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The Gardens Revisited

One of the legacies of the Una Watters: Into the Light retrospective at the United Arts Club, Dublin (March 10 – April 2, 2022) was that although the Hugh Lane Gallery didn’t lend us the The People’s Gardens (1963, oil on canvas, 40.6 x 50.8cm) for the show, they did agree to a public viewing of the painting on April 5.

The work has been in the Hugh Lane collection since 1967. It was shown at the Royal Hibernian Academy Annual Exhibition in 1964 after which the Thomas Haverty Trust bought the painting. The trust lent it for Una’s posthumous retrospective in 1966. The following year they donated it to the Hugh Lane.

The Haverty Trust was established following the death of the artist Thomas Haverty who left a sum of money for the purchase of paintings by Irish artists for public galleries and institutions. Between 1935 and 1966, the Trust gave the Hugh Lane Gallery over 40 works including paintings by Mary Swanzy, William Leech, Brigid Ganly and Maurice MacGonigal (who encouraged Watters in her art studies).

Although the gallery does not have pre-computerisation records of showings of the works in their collection, there is anecdotal evidence that The People’s Gardens was shown in the Hugh Lane in the 1970s – Una’s niece, Eva Byrne, remembers seeing it there as a child with her mother. But it hasn’t been exhibited in recent times.

However, that does not mean that it hasn’t been seen. According to gallery records, it was on loan to the City Hall between 1969 and 1974 and again in the 1980s where it hung in the office of Mr P O’ Muirgheasa (my namesake, but no relation!) Unfortunately, it sustained “biro damage” during this time which had to be repaired although the note in the gallery file says traces of the biro marks remained underneath the central figure.

It was also hung in the ILAC Centre library in 1987 along with a number of other works on loan from the Hugh Lane – including Harry Kernoff, John Leech and Lizzie Stephens – all of them depicting scenes of Dublin.

Acting Head of Collections Logan Sisley who facilitated the showing, and who has contributed to this blog, (May 6, 2020) was on hand to answer questions on the work. He pointed out the cubist renderings of the trees – (see also blog on Wild Apples, June 24, 2020) – and the application of a dabbing technique to create texture in the grassy area in the foreground.

But the gallery viewing also brought to light some more biographical information about the painting.

We already knew that the elderly couple on the path in the centre of the work are Una’s parents, but the other figures have also now been identified. Georgina O’Donovan, a niece of Eugene Watters, says the little girl in yellow in the foreground is her sister, Linda, and that the male figure reading the newspaper is Eugene. She herself can be glimpsed in a white dress behind a tree and the figures beside her are her parents and her baby brother in a pram. It’s also likely that Una is the woman sitting sheltering under the trees. Although she’s not wearing her trademark red, her pose is reminiscent of other works in which she places herself as an observer of the scene she is painting.

The presence of Eugene’s family from Ballinasloe in what is essentially a Dublin painting is surprising, though Georgina remembers several outings to the park on trips to Dublin, although she believes this may be a composite record of those expeditions, rather than one particular day.

Either way, without the public showing, we might never have learned the background to this work. The viewing of The People’s Gardens provided a focus for memories and connections to be made by those who knew Una and to shed light on her artistic practice and inspiration.

It also highlights Una’s work in the context of the city’s social history. As Dr Roisin Kennedy remarked at the opening of the exhibition many of Una’s paintings record the public life of Dubliners in the 50s and 60s, a life now vanished – see The Ladies Committee in the image gallery on this site ( 1966 Exhibition page) or Malahide (see blog of July 22, 2020).

One more good reason for the Hugh Lane to show Una Watters to the world.

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News Una in focus

Found and lost

Woman Sewing (dimensions unavailable) is a work of Una’s that dates to 1958. It featured on the cover of the catalogue for her posthumous 1966 exhibition, organised by her husband Eugene, and held at the Dublin Painters Gallery on St Stephen’s Green, almost 55 years ago.

It’s timely to be considering this work today since we’ve finalised dates for our own retrospective of Una’s work (after a number of COVID- led cancellations) for March 11 – April 3, 2022, at the United Arts Club, 3 Fitzwilliam Street Upper, Dublin.

This show will feature as many of the works we can trace from the 1966 show – currently tallying at 26 out of 37 – plus her rediscovered watercolours ( the Emerald Ballroom series – see elsewhere on this site).

Woman Sewing has a strangely anatomical quality as if we’re seeing the subject with x-ray vision – down to her very bones. Look at her arms, or her clearly delineated breasts like perfect moon-like globes under her workaday pinafore. Her sewing hand is minutely rendered, the slender tapering figures, the translucent fingernails and the precise grip of the needle. Light blossoms at her throat in a rounded countour that echoes her breasts and even the pattern she’s embroidering. So although the painting is figurative, there’s a geometrical abstraction at work here as well.

