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It’s raining at the National Gallery!

Raining Una Watters, that is. We’re delighted to be able to announce that the Una Watters’ painting, Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain (1959, oil on canvas, 61×81 cms), is now part of the National Gallery’s collection, thanks to the generosity of its owner, Colbert Kearney.

Colbert was gifted the work by Eugene Watters after Una’s posthumous exhibition in 1966. He was a pupil of Eugene’s at St Fergal’s National School in Finglas (see Colbert’s guest blog, “Portrait of E.R. Watters”, June 17, 2020) and they remained firm friends until Eugene’s death. It was always Colbert’s intention to pass the painting on but after last year’s retrospective (March 10 – April 2, 2022 @ the United Arts Club), the idea of donating to the NGI seemed like the logical next step.

Girl Going by Trinity is a quintessentially Dublin work – the Trinity College location makes it so – and the driving, sleety rain will be a familiar meteorological trope for anyone who has known winter in the city.

As Colbert’s partner, I’ve lived with this work for over 20 years, and it’s the work that inspired my quest to locate as much of Una’s work as possible, and the decision to mount Una’s retrospective last year with Sheila Smith, her niece. The idea was to bring Una to a wider audience and to the forefront of artistic attention. We hope that the NGI’s acquisition of her work will cement that progress.

The opportunity came at a reception for the Sarah Cecelia Harrison Inaugural Essay Prize sponsored by the gallery last November. My essay on Una reached the final three (See “Una takes her place”, November 25, 2022). At the reception Colbert had a conversation with the director of the ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art, Donal Maguire, and enquired if the gallery would be interested in having an Una Watters in the collection. I think Donal wondered if it was the cheeky white wine talking, but once he was assured that Colbert was serious, the process only took a few months.

In late January we had to say goodbye to the painting, so it could go before an acquisitions committee. At that stage, we didn’t know if it would be accepted or if we would see it again (although of course we sincerely hope we will see it again on the walls of the National Gallery!) so we spent much of the early new year savouring our time with it.

We moved it to a new spot – hung lower than usual. (I got this idea from sculptor Corban Walker’s exhibition As Far As I can See at the Crawford Gallery (Oct 15, 2022 – Jan 15, 2023). Along with his own work, Walker chose 30 works from the Crawford Collection to show. Because of his restricted stature, Walker hung the works lower than normal and it afforded a much more intimate relationship with the paintings.)

Now at eye-level, there were still new things I was seeing in Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain – its complex treatment of light, the quivering rain drops (impasto dashes of white paint) on the tips of the umbrella, the life-like animation of the Goldsmith statue beside the flesh-and-blood young woman who appears paradoxically monumental, the misty illumination around the girl’s ponytail.

I’d never noticed before the proliferation of verticals in the work – the stick of the umbrella, the railings, the balustrades – and how the rain itself is architectural in its form like literal stair-rods. The patterned geometry of the stone work leans close to abstraction; even the half-belt on the girl’s coat looks solid, brick-like, as if she’s melding with the building, her face full of sharp architectural planes.

I could go on, but I won’t, or I’ll get lonesome for it! And there’s nothing really to mourn. The painting lives.

Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain joins its sister work – The People’s Gardens (1963, oil on canvas, 40.6 x 50.8 cms) – which is already in the Dublin City Hugh Lane Gallery collection (See Logan Sisley’s guest blog May 6, 2020). It means Una Watters’ name is enshrined in the national cultural memory, where it belongs.

Although the Hugh Lane organised private viewings of their Una to coincide with our retrospective last year, they wouldn’t lend The People’s Gardens, and it’s a very long time since it was on public display in Parnell Square.

Both of these works deserve to be widely seen. So next time you’re in either of these galleries, ask about their Una Watters works; it’s possible to see them by appointment. After all, they belong to all of us now.

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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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Una in focus

Mistress of the Four Masters

History comes wittily alive in Una Watters’ jaunty rendition of The Four Masters (1959, oil on canvas, 60 x 70cm) which will be on show at her retrospective coming up at the United Arts Club in Dublin opening on March 10 – see details below.

It’s one of only three of Una’s works in public ownership. The painting was presented to the public library branch in Phibsoboro, Dublin, where Una worked as a librarian before she married in 1945. It shows the authors of the Annals of the Four Masters, a seminal early manuscript written in Irish and compiled at a Franciscan friary in Co Donegal between January 22, 1632 and August 10, 1636.

“The Annals are a chronicle of Irish history from A.M. 2242 to A.D. 1616 and contain records under successive years of the deaths of kings and other prominent persons, both ecclesiastical and lay, along with accounts of battles, plagues, etc,” according to the Royal Irish Academy. “They end with the death of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, in 1616. The compilation was largely derived from older manuscripts, many of which have not survived.”

