TO ANY DWELLER IN LEWIS STREETAnd do you know a man was bornin your short street of brick and slatewho made his life a simple chartthat he might keep inviolatethe clear precision of his sightfor curve of hill and field and treethat he might set their colours down with delicate economy?Although tall chimneys hemmed him inand gantries bound the sky with bars,he came to his best years betweentwo pitiful disastrous warsand though the hearts of men were tornhe held his patient well aloneand while earth shuddered with despairmatched mass with mass and tone with tone.JOHN HEWITT (JUNE, 1940)
The poem above reflects Hewitt’s admiration for Belfast born painter John Luke, whose work is currently on display in the Ulster Museum. Hewitt actually curated Luke’s first solo exhibition at the museum, back in 1946.
Now that those shamrocks have been well and truly drowned, maybe you’d like to spend next weekend with a quieter celebration of Irishness/Northern Irishness by enjoying ‘Northern Rhythm – The Art of John Luke (1906 – 1975)’.
Dr Joseph McBrinn, Lecturer in History of Design and Applied Art at the University of Ulster has put together this elegant presentation of Luke’s life and work.
From his entry to the Belfast School of Art at the tender age of 16, right through to his final commission which took a painstaking two years to complete, this exhibition explores his early sketches of Belfast shipyards, his experimentation with ancient painting crafts and his commentary on contemporary life, to his sculptures and murals in the later part of his career.
The sheer variety of this man’s work was what struck me – stunning, vividly coloured, almost cartoon-like works in tempera; dark little linocut studies on Japanese wood; disturbingly life-like self portraits in oil; pencil work; sculpture…
Examples of tempera works, from the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue.
Linocut on Japanese wood (top) and wood engraving on paper.
I got a real sense that this was an artist who, while he took his craft seriously, enjoyed his work immensely and conveyed playfulness in a lot of his paintings.
He was a lifelong vegetarian, which also endeared him to me as I’m veggie too 🙂
You’re not allowed to take pictures in the museum’s galleries and in hindsight, I’m glad, as I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise and joy you will get from seeing John Luke paintings first hand.
Make sure to take a good look at the glass case exhibiting his tools; this was one of my favourite parts of the exhibition. I love to see the actual objects an artist or craftsperson used to create their work, especially when it was some time ago. To imagine those very things were once in the hands of the man you are reading about and were used to bring these paintings into being – it’s fascinating. His fingerprints and DNA are probably still on those bottles of pigment and brushes.
I do recommend buying the accompanying catalogue, somewhat misnamed as it is more a 100-page art history book, beautifully illustrated with photographs of the artist’s work.
Available for £9.99 from the Ulster Museum gift shop.
You can search for and buy prints of John Luke’s work online at the Ulster Museum’s online picture library. Culture Northern Ireland featured a lovely piece about the exhibition when it first opened and you can see some more of his work on the BBC’s Your Paintings site.
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