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Una in focus

Crowning glories

Today we mark the birth of Una Watters on this day 104 years ago. We thought we’d mark the occasion with a quick survey of one of her crowning glories – her depiction of trees. Una’s eloquent rendering of them was constantly evolving, from naturalistic to abstract to minimalistic, as our “tree of life” gallery demonstrates.

1 .Dha Chrann (1943)
2 .The People’s Park (1943)
3.The Doghole (1950s)
4. The Red Bridge (1956)
6. Wild Apples (1964)
7. Untitled watercolour (Emerald Ballroom series) Copy – (1965)

First in our gallery is the very early Dha Chrann (oil on canvas, 56 x43 cm) where a pair of what look like oak trees are depicted in a tonally soft naturalism reminiscent of Corot. The day is gently cloudy and the trees are in full leaf. A visitor to Una’s retrospective earlier this year remarked that this work seemed less like a study of trees than of relationship, the two giant oaks reaching out to embrace one another.

The autumnal hues of The People’s Park completed in the same year (oil on canvas, dimensions unavailable) with its shimmering golden leaves and delicate, balletic branches is a joyful, light-filled composition. This was a place (in Dublin) Una was fond of and she returned to it in 1963 with The People’s Gardens, acquired by the Haverty Trust and now in the Dublin City Hugh Lane Gallery collection. (See blogs May 6 and June 2,2020 and April 12, 2022.)

Next is the luminous moonlit scene in watercolour featuring a lake site near Ballinasloe. Una’s husband, Eugene, claimed The Doghole (dimensions unavailable), completed some time in the mid-1950s, was considered to be the finest of all Una’s river watercolours.  “The picture was quickly blocked in one night as we drifted home downstream after a long fishing trip, & coloured afterwards,” he wrote.

“It is an early picture. . . but it already shows in perfect miniature the style she later developed on her own & which critics found unique.  Briefly, the essence of that style is that a painting should have (at least) two meanings: that. . .while remaining true to the mood and shape of the natural scene, it should have other suggestions built into it – e.g. if you look closely, from a distance, any of the moonlit trees on the left, you will begin to see that they suggest the shape of a dog, with his tail towards the river.  This gives a humorous & dreamlike quality to the whole concept. . .”

The Red Bridge (oil on canvas, 51 x 66cm), depicting a spot on the River Suck, also in Ballinsaloe, is an oil dating from around the same time (1956), in which the river-bank growth is rendered with brush strokes reminiscent of Mary Swanzy and tending towards cubist abstraction. The treatment of the foliage gives the Galway scene an exotic, jungle-like feel, “othering” what might be regarded as traditional subject matter.

The Pine Wood ( oil on canvas, 1961, dimensions unavailable), which appeared in the original 1966 exhibition but didn’t make it into our retrospective, shows Una at her most expressive. Another Ballinasloe location – Garbally Park – the umbrella-like crowns of the trees shimmer in a blurry haze as if the wood itself was on the march, and coupled with the sensuous dips and hollows of the ground, plunges the viewer into a mysterious verdant realm.

In Wild Apples, (oil on canvas, 1964, 56 x 43 cm), which featured in the retrospective earlier this year, the trees have been reduced to sharp-edged geometric impressions, almost like maps of colour on the canvas. (For a more detailed exploration of this work see our blog, June 24, 2020)

Finally, a rare chance to see one of the Emerald Ballroom watercolours that has unfortunately been lost. (See separate page on this site dedicated to the series.) This untitled piece featured on the reverse of one of the watercolours reframed for the 2022 retrospective and so could not be saved. However, the digital image of this and four other reverse images remain. These are another example of Una’s very late work, completed in the first weeks of November 1965 before her death on the 20th of the month.

Here the trees are bare and the outstretched branches have a vaguely supplicant air. Once again, as in her earliest work, there are two trees visible, but unlike Dha Chrann they’re not reaching out, but separated in a washed-out, grey landscape, lending the work a bleak, mid-winter mood and suggesting, perhaps, an eerie sense of premonition.

