Where are my companions?

20 Cappagh Road 1960

It’s clearly an Irish scene, a Dublin scene, but a “disappeared” Dublin.

“Cappagh Road” is by the Dublin painter Una Watters (1918 – 1965)  and depicts one of the new corporation estates in Finglas in 1960, where she lived and worked.  It appears on the cover of a new memoir, Down by the Liffeyside (Somerville Press) by Colbert Kearney (who knew Una personally) and is the perfect embodiment of the world Colbert describes in his book – the migration experience of thousands of  inner-city dwellers to the outer suburbs in the 1950s, at a time when the government of the day was at least willing to tackle Dublin’s accommodation crisis head-on.

Una’s Finglas is a microcosm of  the “new” suburb in its brave infancy, when much of life was still lived out on the street, rather than behind closed doors. Look at the two burly women on the right in their heavy coats, gossiping, as one pushes a go-car (what we used to call buggies in the 1950s) in which a toddler sleeps, skewed to one side.  We know they’re gossiping from their physical gestures. The blue-scarved woman is saying something to her companion, but the tilt of her head tells us that it’s a secret or a sly aside that’s being shared. On the left of the scene, another young mother – or an older sister, perhaps? – cradles a bottle of milk while trying to restrain a child in a blue bonnet who’s on the brink of a tantrum.  You can see the “I want” refrain in the operatic yawn of the child’s mouth.

A boy in short trousers grabs another by the sleeve as they chase after a ball in the middle of the street.  Is he trying to hold his companion back, or pass him out? Three more take up the rear in hot pursuit of the runaway ball.  In the mid-ground of the painting, another boy is stepping off the kerb heedlessly and about to collide with a hatted man on a bicycle who is swerving to avoid him. The moment of avoided impact is rendered by a circular compass-like brush stroke.

A young blade – a university student or a clerk? – is waiting for the bus.  He stands, debonair, slightly louche-looking, one hand around the pole of the bus stop, the other hand thrust into his pocket. The bus is coming though he doesn’t see it. There it is at the vanishing point of the painting, as green and solid-looking as the trees it emerges from.

It is a winter’s afternoon – a weak sun braves the chilly sky; the street lights are already on, the shop (the local chipper) is warmly aglow, the people are rugged up. Only the eerily precise black dog, padding softly across the foreground, sniffing out his territory, tail alert, seems intent on his own business.

The 1950s policy of forcing people out en masse to housing schemes in what was essentially the countryside, without adequate social supports, may have been questionable but what Una Watters depicts very clearly here is the vibrant communities that ensued, at least at first.  Here is a group of people of all ages interacting with one another.  The rectangular, grid-like arrangement of the canvas may hint at the conformity folk singer Pete Seeger warned of in his song about the little boxes “all made of ticky tacky and they all look just the same”. But the individual houses here are proud, solid homes, their span-new TV aerials visible,  their hedges carefully tended.

I have written here before about Una Watters (see blog September 30, 2018), a painter I feel has been criminally overlooked – particularly in the current climate of  revisiting the reputations of mid 20th century female painters like Mary Swanzy, who would certainly have known Una, since they both exhibited in Dublin in the 40s and 50s.

Sword of Light

Before Una’s untimely death at the age of 47, she had won an Arts Council award for her design of an emblem (see image) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966.

Her “Sword of Light” was ubiquitous in the 1966 golden jubilee year, appearing on  badges, brooches and tie pins, stamped on all official publications, and showing up in hallmark form on special silverware struck by the Assay Office.

My hope, with the aid of Una’s family and friends, is to organize a retrospective of Una’s paintings based on the catalogue of a posthumous show of  37 works that her grieving husband, the Irish language novelist and poet, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc (Eugene Watters) organised after her death. Devoted to their art, they made a striking couple, honeymooning in a horse-drawn caravan which Eoghan had built himself, and summering in Ballinasloe (Ó Tuairisc’s home town) where Una painted and fished in the river Suck.

“Cappagh Road” was one of three paintings Una made of Finglas in the early 1960s.  We still have not traced the other two – “Schoolbreak” (1960) and “Building Scheme” (1961).  Perhaps, on the evidence of this painting, someone out there might recognize its companion pieces, either from the subject matter or the style.

If you do, or think you may have in your possession any Una Watters painting, please contact me via this blog.

We want the world to know about her!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Singing in the Rain

Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain by Una Watters.

It’s an oil on canvas (31” x 23”), and for many years it hung in the dark dining room of a Victorian-era house you called home. It was a formal room not used much and with a cold northern light.  Even in summer you would have to turn the light on to find something in there.  The painting was on the chimney breast.

You always liked it; liked but not loved.

Two things changed your mind about the painting. One, you move house.  Now “Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain” is in a bright modern living room flooded with light from one wall to floor window (no more property porn descriptions, I promise) and hung on a wide expanse of uncluttered wall and, suddenly, it shines.

