Painting the Cave Hill

A much loved and often painted feature of Belfast

Reaching up from the urban sprawl, the squat outline of Cave Hill dominates Belfast, visible however one approaches the city and from almost any point within it. A much loved feature of the area, it has been so often included in representations of the city over the centuries that it is almost impossible to imagine Belfast without its basalt guardian.

The many depictions of Belfast from the late eighteenth century onwards, whether from Cromac Wood by Jonathan Fisher, from Newtownbreda Churchyard by Andrew Nicholl, or from the Castlereagh Hills by JW Carey, invariably portray the rising industrial town against the omnipresent Cave Hill. The ubiquity of these was made possible by the lithographic and steel engraving techniques developed by the well known Belfast firm of Marcus Ward and Company. Viewed from the rural hinterland of the city, or through the smoke that spilled from the tall chimneys of the mills and factories, the Cave Hill may be seen as a counterpoint to the industrial clamour over which it presided and which it now has outlived.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Belfast was the only industrial city in Ireland, with a population larger than Dublin. Just over a century later, the Cave Hill overlooks a radically transformed urban environment. A window in time, which lets us glimpse this changing economy, is William Hollywood’s view of the city from just beyond McArt’s Fort, painted in 1951. In this evocative work, two girls look out from an impressively green summit towards a great manufacturing city, but one whose essentially industrial base was increasingly under threat.

More recently, the hill has been depicted in less sentimental form. This may be an unconscious reflection of perceived environmental threats to the area. A reminder of the pristine glories of the Cave Hill can be seen in the super-realism of Dennis Kelly’s depiction of the area under snow, a view complemented by the brisk, airy, blue-green treatment of the familiar view of the summit in the work of Simon McKinstry. The more widely frequented lower slopes have provided Dan Dowling with inspiration for a number of his immensely successful, humorous and affectionate depictions of friends and family.

In May 1998, the appropriately named Cavehill Gallery presented an exhibition of art exclusively devoted to paintings of the Belfast Hills. The show proved a resounding success and provided a unique opportunity for the public to see how the city’s most prominent natural feature has inspired a new generation of artists such as Richard Croft, Anya Waterworth, John Conway, and Catherine and Joseph McWilliams, as well as those mentioned above.

© Eddie McCamley. Reproduced with kind permission of the Cave Hill Conservation Campaign 2000.