One painting, three titles

One of our hopes for the recent Una Watters retrospective, Into the Light (March 10 – April 2) was that more works from the original posthumous show of 1966 might turn up. (There are 8 of the 37 works from that show that we haven’t traced.) That didn’t happen, but what we did discover was that one of the works from the 1966 show, which we thought lost, might well have been hiding in plain sight.

Meditation (oil on canvas, undated, 61 x 70cms) has always been a bit of an outlier in terms of Una’s work. It seems like a quasi-religious work with its nun-like/madonna central figure sitting beside a source of fire, or perhaps a sacred illumination. (See blog August 16, 2020)

In comparison to Una’s other titles, Meditation is most untypical. Generally, she didn’t go for abstractions like this. She named her work with unstinting pragmatism – Malahide, The Ladies Committee, Thar an GPO, The Red Bridge. The other unusual detail about Meditation is that it’s the only work of hers that’s undated.

The biggest mystery, though, was why Meditation, a large and ambitious work in terms of its style and content, did not appear in the 1966 posthumous show organised by her husband, writer Eugene Watters, a year after her death.

We know that Eugene had the painting in his possession in April 1966 because he was photographed with a group of Una’s paintings he had shipped to his native Ballinasloe for an Easter Rising commemorative lecture he gave – “The Spirit of Sixteen” – at the Town Hall.

The lecture was accompanied by a small show of Una’s “historical” paintings. Six are listed – Thar an GPO, The Four Masters, Silken Thomas in the Tower, Portrait of Brian O Higgins, St Michael’s Church and lastly, a work entitled Mise Eire – lent by S. E Allen Figgis. All of these paintings are identifiable in the photograph (see below) and Meditation is clearly visible as one of the six. So if Eugene had access to the work, why did it not appear in the 1966 show he organised for November of that year?

That mystery set Eugene’s niece, Georgina O’Donovan, a stalwart supporter of this site, thinking and she has come up with a theory.

In the 1966 show, there was a painting listed under the title Old Woman, lent by Allen Figgis (the same S. E. Allen Figgis mentioned previously). He was a publisher and proprietor of Hodges Figgis bookshop, a collector of art and a friend of Eugene Watters. (He published De Luain, Eugene’s Irish language novel about the Easter Rising, in 1966).

Old Woman was one of the 1966 paintings we didn’t manage to trace for the 2022 show.

Georgina wondered if this painting could, in fact, be Meditation. If so, Mediation/Old Woman would have been painted in 1951, according to the 1966 catalogue, giving the lie to our supposition that it was a late work.

If you depend on the 1966 show title, the work could be read as a depiction of an elderly woman crouched by a fire, rather than a Madonna-like figure contemplating a source of heavenly illumination. Georgina wondered if Meditation was a title appended to the painting afterwards and not by Una at all.

In a further twist, given the photographic evidence, it appears that the work could have had a third title.

The mysterious Mise Eire mentioned in the list of paintings used to illustrate Eugene’s lecture in Ballinasloe is a work we’ve never come across in Una’s portfolio. And there’s no work in the photograph that matches it, if you discount Meditation, which is not named at all. Could Mise Eire also be Meditation – perhaps renamed by Eugene for the purpose of the lecture? (It would be tempting to reinterpret the old woman/ madonna figure of the painting as Mother Ireland and the golden flame as the igniting fire of the rebellion.)

If this is so, it wouldn’t have been the first time that Eugene had a hand in naming Una’s work. We know he titled the Emerald Ballroom watercolours because Una hadn’t got around to naming them before her untimely death and, indeed, probably did not see them as finished pieces.

There’s also the possibility that he retitled the last oil Una worked on her before her death now known as Harvest. This depicts a small girl in red (Una’s alter-ego in much of her work) carrying a billy can of tea to workers bringing in the hay at Cappagh. (Her father, wearing a hat, is clearly identifiable in the painting.) However, among the family, this work was known as “Tea in the Fields” – a much more typical Una title, or perhaps it was just a working title.

Given its significance as the last oil Una worked on, could Eugene have given it a more valedictory name?

Another example of double-naming is The Fluteplayer (in the 1966 exhibition but not available for the 2022 retrospective) which was gifted by Eugene to a family who’ve always referred to it as “Pan”, the Greek god of music. Is this how Eugene described it to them?

All of this, of course, is mere speculation and in the case of Meditation, it may not have been Eugene who renamed it at all. The painting went under the hammer twice in the early Noughties, so an art dealer might have advised a less generic name than Old Woman for the market.

The amateur art lover might believe that the artist has last dibs on the naming of her work, but this is not necessarily so. Curators, dealers and patrons can all have a say in giving a painting a name.

