Public art in Northern Ireland
An introduction to public art in Belfast, Derry, and the rest of Northern Ireland.
Background: The Festival of Britain
A number of commissions to mark the 1951 Festival of Britain offer the earliest examples of large-scale public art in twentieth century Northern Ireland.
In Belfast City Hall, the artist John Luke painted a stylised account of the granting of the town’s charter in 1613, followed with a mural depicting Solomon building the temple at Rosemary Street Masonic hall. The sculptor George MacCann carved two relief panels, ‘St Columba and The Four Just Men of the London Guilds’, for the Guildhall in Derry.
Public art in hospitals
In 1957, the architects of the new hospital at Altnagelvin commissioned the striking bronze 'Princess Macha' from FE McWilliam, referred to by Mike Catto inArt in Ulster 2 as ‘the coming of age of Ulster sculpture’.
This landmark sculpture also marks the beginning of a series of public art commissions within the health service in Northern Ireland.
In the early 1990s, the organisation ArtsCare was founded to manage the integration of arts practice into the life of local hospitals. Musgrave Park hospital in Belfast hosted Northern Ireland’s first artist in residence in 1991.
Since then, the involvement of artists in the therapeutic community of hospitals in Northern Ireland has increased, culminating in the Royal Group of Hospitals’ integrated arts programme. Artists involved include Janet Mullarney with ‘Night Ship’, Alice Maher with ‘Fairytale Wall’, and Peter Rooney, whose 'ETASK: Extra-Terrestrial Ambulance Service for Kids' introduces visitors to the children’s hospital.
Notable public art works at Antrim Area Hospital include ‘Swans’ by Eamonn O’Doherty, a large sculpture celebrating release from pain and alluding to the story of the Children of Lir, and Brian Connolly’s bronze ‘Healing Tree’, part functional seating and part meditation on time, stillness and healing.
Another public artwork by Connolly, ‘Turning Point’, a bronze globe supported by three figures in negative relief, has recently been removed from its site in Belfast’s St Anne’s Square where it had suffered from vandalism.
ACNI promotion of public art
Since the late 1950s, the collection of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s art collection has been displayed in a large number of public places including hospitals and schools. A gift made by Colin Middleton’s widow Kathleen of ‘El Patio’ coincided with the opening of the new City Hospital in Belfast, where the work was appropriately placed. The Arts Council has also collaborated with hospitals, local councils and other institutions around Northern Ireland in the commissioning and provision of public artworks, although a proposed sculpture park at the Council’s former headquarters was abandoned in the 1980s.
Significant pieces supported or commissioned by ACNI include 'Legs Static' by FE McWilliam at Banbridge Civic Centre, and Louise Walsh’s 'Monument to the Unknown Worker', now sited at the entrance to the Great Northern Mall in Belfast. This work was originally planned for the nearby Blackstaff Square, until that site’s historic association with prostitution led to the withdrawal of Belfast City Council’s support for the pair of bronze female figures.
Murals and community artworks
Bill Rolston, in his Politics and Painting: Murals and Conflict in Northern Ireland (1991), describes the history and development of loyalist and republican mural painting in urban areas of the north. He also charts a brief series of Belfast City Council sponsored mural painting in urban locations, including work by Art College students at Springhill Avenue, Ashton Street and the Donegall Road. Rolston records the artistic and political limitations of some of these ‘community arts’ projects, but similar projects continue to provide publicly available artworks around Northern Ireland.
Public art in central Belfast: Municipal and architectural sculpture
Belfast, like most towns and cities in the north of Ireland, has only a slender sculptural heritage. The town’s first free standing public statue, a memorial to the last earl of Belfast Frederick Richard Chichester, now in the City Hall, was erected in College Square East in 1855.
The original ‘Black Man’, this bronze figure was replaced by a memorial to the evangelical demagogue Henry Cooke sculpted by SF Lynn and erected in 1876. The sculptor’s brother, architect WH Lynn, designed the chapel of remembrance at Belfast castle that originally held another memorial to the last earl by Belfast-born sculptor Patrick McDowell. This white marble piece now stands just inside the entrance to City Hall.
Late Victorian and Edwardian dignitaries commemorated with undistinguished academic statues in the grounds of City Hall include James McMordie, Lord Mayor 1910-14, Sir Daniel Dixon, mayor in 1892 and 1893, Lord Mayor 1901-1906, Sir Edward Harland, the founder of Harland and Wolff shipbuilders, and Sir James Horner Haslett, mayor and local MP at the turn of the century.
Grander monuments to the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava and to Queen Victoria share space with war memorials to the dead of the Boer war and the first and the second world wars. Moreover, a great deal of impressive architectural sculpture can be seen on buildings in the city centre. Across Donegall Square West, the façade of the Scottish Provident building is opulently ornamented with panels representing Belfast industry, and carved female heads personifying imperial trading nations.
More recent examples of public art in commercial contexts include an abstract form in bronze by an unknown artist at the entrance lobby of the Northern bank offices in Donegall Square West, and the impressive bronze figures by Elizabeth Frink mounted high on the gable of the Ulster Bank in Shaftesbury Square.
From its foundation, the Laganside Corporation has built an element of public art provision into its Belfast urban regeneration programmes. In addition to ‘branding’ the redeveloped Cathedral Quarter area of the north of the city centre as an arts and cultural ‘hub’, Laganside have developed a number of art trails involving the location of commissioned pieces and items from other sources in locations along both banks of the river Lagan.
Significant pieces include John Kindness’ 'Bigfish', a 10m salmon clad in ceramic tiles depicting Belfast’s history. Other examples include Rachel Joynt’s ‘Starboard’, an allusive piece using lights, glass cobbles and ironwork on Gregg’s quay, carved brickwork by Eleanor Wheeler at the redeveloped gasworks complex, and a number of works housed in the Belfast Waterfront Hall. Perhaps the most striking of these is 'Big Red' by Catherine Harper, a vast hanging made from dyed candlewick bedspreads
'The Ulster Brewer', a naturalistic bronze sculpture by Ross Wilson, the artist responsible for the CS Lewis memorial at the Holywood Arches, sits on his beer barrel outside the glazed restaurant level of the Waterfront Hall. On the public space below, Deborah Brown’s bronze group, 'Sheep on the Road', has migrated from its earlier home in the grounds of the Arts Council headquarters.