Una’s little book of Kells

This blog has tended to concentrate on Una’s paintings, but as noted elsewhere on this site, Una did a great deal of jobbing art and design work. During the 1950s, she provided illustrations and calligraphy for her uncle Brian O Higgins (1882-1963), the poet and patriot, whose portrait by Una is highlighted in a guest blog (May 19, 2020).

O’Higgins had founded a publishing company in 1924, whose output ranged from rousing political pamphlets (Unconquered Ireland, 1927) to devotional tracts (The Little Book of St Francis, 1958) as well as Christmas and greeting cards, all of which showcased the work of Irish artists and illustrators.

The cards, in particular, were a popular venture for the company. In the 1950s, a decade of mass emigration from Ireland (half a million people left the country between 1951 and 61), these were dispatched to the Irish diaspora all over the world, but particularly to the US.

The company’s publications reflected O’Higgins’ own passions – politics and prayer. He was a die-hard, anti-Treaty Republican figure, a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and a 1916 combatant. He was imprisoned several times between 1918 and 1921 and went on hunger strike during the Civil War. He served the Clare constituency as a TD until 1927 when he lost his seat. He resigned from Sinn Féin in protest in 1934 and sided against DeValera in 1938. O’Higgins was also a devoted Catholic. (He died aged 81 in St Anthony’s Church in Clontarf while attending Mass.)

But his political and religious agenda chimed with a broader economic nationalism, borne out of De Valera’s economic war of the 1930s which had rigidly promoted a policy of Irish self-sufficiency. Even though Seán Lemass was in the process of moving the economy away from this insular path in the late 1950s, O’Higgins was still clearly appealing to patriotic supporters of the “Buy Irish” strand of De Valera’s isolationism.

The craft skills of Irish artists were central to the publications he produced, honouring traditional skills – in particular calligraphy and Celtic design. These pamphlets promoted the arts and crafts movement in the Ireland of 1950s, as much as the Yeats’ sisters’ Cuala Press did during the same period.

O’Higgins’ publishing firm had an export market in mind. The subject matter of both the secular and religious publications might seem twee and verging on the “Oirishy” for contemporary taste but they were cannily serving their target audience. Prayer-book sized ( approx 10.5 x 14 cms), slim and light, and easy to post – remembering that large diaspora – they served as both devotional tools for the practising Catholic and nostalgic mementos for the lonely exile.

The difficulty for the Una Watters scholar is in identifying the specific publications she worked on. While the verses were clearly authored by O’Higgins (he was a prolific poet, balladeer and songwriter) or drawn from traditional sources, the art work for smaller items was not always credited. That’s why we’re really excited to have been a gifted a pristine copy of one of these publications – The Little Book of Blessing (1959) – which is very definitely one of Una’s with her name prominently on the cover. (see above)

Glenn Slaby – – came across Una Watters by chance when he was doing his own research on Brian O’Higgins after he had acquired a copy of the Little Book of Blessing. (He thinks he may have picked it up at a library sale or at the sale of a family library owned by a woman of Irish descent in New Rochelle, NY, where he lives. ) “I love, enjoy picking up old, and/or unusual books,” he writes. Adding to its rarity value, is the fact that this pamphlet is not listed among O’Higgins’ attributed publications.

Glenn has kindly donated the booklet to this site, and we intend to hold it as part of a material resource for scholars interested in Una’s work. In time, we will offer it for safe-keeping to a national institution.

Glenn included with the pamphlet a letter which he found inside dated June 22, 1967, in which Nora (no surname), the writer of the letter (based in Belfast), notes she is sending the booklet to Bernie in the US in the hope that “it will bring back happy memories of the Old Country & his Youth”.

Artistically, the influence of the great monastic scribes is obvious in Una’s Celtic designs. Compare Una’s frontispiece (see above) with this detail from the Book of Kells.

Una’s interest in and debt to manuscript illustration is also evident in her witty portraits in The Four Masters, (1959, oil on canvas, 60 x 70cms) the painting which now hangs in Phibsboro library. (See post: February 20,2022) and in private work done for family and friends – take a look at her St Patrick’s Breastplate on the Uncatalogued Work page on this site.

Once again, thank you to Glenn Slaby for his generous gift.

Below see some sample pages from The Little Book of Blessing.

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.