In formalist doctrine, the words beyond the picture frame are not supposed to influence the understanding or appreciation of visual forms. However, for most of us, as art historian E.H Gombrich asserted, the title is a significant contextual factor in interpreting a piece of work. Titles tell us how to look at a work.

When a painting has three titles, then the interpretations proliferate.

Eugene Watters in Ballinasloe in April 1966 with the six paintings that made up an exhibition of Una’s historical paintings at Cullen’s, Society Street. Meditation is clearly visible under his right arm.
Una in focus

Passing the GPO

November is Una Watters month. To mark the anniversary of her birth on November 4, 1918, we’re looking at “Thar an GPO” (By the GPO) painted in 1965.

The painting was one of several Una painted in the prolific last year of her life, and carries a title in Irish, presumably because it was shown at the Oireachtas exhibition of that year. Máirín Nic Eoin, Eugene Watters’ biographer credits it as the last painting Una completed, although some believe it was Harvest. The painting stands out as being an overtly political work and according to her sister, Nora McDonnell, in an interview with Nic Eoin for Eoghan Ó Tuairisc: Beatha augus Saothar (An Clóchomhar, 1988) Una saw it as a 1916 commemorative piece.

The 1916 Rising was very much in the air that year with the 50th anniversary coming up. Musicians and artists were engaged in exploring and reviewing the seminal event – e.g. George Morrison’s two Gael Linn films Mise Éire and Saoirse? with scores by composer Seán Ó Riada that entered into the national consciousness rather in the same way Riverdance did in the 1990s. Una herself had also been working on the design of a symbol for the 1966 commemoration for a competition sponsored by the Arts Council. (Her design won the contest, although, sadly, she did not live to collect the prize.)

It wasn’t only a memorial impulse. In 1966, Nelson’s Pillar was blown up by republicans, causing damage to the GPO, so the Rising and its fault lines was also a live political issue.

Thar an GPO (oil on canvas, 75 x 85cm) is an austere work in muted earth tones and more reflective in mood than Una’s other oils. The sombre palette of the painting serves to emphasise the ray of light shining from high right to low left of the canvas. A small girl in a russet coat – thought to be a depiction of Una herself as a child – is the only figure in the painting who notices the celestial beam, which slices through the ribbed columns of Portland stone of the GPO. The light forms an illuminated pathway into which the girl steps. This motif in the work could be seen as an Annunciation of sorts, a child of the revolution (Una was born two years after the Rising) bathed in the benign light of the new republic.

As often happened with Eugene and Una, there are subliminal echoes of each other’s visions in their work. Here’s a moment in Eugene’s long poem Aifreann na Marbh published in his 1964 collection, Lux Aeterna, that seems to embody the spirit of Una’s painting.

I see them naked, the bones of beauty,

The fluted columns, the empty stone of Corinth,

Rising from the haze on the left.

The pure virgin.

The figures crushed into the narrow space – both pictorial and actual – of the building’s portico between the columns and the forbidding granite face of the GPO represent every walk of life; a priest, a newspaper seller, a stylishly dressed young woman in a fawn suit, an elderly matron with a hat with her back to us. This hatted female figure appears in many of Una’s group scenes – in The People’s Gardens where she has been identified by family members as Una’s mother, and in City Bridge, where she appears in the bottom right of the frame in almost identical attire. There’s also a beaky, Beckett-like student with a scarf worn like a cravat, a newspaper seller and a nun among the throng.

Interestingly, the figures in the crowd are rendered transparently, their silhouettes overlapping so that, for example, we can see through the stolid gent rugged up in the overcoat and trilby in the centre foreground to the young girl in the tawny dress and the newspaper the seller is proffering.

As in many of Una’s group portraits, the “characters” are recognisable as archetypes, although the faces are rendered broadly and indistinctly. Here, though, they melt into one another, unified by the historic building and elevated by the revolutionary light, even if they don’t notice it. Their function is as a crowd, standing in for the many generations who have passed by the GPO.

There is some instability about the ground of the painting, given the overlapping figures so that the girl looking up at the light seems to be almost levitating. The other non-realist trope in the work is the rendering of the entrance to the GPO on the left of the painting which is suffused by a bronze light. The large entrance portal seems to open out into the pavement and we see the grey stone warmed up by an autumnal light emanating from the bronze decorative sashes on the glass.

Perhaps too it’s a subliminal reference to the bronze sculpture of The Dying Cúchulainn by Oliver Sheppard (1865-1941) which was designated by Eamon de Valera as an official memorial of the Rising in 1935 and has sat on its marble plinth in the GPO since then. Although the sculpture had not been created by Sheppard as a monument to the Rising, its placement in the GPO twinned it in the public mind with the events of 1916.

These two lights, dying bronze and transforming white, one of hope and one of defeat, seem an apt metaphorical configuration of the Rising itself.

Mary Morrissy