Una in focus

The Bliss of Solitude

40 Meditation - Adams pic

Meditation is one of Una Watters most enigmatic paintings, writes Mary Morrissy, not least because it’s undated and presents a marked departure from the social realism of her  later work. 

There have been many times in the course of looking at Una Watters’ work that I have wished she were still alive to ask her about aspects of individual paintings. None more so than Meditation, which seems to me her most mysterious work.

Meditation, (oil on canvas, 69 x 59cms), is clearly a late work although there’s no date on the painting. In terms of its subject matter, it’s an outlier. Unlike her cheery, social realist group portraits in city settings, this harks back to an emphasis in Una’s early work on religious subject matter.

Her first work to be exhibited publicly – in the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) exhibition in 1949 – was an Annunciation (1948). The IELA had been founded in 1943 by Sybil le Brocquy , playwright and patron of the arts, to promote modernism.  It was a direct response to the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) rejection of work by her son Louis le Brocquy and of modernist work en masse. The IELA’s mission was to provide a forum where work by living Irish artists could be shown irrespective of its “academic” credentials.  This suggests that although Una’s theme might have been religious, her interpretation might have been more unconventional.

However, at the moment we cannot say that for sure. Both Annunciation and Madonna of the Ash Tree (1943), two early religious paintings, featured in the 1966 posthumous exhibition organised by Una’s husband, Eugene Watters, but we have have not managed to trace either of these works.

We also know of the existence of at least one other early Biblical painting, The Flight into Egypt, which was placed by Eugene Watters’ Irish language biographer, Máirín NicEoin in a classroom in St Canice’s School, Finglas, in 1956/57, at a time when Eugene would have been teaching there.  Later, it appears to have been gifted to Una’s sister, Sr Mel, a member of the Holy Faith congregation.  Eugene mentions it in correspondence but due to an oversight it did not appear in the 1966 exhibition, and has since disappeared.

So we are left with Meditation.  Although clearly a religious painting, it’s rendered in an intellectually abstract fashion and in a highly stylised form. The colour palette is cool – soothing blues and mossy browns. The madonna-like figure in the blue robes, viewed in profile seated on a stone throne, is fluid but sculptural. (Her face is averted so we’re not tempted to try to identify her as a “real” person.) The religious symbolism of the golden pathway of illumination – or could it be a tongue of fire? – leading through the brown portal and towards a vanishing point suggests the painter is trying to evoke a state of mind.

The only fleshy part of this “madonna” is her hands which are warm and life-like. And that brings us to the first of the conundrums in the work.  How many figures are there in Meditation?  There is a darker shadow-self cloaking the madonna that suggests another “presence” in the painting, and there seems to be more than one pair of those life-like hands.

The mixture of religious symbolism and secular abstraction reaches its apex in the  rendering of the figure’s veil. This element of the painting comes to dominate but what exactly is it? It could be a hat with a dove grey veil swathed around it, or is it a goitred, acorn-shaped, Picasso-like eye?

The dominance of the image brings to mind the Wordsworthian “inward eye”, the thing of beauty remembered in tranquility which can only be experienced in the “bliss of solitude”.

It’s quite likely too that there is a double meaning to this inward eye – it may not simply be a spiritual vision that is being celebrated but the mystical power of the artistic imagination.

The provenance of Meditation is not entirely clear.  Although a late work and an oil, it strangely, did not feature in the 1966 show.  Whether it had been already been sold and/or gifted before 1966 is not known, but it disappeared from view until the early 2000s when it was purchased by Irish collector Sean O’Criadain, who acquired City Bridge (1964) at the same time – see blog of June 9.  It was put up for auction again at Adams’s Dublin in 2007 where it was bought for €11,000.

When it came up for public auction, only one of two of Una’s works to do so, the Adams catalogue noted her religious sensibility and the sense of humility and quietude evident in the work.  The painting “exhibits this quality, the rounded simple forms and autumnal hues creating a harmonious intimate mood”.

Elegant and restrained, Meditation does not yield up a reading easily.  The mystery makes it all the more powerful.