A friend of yours, with an artist’s eye, enthuses about it in its new setting and these two factors – a good hanging place and the frank admiration of someone whose taste you trust – makes you re-evaluate it.  Suddenly it’s not just love – it’s deep curiosity and fascination.  Or are they the same thing?

The first question to ask is where did this painting come from?  You know its provenance because the painting was a gift from the artist’s husband to your partner. It was painted in 1959 by a Dublin-born artist, Una Watters (1918–1965), who would be dead six years after it was painted at the untimely age of 47.  Its subject matter is modest.  It shows a woman in left profile dressed in a red coat gripping an umbrella. Behind her is the stone façade of Trinity College Dublin.  (One of the endearing features of the work for you is its depiction of your native city, and of a place you passed daily for more than 20 years, often in the same climactic conditions!)

In the top left-hand of the painting the legs and plinth of the statue of Oliver Goldsmith are just visible. (The 18th century poet, novelist and dramatist – a deeply unhappy student during his stint at Trinity by all accounts – was the author of  The  Deserted Village,  The Vicar of Wakefield and She Stoops to Conquer, among others.)

But, title apart, how do we know it’s raining in Una Watters’ painting?  Well, there’s the umbrella, for starters. But there’s also the rain made so solid by the artist’s brush-work that it becomes the central element in the work.  Moving in sheets from top left to bottom right of the painting’s surface, the artist has depicted the rain in  jagged, almost two-dimensional slashes with geometrical shadows that mimic the stonework on the college façade and create the impression of a torrential downpour that the girl of the title has to battle against.

It’s this rain that gives the work its bold modernist appeal. You can sense the physicality of the driving rain, as flinty and unforgiving as the austere frontage of Trinity. Apart from the girl’s bright red coat and umbrella, the only other departure from the sombre palette is a band of luscious Kelly green that bisects the canvas two-thirds of the way down.  This gives the work a very low horizon, thus emphasizing the driving diagonals of the rain that already force the eye downward. The effect is downbeat, as if  the elements are literally bearing down and oppressing the figure of the woman.  And yet, she’s pressing on, a stoic expression on her stylized face.

The painting has other resonances that are more hidden. It contains what might be classed as a feminist sub-text in the form of word-play. The placement of “Goldsmith”, coupled with the rainy theme, has overtones of the mythical shower of Danaë.

In the Greek myth, Danaë was locked away by her father, King Acrisius of Argos, after an oracle informed him that his daughter’s son would kill him. In order to keep her childless, the king banished Danaë to a tower, away from the reach of men. While no mortal could gain access to Danaë, the god Jupiter was able to gain entry to the tower by transforming himself into a shower of golden rain. Jupiter impregnated Danaë conceiving the boy who would become the hero Perseus. Eventually, he would kill Acrisius accidentally,  showing the inescapable reach of Fate.

The impregnation of Danaë via Jupiter’s shower of gold was chosen as a subject by many of the great Renaissance artists including Correggio, Titian, Tintoretto, Orazio Gentileschi, and most interestingly by Gentileschi’s daughter, Artemisia (1593 – c1656) who provided what is regarded by some art historians as a feminist interpretation of the myth.  Instead of showing Danaë embracing or being ravished by the raining shower of gold, Artemisia paints her subject’s body language as negative. “Her tightly crossed legs, closed eyes and clenched fist evidence detachment, if not resistance, to the event taking place,” writes Jeanne Morgan Zarucchi.  The gold shower is depicted as a bonanza of coins and it is the maidservant in the painting who welcomes the shower with open arms.

Zarucchi  sees Artemisia’s rendition of the myth as a comment on the enslaving nature of  transactional sex and the lack of choice the woman prostitute had in such encounters. (Gentileschi was herself the centre of a notoriously bitter rape case taken by her father against the painter Agostini Tassi in the early 1600s.)

If the “girl” in Watters’ painting references the Danaë myth, then this Danaë is suited and booted and shielding herself very firmly with her trusty umbrella against the Irish-style shower – read steely, icy grey, rather than golden – that seems to emanate from Goldsmith!

Watters was what we might call these days a part-time artist though this says nothing about her dedication as an artist.  She juggled attending the National College of Art  – under the mentorship of Maurice MacGonigal – with her day job as a librarian in Dublin’s municipal library system.  (One of her paintings, “Four Masters”, is still hanging in Phibsborough branch library where she worked; another “The People’s Gardens” is in the Hugh Lane collection.)  She exhibited widely in Dublin in the 50s and 60s. Friends recall her working at her easel set up in the kitchen of the small cottage in Cappagh Cross, Finglas, which she shared with her husband, the Irish language novelist and poet, Eoghan O’Tuarisc.  She was also an accomplished designer, illustrator and calligrapher.

There are up to 40 other paintings of Watters extant, mostly in private hands. If anyone knows of, or owns an Una Watters, I’d love to hear about it.

Danaë by Artemisia Gentileschi in the collection of the St Louis Museum of Art, Missouri.