cms x 43 cms) depicts a place that was important to her – the banks of the River Suck near Ballinasloe.  Una spent many summers on the river, where along with finding inspiration for her work, she did a great deal of fishing.  She was, by all accounts, an expert fisherwoman, one of her many practical skills.

This is also very much a family painting. Una often placed herself in her own works and here she is the reclining figure in red in the mid-ground of the painting. Her husband, Eugene Watters – discussed in last week’s blog by Colbert Kearney – is on the left in the white shirt.  His brother, Tom, is in the front foreground dressed in brown and with his back to the viewer. Tom’s wife, Bridie, and their two daughters, Georgina and Linda, complete the scene.

Georgina Donovan, Eugene’s niece, has been in touch to correct my initial mistake in wrongly identifying Eugene and Tom in the painting.

“The stances, the head shapes and indeed the clothes suggest to me that the man in brown is my father. Una used family as subjects so often in her paintings and it is just the angle of the head, the curve of a spine, a gesture caught with her brush that reminds one of the subject,” Georgina writes.

“I remember very vividly the day we discovered the crab apple tree beside the river, gathering the apples and taking them home to make crab apple jelly.”

The depiction of nature, and in particular the rendering of the trees, has much in common with The People’s Gardens discussed elsewhere on this site – see Logan Sisley, May 6. Here the angularity melds into abstraction, the trees becoming structural  impressions of colour.  These and the use of shadow lend a mysterious depth to the orchard or woods in the background.

The pink tree towards which the eye is drawn, hosting the wild apples of the title, is no more than a geometric block.  Its sharp apex mirrors the delighted gesture of the girl in the apricot dress who has spotted the apples.  We’ve spoken before about Una’s gift for expressive gesture which animates the figures in her paintings.  Their faces are often not visible or are not depicted in detail, but their characters are communicated through their physical stances.  We see it here again in the gambolling of the second child in the white dress – whom Georgina Donovan identifies as herself.

Because Eugene was a writer, we can get some notion of Una’s process from his correspondence. He was an inveterate letter-writer and he described the inspiration for this painting in a letter of October 1966, written a year after Una’s death.  The idyllic symbolism of the place for both of them is clear.

Wild Apples. . . represents any river, any landing, any discovery: but it is a real river, our Suck; an actual landing and landing place, in a grove of bog-ash and hazel in the wilderness near the mouth of the Killeglin river; and an actual discovery, the flush of crab-apples among the leaves and the delight of the children.  A real moment in time and place.  Moments, in fact.  Our river-years.  Recollected in tranquillity.  And understood, by the dreaming brush, in paint.

The colour-construct, and the grouping, convey the thematic design; a sestet of apperceptions of the apple-flush – 6 real people transmuted; the two children, the father and mother, the artist (reclining, in red), and myself . . .  The boat in the picture is a real boat.  Ours.  But it is transmuted, the anatomy misted over in the dream of composition, till it emerges as a long thin nose pushed into the secluded creek.  Base of the picture, the Archetype, in dream-grey.

 “Above, the children stretch their arms in delight and desire of the wild-ripe fruit: And ye shall be as Gods.  The adults, farther back, stand half-attenuated, stilled by some stir of memory, dimly aware they are on the verge of some revelation, the dress and drab riverclothes are half-transfigured, on holy ground, glimpsing the merest tinge of the quintessential red.  But the real red of the picture, the Artist reclining, entranced by the remembered scene – Look! – draws the whole composition together, and (unknown to herself) forms the colour-climax and heart of the Aisling.”

Eugene’s letter also provides us with a pen picture of Una’s personality.  She was, he says, very beautiful, hard-working, humorous, humble and sincere.  “She knew about boats: she could pull one, patch one, cut out thwarts and knee-pieces. . . She had trained hands, could handle a trowel or an electric saw as well as a paintbrush or a pair of oars.”  

This gifted pragmatism extended to, and informed, her approach to painting:

“Una never set out to paint symbols, or archetypes.  These are abstract formulations, fashionable and useful terms for criticism and psychology, which had little meaning for her, and bear about the same relation to practical art-work as Theology does to the Creation.  She thought sensuously, in terms of real people and common objects, actual streets and river-reaches, forms, textures, colour-tones, and transitions of light.  Her sketchbooks and studies over the years reveal the wealth of observation and hard work which lies behind her wonderful last paintings.”

Una’s varied professional background  – her work as a commercial illustrator and a set designer  – also gave her, according to Eugene,  “the discipline of abstraction and the functional aspects of design.  It is all this that makes the poetry of Wild Apples possible”.

Wild Apples was sold at exhibition in late 1965.  Like the Arts Council award for her winning design of the Easter Rising Jubilee symbol, the cheque from the buyer arrived after Una’s death.

Mary Morrissy

 

 

 

Categories
Una in focus

Portrait of Eugene

33 Eugene Watters 1965

Colbert Kearney, a pupil and a long-time friend of Eugene Watters, remembers seeing Una’s portrait of her husband in the making when he visited their home in the early 1960s.

I remember this portrait, E. R. Watters (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) emerging on Una’s easel in Cappagh Cross and admiring her ability to conjure up such a convincing image of a man I had been familiar with since—some seven years earlier—he had taught me during my final year in St Fergal’s Boys National School on the Cappagh Road in Finglas.

Seeing it again more than 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 at a crucial stage in his career.