Mary Morrissy    

Una in focus

The Bridge of Time

34 City Bridge 1965

Mary Morrissy, curator of the site, writes about the latest Una Watters painting to be “discovered”.

It’s always exciting to come across a “new” Una Watters – at least new to us, particularly almost a year-and-a-half into our quest to trace  Una’s extant work.

The original call we ran for Una’s paintings in an article in the Irish Times in July 2019 produced quite a flurry of work; similarly, the March 2020 edition of the RTE Nationwide programme and the Liveline radio programme around the same time, but since the COVID-19 pandemic, everything had gone very quiet.

Then, last week, just when we thought the 10 untraced works from Una’s 1966 exhibition – see elsewhere on this site – were going to remain stubbornly elusive – one of them, miraculously,  turned up.

City Bridge (oil on canvas, 55 x 75cm ) was painted some time in 1965, the year of Una’s untimely death.  It was a very prolific year for Una as it turned out.  She completed five major oil paintings that we know of, as well as designing the Easter Rising Jubilee symbol after winning an Arts Council competition for the commission.  (Poignantly, Una’s sister, Sheila Byrne, recalls that the award and prize money arrived on the day her funeral cortege left for Ballinasloe for burial.)  In the weeks immediately before her death she also completed a set of experimental watercolours – see “The Emerald Ballroom Watercolours” page on this site.

City Bridge was exhibited in the Oireachtas exhibition of 1965 with a price tag of £35.  Whether it was sold then or not is not clear, but it’s unlikely. The painting appeared in the 1966 memorial exhibition organised by Una’s husband, Eugene, a year after her death.  There was no owner attribution in the catalogue, so it’s likely it was gifted, like much of Una’s work, to a friend or acquaintance after the 1966 show.

Where it’s been since then is a matter of speculation but we now know that it was acquired in the early 2000s by the late art dealer Sean O’Criadain, along with another of Una’s paintings, Meditation (not featured in the 1966 exhibition).  Meditation was subsequently sold at auction but O’Criadain held on to City Bridge.

O’Criadain was a legendary figure in the Irish art world (as well as being a poet, literary editor and Harvard lecturer) who championed, in particular, artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as William John Leech, Harry Clarke and Roderic O’Connor, long before it was fashionable. Una’s painting has remained in O’Criadain’s collection and we’re grateful to David Britton and Peter Lamb for alerting us to the fact.

Having not seen the painting itself, due to current circumstances, it’s probably not fair to comment on it, but from the image it’s certainly one of Una’s more complex and enigmatic works. The bridge motif  is clear in the jigsaw-like quadrants of colour she employs  – dove-greys, moss greens and various shades of blue.  This geometric patterning was a feature of her later work, but here it’s used in a much more abstract way. In its style and colour palette, Una seems to be harking back to a kind of fluid pre-cubism.

The bridge of the title is fragmented, broken-up, dismembered. The shafts of shadow – or is it stone? – seem to be in balustrade shapes, and the river seems to dive into the layered grey city that crowds the background in shortened perspective.

Una’s characterful figures animate the painting as usual  – the idling, dark-skinned boy in the left foreground lolling against the bridge parapet, the policeman – or lockhard? – in his peaked cap in the left foreground, the white-haired matron with the serious hat on the far right.  But there are other more enigmatic figures.  Who is the jaunty man in a pink coat with flying tails and the hint of a tricorn hat who looks like a refugee from the  regency city?  The figure in the black bowler hat and cloak in the centre of the canvas also looks distinctly anachronistic.

The blocky curvature of the upper-decks of buses suggests this has to be Dublin, as does the street furniture – look at that lamp standard. But which bridge is it?  Or is it an amalgam of all the city’s  bridges?  Or is it none of them?

Or is this the bridge of time itself linking the city of the present to the past?

The thoughts of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses at the funeral of Paddy Dignam in Glasnevin cemetery come to mind: – ‘How many! All these here once walked around Dublin. Faithful departed’.