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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

The Three Graces in Malahide

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Mary Morrissy considers the joint imaginative territory that Una Watters shared with her poet husband, Eugene, epitomised by today’s featured painting, Malahide. 

 

Malahide, Saturday.  Clouds come

Henna with heat.  Salt and sun

Leave all flesh lazarous –

So wrote Eugene Watters  (Eoghan O’Tuairisc)  in “Smithson’s Glimpse of the Three Graces” a long poem published in PEN magazine in September 1961.

It’s almost a perfect transcription of his wife Una’s painting, above, Malahide (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) except that Una’s painting was not completed until 1964, three years after Eugene’s poem was published.

Smithson, the speaker of the poem, a barber, is on his afternoon off at the beach “within the shadow of his wife stretched” – very much as the horizontal figure on the left of the painting.  “Drowses with one leg in the sun/Lazily like Italy on a warm day,”.  While his wife knits – see the grey-haired woman in the black-and-white patterned dress with her knitting bag clearly visible on the sand – Smithson fantasises about the three young women who pass by loudly chatting – “Calling Freda for Christsake to hurry”.  He imagines them as the three Graces, Alglaia (elegance) Thalia (youthful beauty) and Euphrosyne (mirth).

When two artists live and work side-by-side as Eugene and Una Watters did for over 20 years, it’s inevitable that their creative impulses would become entwined. And nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Malahide.

Eugene’s work often drew on classical allusions – the poem’s epigraph is from Ovid and Smithson equates his own sense of isolation with the Roman poet’s lifelong exile. He also references the “lacrimae rerum” line from Virgil’s Aeneid (Book 1, verse 462)  –  “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentum mortalia tangunt” translated by Séamus Heaney as “there are tears at the heart of things”.

This melancholy imbues the poem  – “Drowning is as lonely an experience as living” – as does Smithson’s sense of being at odds with the mundane world around him.  That said, the Three Graces Smithson spies (or conjures up)  on the beach at Malahide seem to spring fully-formed from Una’s joyous painting.

Typists like graces coming together,

From the Four Courts, the King’s Inns,

Loosed and let go.  Towels trailing,

Uncertain and half-naked go

The great mothers of mankind. 

Look at the three girls in their bathing costumes who draw the eye deep into the painting, towels aloft or trailing, tiptoeing on the hot sand. Don’t they fit the description of  Eugene’s Graces? However, Una’s expressive use of movement seems intent on giving us the character of these girls as girls, rather than as metaphors. The sprawled “Smithson” figure, likewise, or the young mother in red who cradles a white-clad baby trying to pacify it.  Or the  two children at her feet who are bent to the serious work of building  sandcastles.  Although each “character” seems to invite a story, their features, as in many of Una’s paintings, are effaced.

Perhaps they are inspired by real people as Una’s other group compositions in public spaces have been? Una might well have played with the dramatis personae of Eugene’s poem and inserted herself into the painting, as she often did, in the figure of the woman in the sand-coloured dress reading, while the dreaming, outstretched man might be Eugene – just as Smithson stands in for him in the poem.

Either way, Una’s painterly concern here seems to be the thing itself.  (The pragmatic titling of her paintings shows us that  –  The People’s Gardens, Woman Sewing, The Flute Player, The Game of Chess.  They do exactly what they say on the tin.)  Here it’s the depiction of a summer’s day at the beach.  There’s the saturated blue of the sea, the white sailboat, the tossed flecks of gulls (“birds rise to the life of the wind changing”), the cratered, undulating dunes scattered with towels and discarded clothes. And peeping from the reading woman’s brown satchel, a flask and maybe sandwiches for later?

Although not completed till 1964, Una’s Malahide could have been several years in the making, sitting on the easel in the kitchen at Cappagh Cross, providing a subconscious terrain as Eugene wrote the poem. Or conversely, perhaps Una created on canvas the Malahide backdrop Eugene suggested in his Ovid-inspired modernist lament, and then peopled it with the characters he described after reading the poem?

Or is this a re-enactment of an actual day they shared at Malahide, a day enshrined in memory and responded to by each of them in their own individual way?  For Una, a day of simple pleasures at the seaside, harmonious, full of recognisable types and some familiar faces: for Eugene, a springboard for the classical fugues of a brooding, mid-century man alienated from the world.