The various hands in the manuscript are, according to the RIA, clear, legible and it was swiftly written with a pointed quill.

The annals were put together at a time when the Gaelic heritage was under grave threat from the combined effects of enforced plantations, religious persecution and the military defeats suffered by the Gaelic lordships, all of which facilitated the encroachment of English culture and language.

Image courtesy of the Royal Irish Academy

Una’s depiction of the four monks stands out, primarily, for its witty humanity. Her monastic scribes are not from central casting; they are clearly four individuals with defined personalities. The chinless younger monk in the right foreground is clearly shocking the bearded white elder on the left, who is wide-eyed and incredulous. Meanwhile, behind them, the tonsured black-haired monk on the left is in deep discussion with his older mentor – clearly, an ecumenical matter is being discussed.

Often, Una created facial expressions with broad brush strokes, relying on gesture rather than detailed rendering of physiognomy. Here she departs from this practice. Perhaps she wanted to humanise these historical personages and make them seem like real people, engaged in spirited discussion? This is clearly a work meeting with the tools of the trade clearly evident all around them – manuscripts, quills and books.

Through the apse window behind them, the outline of a blue mountain can be seen – referencing the hills of Donegal? – just like the glimpses of Italian hill towns in religious paintings of the High Renaissance.

For those of you interested in the other of Una’s paintings in public hands, you can view Portrait of Brian O’Higgins (see blog May 19, 2020) at Navan Public Library on request.

The People’s Gardens (May 6,2020) which is held by the Hugh Lane Gallery is not on public display. It was donated to the gallery in 1967 by the Haverty Trust which funded the purchase of paintings by Irish artists for public galleries and institutions.

Unfortunately, the Hugh Lane Gallery has declined to lend the painting for Una’s retrospective, which is a great shame. But if you’re a fan of Una’s work, you could always visit the gallery and request that they show it at some stage so the wider public can see Una’s work in the flesh.

It could be a case of People Power for The People’s Gardens!

Una Watters: Into the Light runs at the United Arts Club, 3 Upr Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin 2, March 10 – April 2, 2022.

Opening times: Mon – Wed: 12 – 4pm /Thurs, Fri: 12 – 11pm/ Saturday: 6 – 11pm

Admission is free.

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Una in focus

The People’s Gardens

In the second of a series of  occasional blogs considering individual paintings of Una’s, Logan Sisley, Acting Head of Collections at the Hugh Lane Gallery, discusses “The People’s Gardens”.

Una Watters is represented by one painting in the Hugh Lane Gallery Collection, a charming Dublin scene painted in 1963 called The People’s Gardens (oil on canvas, 40.6 x 50.8 cm). It shows Watters’ distinctive angular modernist style with contrasts of light and shade and areas of pure colour.

It is one of a number of paintings by Watters depicting Dublin life. The People’s Gardens is a public garden within the Phoenix Park near the Parkgate Street entrance. It opened in the mid-1860s in order to address the lack of public recreational space in Dublin. It contains an ornamental lake, children’s playground, picnic areas and Victorian bedding schemes. Watters captures the undulating terrain of the gardens.

As is typical of her work, the trees and figures are pared down to angular forms. This shows the influence of earlier modern art movements such as Cubism and Futurism, albeit interpreted in her own style. Her clever use of shadows adds depth – notably under the trees and in the figure of the girl kicking the ball, the man reading a paper and the duck taking off (or landing). These also demonstrate a keen observation of people and an eye for detail. The strong shadows and summer dresses suggest a warm sunny day, yet the elderly couple walking arm-in-arm on the path are still dressed in heavy coats and hats.

Leisure scenes in outdoor settings such as this have been a popular subject for painters since the 19th century. Other examples at the Hugh Lane Gallery include Edouard Manet’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1865), Eugene Boudin’s Normandy beach scenes (1867 and 1893), Edgar Degas’ Beach Scene (c. 1876-1877), John Lavery’s river scene, Sutton Courtney (1917) and William Leech’s Beach, South of France (1921-6).

The People’s Gardens was shown at the 1964 Royal Hibernian Academy Annual Exhibition. The Thomas Haverty Trust bought the painting and lent it for Watters’ posthumous retrospective exhibition in 1966. The following year the Trust donated the work to Hugh Lane Gallery. 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).

As an artist so intrinsically linked to the city, it is fitting that Watters’ work found a home in Dublin’s city gallery. She painted while working for Dublin Corporation’s libraries and met her husband Eugene at a dance at the Teachers’ Club, one of the gallery’s neighbours on Parnell Square.

Logan Sisley

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Logan Sisley and Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh discuss The People’s Gardens at the Hugh Lane Gallery for RTE Nationwide programme  on March 6, 2020.