Mary Morrissy

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News

Una soars with Finglas ravens

Another reason to celebrate Una Watters’ birthday month, is a new sculpture to be launched in Kildonan Park, Finglas, this week that pays homage to Una’s work

The Bridge: Finglas Ravens Soar, is a seven-metre-tall steel sculpture by Sara Cunningham-Bell, commissioned by Dublin City Council/Sculpture Dublin, for the 20-acre public park comprising two figures with arms raised holding high a mirrored steel ‘river rug’.

The sculpture is a compendium piece, threaded through with symbols and motifs reflecting the artistic and cultural life of the locality – including the figures of running schoolboys from Una Watters’ seminal painting, Cappagh Road, and representations of An Claidheamh Soluis (Sword of Light), the symbol she designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 – see elsewhere on this site.

Coincidentally, the sculpture was installed on November 4, Una’s 103th birthday.

Inspired by the Irish translation of Finglas – ‘Fionnghlas’ (clear streamlet) – the sculpture draws on other influential figures associated with the area, such as Sophie Pierce-Healy, an aviatrix who flew her plane, “The Silver Lining”, from Kildonan Aerodrome, Ireland’s first commercial airport in the 1920s, along with celebrated uileann piper Séamus Ennis.

The Kildonan Park work was a ‘participative’ commission. Over the past year, hundreds of local residents have engaged with Sculpture Dublin by taking part in over 40 creative workshops, focus groups, public meetings and other engagement activities related to the installation.

The Bridge: Fiacha Dhubha Fhionglaise ar Foluain’ will have a public launch on site at Kildonan Park on Saturday, November 13, at 2pm.

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Una in focus

Happy Birthday, Una Watters

Una Watters was born 103 years ago on this day. We celebrate her birthday with this charming early self-portrait. This is one of the few oil paintings that she signed with her maiden name, Una McDonnell. (She married Eugene Watters in 1945.) So it’s a portrait of the artist as a young woman.The painting (oil on canvas, 23 x 31 cm) dates to 1942 when she was just 24. It may well have been completed while she was studying at the National College of Art where she attended part-time on the encouragement of Maurice MacGonigal, the college’s director.

Like the 1943 Self-Portrait in Green, featured elsewhere on this site, the sitter’s gaze is clear and candid, although there is something tentative about the expression. The graceful contour of her neck is accentuated by a gold crucifix on a delicate chain. The colourful floral dress looks more girlish than the sophisticated presentation in Self Portrait in Green and although Una looks straight at us, she is slightly off-centre in the composition, her right shoulder out of frame. This adds to the impression of uncertain youth. It lacks the forthright pose of the 1943 work. Although painted only a year later, the confidence of the “green” portrait is noticeable, perhaps as a consequence of the formal training she was receiving.

As far as we know, this portrait was never exhibited (it wasn’t in the 1966 exhibition, for example) and remained in the McDonnell family endorsing the notion that it may well have been an apprentice work.

As Frances Borzello remarks in Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits, self-portraits are often done for practice, or alternatively for self-promotion. “A comparison of the artist with a painted subject was the best way to prove one’s skill at catching a likeness.”

Una’s interest in portraiture was established early. She did impromptu sketches of family and friends from a young age. She went on to complete several accomplished oil portraits – of Eugene Watters, Brian O’Higgins and Tomas O Muircheartaigh – where according to the sitters or their familiars, she had the skill of achieving great likenesses.

As Colbert Kearney remarks of her portrait of Eugene Watters: “Seeing it again more than a half a century later, was a Pygmalion moment: I expected the image in the frame to turn and talk to me so miraculously had the artist captured not only the appearance, but also the essence of the man.”

So are we seeing the “real” Una here? Well, perhaps, though as Dr Eimear O’Connor pointed out writing about Self Portrait in Green, the self-portrait is more than autobiographical statement. It’s also about technique – the compendium of painterly decisions on light, colour and composition that reflect the artist’s innate talent.

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Found and lost

Woman Sewing (dimensions unavailable) is a work of Una’s that dates to 1958. It featured on the cover of the catalogue for her posthumous 1966 exhibition, organised by her husband Eugene, and held at the Dublin Painters Gallery on St Stephen’s Green, almost 55 years ago.

