Art and the Troubles

Theo Snoddy on the impact of the Troubles on Northern Irish art

Art historian, critic and curator, Theo Snoddy was interviewed by CultureNorthernIreland on the visual arts in Northern Ireland. The Belfast News Letter art critic for 25 years, Lurgan born Snoddy is now curator of art at Ulster Television, and author of Dictionary of Irish Artists: Twentieth Century (2002). Here are some of his thoughts on local art and the impact of the Troubles.

CultureNorthernIreland: Looking at the last 30 or 40 years, have you any thoughts about the role of the Troubles in the art that’s been produced?

Theo Snoddy: The one artist who has really concentrated on the Troubles is Jack Pakenham, who has produced works such as 'Interiors' where someone is being maltreated, that kind of incident. Certainly the Troubles really worried him, and he spoke out about them, how concerned he was about the tragedy. But on the whole, I would say that the Troubles haven’t really affected artists here a lot.

Have they drawn international attention to some of the work that’s been done?

I think in the case of Pakenham, a number of exhibitions in America would have drawn attention; and in fact he’s even been asked to go over there for certain exhibitions and speak on the Troubles. But as for England, I don’t think so… The tendency would have been for most artists just to continue and do their own thing. Although Dillon on one occasion, he had work in I think the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, which was to come from Dublin to Belfast, and because of some of the atrocities in his native Belfast, he refused to allow his pictures to travel. But at the same time, the subject of his pictures would have had no connection with what was going on here.

Dillon’s 'The Brothers,' a very powerful picture painted around that time, seems to gel the two sources of misery, political and personal?

Well, I’m not sure … he lost his brothers through heart trouble. At the same time, somebody like George Campbell or Dillon would have been very outspoken about what was going on, without actually putting much down on canvas. FE McWilliam, after the bomb at the Abercorn restaurant, produced the series of sculptures showing women affected by the blast of the bomb. So over in London he hadn’t really forgotten Northern Ireland.

Landscape almost seems like a good example of artists not openly attending to the political? But it can’t just be a way of avoiding one issue. Any thoughts on why landscape has been such an important genre for northern painters?

Well, we’ve got to realise that maybe a hundred years ago there were of course many amateurs, daughters of monied people who practised art as the thing to do, and they would never have thought of doing anything else but landscapes. Then you had people like James Humbert Craig, who was painting landscapes up the Antrim coast and in Co Donegal and who, most importantly, was appreciated in Dublin as a landscape painter. So Craig exhibiting in the Royal Hibernian Academy would have a good market there for his work. And in the end, the people who were buying landscapes wanted something for their walls, you know, domestic and nothing else.

Then you would have Frank McKelvey, who followed in the tradition of Craig, and also Maurice Wilks. In the case of McKelvey, who was a portrait painter, he would have gone to paint landscapes in Donegal as a kind of relaxation.

Then when the College of Art really got going you had a trend among the students—and the staff—to do something different. The last thing their staff would want would be traditional landscapes. This would continue to such an extent that some of the very good artists wouldn’t exhibit at the RUA, or the Ulster Academy of Arts as it was, because they felt it was really old hat. So you have that opposing tradition from the College of Art, a spirit of adventure and innovation.