Generations go by shouldering death,

Time winks like cuts of scissors,

He lies on the backbone and suspects a sky.

The medium is crisscrossed with dawn and evening,

Complex tranquility;”

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

Wild Apples

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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

 

 

 

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Una in focus

Portrait of Brian O’Higgins

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Brian O’Higgins (1963)

Una Watters’ niece, Sheila Smith and her daughter Karen, write about the background to one of Una’s large, late-career portraits which demonstrates her unusual textured approach to portraiture. 

One of Una Watters’ strengths was portraiture as evidenced by the sheer number of pencil sketches and drawings of family and friends in her portfolio of work. Subjects frequently testify to the great likeness that Una achieved in these works. Late in her career, she also completed several portraits in oil, which featured in the 1966 retrospective exhibition, including one of her husband, E R Watters (1965), another of Tomás O’Muircheartaigh (1962), which we have still not managed to trace, and a portrait of Brian O’Higgins (1963).

The O’Higgins portrait (oil on canvas, dimensions unknown) was completed after the subject’s death. There was a family and professional relationship with Una Watters as O’Higgins had commissioned artistic work from her and was also her uncle. (His wife, and Una’s mother, were sisters.)

Brian O’Higgins (1882–1963) was a distinguished Irish language poet, soldier and patriot. He was a travelling teacher with the Gaelic League and a founder member of the Irish Volunteers.  He took part in the 1916 Easter Rising and was imprisoned in Frongoch in Wales, one of several imprisonments he endured. While in prison, he wrote extensively – prayers, spiritual pieces and poetry. Sometimes known by his pen name, Brian na Banban he also composed both inspirational verse and marching songs, such as “Dawning of the Day”, “Eight Millions of Englishmen” and “Marching Song of Na Fianna Eireann”.

In testimony to the Bureau of Military History, Sean Prendergast, an army captain whom he fought with in 1916, said O’Higgins’ verses and songs “had stirred us to such depths during the past number of years. Few men could be so sincere and so true than he”. Most famous of his songs is undoubtedly “A Stóir mo Chrói” (Treasure of my Heart), a haunting ballad which is still covered by contemporary singers such as  Maura O’Connell, Bonnie Raitt and The Chieftains.

In 1924 O’Higgins set up a publishing house which printed devotional and patriotic booklets with rallying titles such as Unconquered Ireland (1927)and featuring beautifully decorated covers with stylised Celtic designs. He also published and edited the Wolfe Tone Annual between 1932-62. From the 1950s, Brian and his son, Criodán, extended their range into Irish Christmas cards, again utilising Celtic calligraphy and featuring verses written by Brian. The cards were sent all over the world and were particularly popular in the US.

When they needed another illustrator, Una’s sister, Sheila – mother of Sheila Smith, one of the authors of this article – suggested Una since by this stage she was an accomplished artist. As well as the Christmas cards, Una also illustrated a number of devotional pamphlets produced by the company including Little Book of St Patrick (1957), Little Book of St Francis (1958), Little Book of Exile (1959) and the Little Book of Memories (1960) – see first two images below.

Although Una was keen to paint her uncle, she didn’t manage to do so before his death.  She executed the portrait using photographs and her personal recollection of him, according to an article in the Irish Independent on June 2, 1964. “All who have seen it have acknowledged that the attitude is typical of the man they had known in his many moods. Certainly, in painting it, Mrs. Watters has treated her deceased subject with great sympathy and affection.”

It is a large work and done in the angular style Una favoured, especially so in the rendering of the domed head. O’Higgins is looking directly out of the frame, which engages the viewer immediately. His tweed jacket looks almost tactile – the design of the cloth stands out from the painting.

The portrait is one of only three of Una’s works on public display.  The others are The People’s Gardens in the Hugh Lane Gallery Hugh Lane Gallery (see Logan Sisley’s blog of May 6 on this site) and The Four Masters in Phibsboro Library.

The O’Higgins portrait hangs in the Local Studies Room in Navan Library It was presented to the library by the O’Higgins family, having previously hung in the offices of the publishing house on O’Connell Street.  When the libraries reopen after the COVID-19 crisis, it will be possible to view the painting in situ. However, as it is not in the main library, a call in advance is advisable. (046) 9021134

 

Sheila and Karen Smith