Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Paintings of John Luke (1906 - 1975)

(Left: John Luke's mural at Belfast City Hall, showing Belfast's Royal Charter of 1613, painted in 1950. Click the image to enlarge).


Even though I went to the Art College in Belfast (UU at Belfast, 1990 - 1994) I have limited knowledge of our local artistic heritage. I opted to take a commercial route with my own career - solving other people's communication needs and helping them sell products, rather than the self-expression route of the fine artist. So I ended up as a graphic designer with a love of old tourism posters. (By the way, if you hire a graphic designer and they present concepts to you by saying "well, what I wanted to do with this was..." you have my permission to shoot them. Their job is to answer your brief, not indulge themselves or enhance their portfolio. Too many these days flounce around like they're presenters on Changing Rooms).

The Foundation and BAHons courses I took had no art history modules, but I made good money painting Iron Maiden album covers on schoolbags during my teenage years and can draw Gill Sans by hand - both of which I found far more useful than learning about dead Italian painters. However, one Ulster artist whose work I have always greatly admired is John Luke (1906-1975). The first painting of his that I saw was "The Road to the West" (painted in 1944) which was then (and might still be) in the UTV art collection.

John Luke has an interesting background, in that his parents were from Ahoghill (some say Randalstown) and moved to booming industrial Belfast where John was born in Lewis Street. Apparently his early works included painting King Billy on gable walls. Later he painted the magnificent mural in Belfast City Hall which shows the Royal Charter if 1613 being read (see pic above). So I Googled him the other day and found to my horror that one of his public murals, about 30 feet by 20 feet, languishes in the possession of a Belfast demolition firm (see story here) - a firm who were involved in a publicly funded £20m construction project and who then claimed the Luke mural under a salvage clause in the contract. (The mural was probably paid for out of the public purse in the first place, by the old Belfast Corporation. You might also think that a firm who have presumably done very well from the public contracts over the years might demonstrate some goodwill and return the mural to the people of Northern Ireland?).

Anecdotally, I am told that some of Luke's family were Brethren evangelists, but John became a vegan Buddhist and died in poverty from a malnutrition-related illness.

Rory Fitzpatrick speaks of Luke's work - " many people looking at the work of the Belfast artist John Luke would recognize in it a theme going back to the beginnings of the Scots-Irish?... it is always Sunday in Luke's work, families walking their dogs through the green, drumlin country in the warm afternoon, or evening after work as a father comes home to a white Ulster farmhouse set in formal idyllic landscape. Luke himself called it 'the eternal, now' but it is in essence that curiously innocent Scots-Irish vision, the land of peace and plenty, often expounded in the past from Presbyterian pulpits and expressed in Biblical language...". (from God's Frontiersmen, p 274).

If any of the Luke family read this, I would love to hear from you.

NB - As far as I know, all of these paintings are copyright of Luke's estate, these digital images been sourced from various websites.

> Ulster History Circle biography and plaque

> Wikipedia entry for John Luke

> Biography of John Luke


The Road to the West, 1944




The Old Callan Bridge, Armagh, 1945

The Old Callan Bridge, Armagh 1945 - John Luke.jpg



The Lock at Edenderry, 1944



Ballygally Castle, 1939



Landscape with Figures, 1948




Philip Robinson said...

These are great - I've only ever seen the murals (did there not used to be another one in the Ulster Museum?)

But the other paintings are just lovely too. I don't know if you are familiar with the 18th century Hincks prints of linen-related scenes in Down and Armagh? The Callan Bridge and Edenderry locks are uncannily like them.

Mark Thompson said...

Philip - thanks for the tip, I must look out for those. Has the Ulster Museum put its local paintings back on show yet? The last time I went all they had was still the (repetitive) Sean Scully modern stuff.

Philip Robinson said...

Here's a link to the Hincks Prints online

I haven't been at the UM for quite a while, and then I didn't get past the history part - which would not have put me in much of a mood for art appreciation anyway!