For some time now I’ve been championing the work of Dublin artist, Una Watters (1918 – 1965) whose reputation has, sadly, fallen into neglect. I’ve been working with Una’s family, in particular her niece, Sheila Smith, in order to change this. We’ve spent the last year-and-a-half trying to trace Una’s paintings with a view to mounting a retrospective exhibition and bring her work to a new public.
This task has been harder than you might expect because much of Una’s work has been held in private hands since the mid-1960s. Only two paintings of hers, that we know of, have come up for auction in recent times – one in 2007, and another in 2019. There’s a reason for this. After Una’s sudden death in 1965, aged 47, her heart-broken husband, Irish language novelist and poet Eoghan O’Tuarisc (Eugene Watters) gathered together 37 of her oil paintings for a memorial show. Afterwards, he distributed all of Una’s paintings among family and a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.
The catalogue of this 1966 show formed the basis of our searches, but because of the way the work was distributed, there was very little in the way of a paper trail. Given the time that has elapsed, many of the paintings have passed on to the next generation or the one after that in families, and people may not recognize Una’s work or know the story of how her paintings came into their possession. That said, everyone we came across, and there have been many, was very attached to their Una Watters and glad to share images of her work.
Due to their generosity, we have been able to launch today (April 28, 2020) – unawattersartist.wordpress.com – a new website dedicated to Una’s work. This site collates the fruit of our quest with a gallery of some of the work we’ve found along the way. Our plans to host another retrospective show of Una’s work – the first since 1966 – has been thwarted by the COVID-19 crisis but we’re hoping this site will be a virtual substitute for a show and will introduce Una’s work to the wider audience she deserves. We hope unawattersartist.wordpress.com may become a resource for those interested in Una’s work both as scholars and/or art enthusiasts.
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.
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.
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.
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, TheVicar 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.