It’s timely to be considering this work today since we’ve finalised dates for our own retrospective of Una’s work (after a number of COVID- led cancellations) for March 11 – April 3, 2022, at the United Arts Club, 3 Fitzwilliam Street Upper, Dublin.

This show will feature as many of the works we can trace from the 1966 show – currently tallying at 26 out of 37 – plus her rediscovered watercolours ( the Emerald Ballroom series – see elsewhere on this site).

Woman Sewing has a strangely anatomical quality as if we’re seeing the subject with x-ray vision – down to her very bones. Look at her arms, or her clearly delineated breasts like perfect moon-like globes under her workaday pinafore. Her sewing hand is minutely rendered, the slender tapering figures, the translucent fingernails and the precise grip of the needle. Light blossoms at her throat in a rounded countour that echoes her breasts and even the pattern she’s embroidering. So although the painting is figurative, there’s a geometrical abstraction at work here as well.

The blue/black palette is reminiscent of Meditation, an undated work of Una’s that we’ve discussed elsewhere in the blog, (August 16,2020) but unlike Meditation this work is not delving into the mystical, but observing more earthy pursuits.

Here is a woman absorbed in craft work. The expression on her face is inward-looking, her eyes downcast, a smile playing on her lips. It’s a depiction of someone taking pride and pleasure in artistic work. It could even be seen as a stylised self-portrait ( Una was a talented seamstress).

The sad thing about Woman Sewing is that although we’ve traced the owner of the work, he cannot locate it, so it’s both found and lost. His family came into possession of it after the 1966 show, he told me, and he remembers it being on display in the house in the 1960s. But at some stage it was put away and now he’s not sure where it might be.

We’re hoping if he reads this he might send another search party into the attic so that it can join its companions in the upcoming show. As the shop window image for her original retrospective, Woman Sewing really needs to be in the 2022 show.

Addendum: Please go to comments at the top of this post where similarities are drawn by one of our followers between Una’s Woman Sewing and the work of Fernand Leger. I include the images referenced here.

Fernand Leger: Woman with a Cat (1921)
Fernand Leger: Woman Sewing (1909)

Mary Morrissy

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Una in focus

Going Nationwide

 

Mary Morrissy, the curator of unawattersartist.wordpress.com, recounts how an essay by a ten-year-old schoolgirl introduced Una Watters to a national audience. 

On March 6, in association with the Herstory project, the RTE  Nationwide programme dedicated a show to Una Watters.  Una’s niece, Sheila Smith, and her nephews Garry and Gerry Byrne, came to EPIC The Emigration Museum in Dublin armed with a selection of Una’s work that is still in the family’s possession and spoke to the show’s presenter, Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh

The Herstory project was founded in 2016 to showcase authentic female role models and to set up an education programme to foster interest in forgotten women achievers. In association with RTE Junior, Irish schoolchildren were asked to nominate their “lost” heroine.

Alexa Bauer (10) of Dublin 7 Educate Together school, nominated Una Watters for the project and wrote an accompanying essay on The Ladies Committee (1964) explaining her choice.

My great aunty Rosie (still alive) and my great-grandmother Molly were both good friends with . . . Una. In our living room, we have a painting by her called “The Ladies Committee” and my great-grandmother is apparently in it, as well as a catalogue of all her [Una’s] paintings. . .

Una Watters should be one of Ireland’s most famous painters, but has sadly faded away.

Alexa’s great-grandmother, Molly Smith, who owned a shop in Finglas close to where Una Watters lived, is the woman dressed in black in the centre of the painting.

img_1946

Alexa was also interviewed by Nationwide and was present at the EPIC museum to celebrate the launch of the Herstory Festival 2020 which included a series of illuminations on the facade of the GPO to mark St Brigid’s Day Una’s stylised image, which was featured in the illuminations (below) was designed by National College of Art and Design student Rebecca Sodegrad.

gpo-original

Images, apart from The Ladies Committee, courtesy of Nationwide, RTE.

Mary Morrissy