The blue/black palette is reminiscent of Meditation, an undated work of Una’s that we’ve discussed elsewhere in the blog, (August 16,2020) but unlike Meditation this work is not delving into the mystical, but observing more earthy pursuits.

Here is a woman absorbed in craft work. The expression on her face is inward-looking, her eyes downcast, a smile playing on her lips. It’s a depiction of someone taking pride and pleasure in artistic work. It could even be seen as a stylised self-portrait ( Una was a talented seamstress).

The sad thing about Woman Sewing is that although we’ve traced the owner of the work, he cannot locate it, so it’s both found and lost. His family came into possession of it after the 1966 show, he told me, and he remembers it being on display in the house in the 1960s. But at some stage it was put away and now he’s not sure where it might be.

We’re hoping if he reads this he might send another search party into the attic so that it can join its companions in the upcoming show. As the shop window image for her original retrospective, Woman Sewing really needs to be in the 2022 show.

Addendum: Please go to comments at the top of this post where similarities are drawn by one of our followers between Una’s Woman Sewing and the work of Fernand Leger. I include the images referenced here.

Fernand Leger: Woman with a Cat (1921)
Fernand Leger: Woman Sewing (1909)

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

Una’s underworld

At first sight, Una’s 1958 depiction of the sixth century monastic site Clonmacnoise (oil on canvas, dimensions not known) seems straightforward enough. It’s a partial view of this seven-acre heritage site that comprises a relict monastic city with two round towers, a cathedral and nunnery, nine churches and 700 early Christian grave slabs.

It boasts several original High Crosses, including the magnificent 10th century Cross of Scriptures (914 A.D.)

St Ciaran founded Clonmacnoise in 544 A.D. Like most monastic settlements it was established in a strategic spot on the banks of the Shannon where the river meetsc the Esker Ridge, a pilgrim route that ran through central Ireland.

There’s a serenity in Una’s rendering of Clonmacnoise, notwithstanding the layered and brooding sky. The buildings sweep up from the grass looking, for all the world, as if they grew there. The viewers gets less of a notion of something in ruin, as of something organic still in process. The limestone buildings are illuminated with splashes of white, perhaps lichen? It can’t be from reflected sun given the thunderous clouds overhead.

Una was interested in the physicality of stone – see Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain (1959) or Silken Thomas in the Tower (1956). Her city paintings show a materialistic exactitude about the built environment, evident in Cappagh Road (1960) or City Bridge (1965), both discussed elsewhere on this blog. But even though Clonmacnoise is a static scene, and is, unusually for Una, not animated by human figures, there is a great deal of movement and emotion in the painting.

It’s expressed in the louring sky and in the mobile rendering of the earth beneath the gravestones. It’s as if the ground is a green pool lapping up against the stone and reflecting what’s going on above the surface. Inevitably, there are dips and hollows in any graveyard where the earth subsides and where there is footfall. Una’s sensuous brushstrokes capture the surface undulations, while at the same time, creating a sense of depth, as if she’s also giving us a glimpse of an underworld that is as mobile and moody as the sky.

The first time I saw this painting I was reminded of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s 1950 Irish language masterpiece, Cré na Cille. There was a copy of the novel in the bookshelves when I was growing up, and as a child, I was fascinated by the cover which shows a jumble of graveyards on a stoney hillside in Connemara. There’s no doubt that there would have been a copy of Cré na Cille in Eugene and Una’s cottage in Finglas, and that Una would have been familiar with the painter behind the cover.

Armagh-born painter Charles Lamb (1893-1964) designed the book jacket and also provided drawings of all the main characters in the story in the first edition of the novel from publishers Sairséal agus Dill.

The comic twist in the plot of Ó Cadhain’s novel is that all of the characters in Cré na Cille are dead. They are not ethereal ghosts but loud coffin-bound corpses who bitch and moan, boast and gossip about one another incessantly in a raucous chorus.

Una’s underworld may be a more dreamy and abstracted location, but like Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s graveyard, it’s very lively. Whatever it is, it’s certainly not dead. The buildings, as Una paints them, seem solid and stalwart, despite the turbulence overhead and underground. They stand as a symbol of faith – the painter’s own, perhaps, since she was a believer? – in an unstable world.

Eugene Watters described this duality as the essence of Una’s style i.e that her work had at least two meanings. “While remaining true to the mood and shape of the natural scene, it should have other suggestions built into it.” 

Some of Una’s early work was of religious subject matter and there is a meditative, harmonious quality to even her most social of paintings. A year later, in 1959, she would return to monastic Ireland with The Four Masters, which hangs in Phibsborough library where she worked as a librarian before her marriage.

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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, 51 x 41.5cm).  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