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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

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

 

 

 

Categories
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.