Una had been married to Eugene for 20 years and probably knew him better than he knew himself.  Not having children of their own, they spent most of those years in the Arcadian tranquility of her native place in the countryside beyond Finglas, the remainder in and around Eugene’s native Ballinasloe.  Otherwise they lived quietly and for each other.  And for their respective art – his writing and her painting.

Teaching had not been Eugene’s chosen profession.  An obviously brilliant student, he had won a scholarship to University College Galway and must have thought his dream of studying his beloved languages—Greek and Latin, English and Irish—at the highest level had come true.  But his family could not afford to maintain him in Galway and he had to settle for teacher training in Drumcondra.  He never forgot the heartbreak of the scholarship forgone, never lost his love of learning, could never conceal a degree of disdain for academics.

A consolation during these years of Emergency, (1939-1945), was his service as  a commissioned officer in the National Army.  He was immensely proud of this role and was married in his uniform.  For boys who were eager to learn he was a wonderful teacher; the others kept their heads down in order to avoid military discipline Lieutenant Watters was not above imposing in the classroom.

He could never forgive teaching for taking the time he wanted to devote to writing.  His first major success had been as Eoghan Ó Tuarisc in the Oireachtas literary competitions but soon this was matched by the work of Eugene Watters.  While working away, Eugene and Una shared a relatively secluded life, avoiding the pubs and cliques of Bohemian Dublin, but this changed when Alan Figgis published first Eugene’s novel,  Murder in Three Moves in 1960, and in 1964, his long poem The Week-End of Dermot and Grace and his Irish collection Lux Aeterna.

He had emerged on to the main stage and could contemplate to bidding farewell to the  classroom.  Many cautioned him against trading his permanent pensionable post for the vicissitudes of full-time writing but Una, knowing his mind better than anybody else, was a solitary voice of support.

And that is when she has caught him in this portrait, dated to 1965.  At 46 he’s conscious of being close to the height of his powers, knowing that the poems published in the previous year constituted an unprecedented, bilingual achievement.   Nor is there anything amateur about this man of letters.  His demeanour, especially his eyes, are those of a soldier whose discipline has seen him through a long campaign, of a Platonist who has seen into the life of things.

But not even he could see what a happy chance it was that Una had seized the moment when she did.  Within a year she was dead and Eugene—soon unrecognisable from the confident figure of the portrait—was about to spend some grim years in the wilderness, an Orpheus search of his Eurydice, repeating with a new conviction a favourite quotation from Herodotus:  to theion esti phthoneron.  The gods are envious.

eugene-and-una-wedding

Eugene and Una on their wedding day, March 10, 1945

Categories
Una in focus

Cappagh Road

Una Watters - CappaghRoad

Cappagh Road ( 1960)

In the first of a series of occasional blogs, we are going to look at individual paintings of Una’s to showcase her work in more detail.  Here Mary Morrissy, curator of unawattersartist.wordpress.com,  discusses “Cappagh Road”.

Cappagh Road is one of several oils by Una Watters that depict the new corporation estates in Finglas in 1960, where Una lived and worked.  It was used last year on the cover of a memoir, Down by the Liffeyside (Somerville Press) by Colbert Kearney (who knew Una personally) and is the perfect embodiment of the world described in the book – the migration experience of thousands of  inner-city dwellers to the outer suburbs in the 1950s.

Una Watters’ Cappagh Road (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown)  is a microcosm of  the “new” suburb in its brave infancy, when much of life was still lived out on the street, rather than behind closed doors. Look at the two burly women on the right in their heavy coats, gossiping, as one pushes a go-car (what we used to call buggies in the 1950s) in which a toddler sleeps, skewed to one side.

We know they’re gossiping from their physical gestures. The blue-scarved woman is saying something to her companion, but the tilt of her head tells us that it’s a secret or a sly aside that’s being shared. This is one of Una’s great strengths – being able to communicate emotion through gesture.  The faces here are roughly rendered yet their actions are full of character.

On the left of the scene, another young mother – or an older sister, perhaps? – cradles a bottle of milk while trying to restrain a child in a blue bonnet who’s on the brink of a tantrum.  You can see the “I want” refrain in the operatic yawn of the child’s mouth.

A boy in short trousers grabs another by the sleeve as they chase after a ball in the middle of the street.  Is he trying to hold his companion back, or pass him out? Three more take up the rear in hot pursuit of the runaway ball.  In the mid-ground of the painting, another boy is stepping off the kerb heedlessly and about to collide with a hatted man on a bicycle who is swerving to avoid him. The moment of avoided impact is rendered by a circular compass-like brush stroke.

A young blade – a university student or a clerk? – is waiting for the bus.  He stands, debonair, slightly louche-looking, one hand around the pole of the bus stop, the other hand thrust into his pocket. The bus is coming though he doesn’t see it. There it is at the vanishing point of the painting, as green and solid-looking as the trees it emerges from.

It is a winter’s afternoon – a weak sun braves the chilly sky; the street lights are already on, the shop (the local chipper) is warmly aglow, the people are rugged up. Only the eerily precise black dog, padding softly across the foreground, sniffing out his territory, tail alert, seems intent on his own business. (Una’s husband, Eugene Watters, superstitiously saw this dog as darkly prophetic.)

Una often slyly inserted herself into such crowd scenes, often as a watchful observer, but there’s no sign of her here.

Cappagh Road was one of three paintings Una made of Finglas in the early 1960s.  The two others – Schoolbreak (1960) and Building Scheme (1961) have not been traced.  Perhaps, on the evidence of this painting, someone out there might recognize its companion pieces?

If you do, or think you may have in your possession any Una Watters painting, please use the contact page on this site.