This is the face of Dublin artist, Una Watters (1918-1965).
Who, you might ask?
It’s a face you may well see if you’re passing the GPO this weekend in the hours of darkness. It will be illuminated across the facade of the post office as part of the Herstory Illuminations Festival 2020 to mark St Brigid’s Day.
Her image – created for projection by NCAD art student Rebecca Sodegrad – is there thanks to an RTÉ Junior initiative, Who’s Your Heroine, in which schoolchildren across Ireland were invited to discover lost women’s stories.
The response was so overwhelming that in addition to commissioning a series of six original animations, RTE partnered with NCAD to create additional illustrations showcasing some of the many incredible women nominated by the children.
Alexa Bauer (10) of Dublin 7 Educate Together school, nominated Una Watters for the project and wrote an accompanying essay 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.
So why has Una Watters been forgotten?
Partly because she died suddenly, aged 47, when she was at the height of her artistic powers.
After training at the National College of Art under the guidance of Maurice McGonigal, Una had become a versatile and prolific artist. She worked in oils and watercolours, painted portraits and landscapes, and in her latter career developed an angular, almost cubist style. Saturated with colour, her work is social, witty and observant. She sketched, was involved in magazine and book illustration, was an expert calligrapher and had a flair for design. (She won an Irish Arts Council commission to design a symbol to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.)
She was a member of the influential Society of Dublin Painters which featured a strong female membership, among them May Guinness, Grace Henry, Mary Swanzy, Mainie Jellet and Evie Hone, with whom she also showed.
One of her paintings, The Four Masters (1959), still hangs in the small suburban branch library in Phibsboro where she worked as a librarian. Another, The People’s Gardens (1963), is in the collection of the Dublin City Gallery (Hugh Lane).
Yet Una’s reputation has remained in the shadows.
The reason is, perhaps, related to her premature death. In 1966, a year after her untimely death, Una’s grieving husband, Eugene Watters, the Irish language novelist and poet, organized a memorial exhibition of 37 of her oil paintings, after which, heartbroken by her loss, he distributed her work widely among friends and family. This has meant that although she is loved and admired by those who are lucky enough to own an original Watters, her work has not reached a wider public.
For the past two years, I have been trying to change that. With the help of Una’s family and friends, we have managed to track down 23 of the 37 works in her posthumous 1966 show, and are on the lookout for more with a view to mounting a retrospective exhibition.
Slowly but surely, we hope to bring Una’s name into the light. Alexa Bauer has lit the first fuse. See Herstory 2020 for Alexa’s full essay: https://www.rte.ie/culture/herstory/2020/0128/1111507-herstory-illuminated-una-watters/