Naive Art in Northern Ireland

The official history of naive art in Northern Ireland begins with the work of Gretta Bowen.

The manner of making intuitive and instinctive art independent of guilds, trades and schools by untaught yet skilled people had long been identified but remained unnamed until the term ‘naive art’ came into common usage in the 1950s.
The official history of naive art in Northern Ireland begins with the work of Gretta Bowen of Belfast who, at the age of 69, began painting in 1950. Recent anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that her contemporary, Andrew Foyer, began experimenting with crayons and pencils at an earlier date.
Little is known of Foyer, a Scot, possibly from the Glasgow area, who worked as a telephone linesman for British Telecom in Northern Ireland. When he retired around 1950 to Downhill, he approached Robert Sellar, an artist now living in Castlerock but then giving evening classes in Limavady, for tuition. Sellar, recognising Foyer’s rare talent, did not want to ruin his originality or ‘force him into a Victorian outlook’ and restricted guidance to technical advice. He also encouraged and stimulated Foyer, prompting him to join the Coleraine Art Society. Records show that Foyer exhibited at the society’s annual exhibition during the 1950s, becoming more recognised from 1955 onwards. In 1957 he exhibited four works, possibly his year’s output. It is believed he died during the 1970s. His paintings were admired and collected. John Hewitt, who mentioned Foyer in his art journalism, purchased one.
Andrew Foyer habitually used household paints on hardboard and his flat, decorative and detailed style, combined with non-conforming scale and perspective, classify his paintings as naive. Other hallmarks and traits of the stereotypical naive are: strong narrative explained in an accessible, graphic style; an idiosyncratic logic within the structure and drawing of the painting or sculpture; an uninhibited mode of expression which invariably arises from an attitude of self-determination. Naive artists tend not to heed advice nor do they choose to emulate historical modes and mentors. They prefer to work from memory to describe events within their own lives and the history of their community. This role of chronicler often makes their art more popular and accepted than that of professional artists whose concerns fail to be understood by those uninitiated in the history of art. The art-making of naives is outside of mainstream art practice yet an important key to our understanding of the art of the dominant culture.
The direct drawing style of James Finlay, originally from Saintfield where his father was a farmer, might easily be confused with that of a child. However, while the child draws to learn and understand, a man of James Finlay’s 77 years draws to impart a lifetime’s memories and experiences. Finlay prefers the immediacy of marker-pens to make colourful linear drawings that often refer to his earlier life working on farms and as a livestock haulier. His drawings convey a sense of humour, a joy of driving and, like most naive art, provide an escape route into an idealised world.
James Finlay’s art first came to the public’s attention in Raw Vision magazine in the 1990s. Finlay was a long-term patient in Downshire psychiatric hospital when he started to draw with pencils and paint with watercolour. He has exhibited publicly and his art is well-documented and archived, lending him a certain status among naive artists whose output is invariably discredited, debased and destroyed.
George Thompson’s personal story is similar to that of Finlay in that he has been a long-term resident in a care facility in Co Antrim where he drew daily with marker-pens on whatever supports were available to him. So productive was he that nurses, charged with his psychological and physical well being, destroyed all but seven of his works with the lame excuse that there was nowhere to store it. Thompson, debilitated and disabled with Parkinson’s Disease, was not fit to dissent.
Although having only seven surviving works to go by it is evident that Thompson had a fascination for vernacular architecture and its organic form. Mechanical devices, too, may have provided stimuli. Obviously he drew from memory and imagination and his modest achievement finds striking parallels with the work of modern masters whose work endures, not because it is necessarily more coherently drawn, but by virtue of it being collected and preserved by institutions and private collectors whose names and reputations lend credibility to artists’ work.
Naive art is vulnerable and often scrapped because it fails to meet expectations of what art should be. Its susceptibility and fragility make research difficult and the author and CultureNorthernIreland would welcome any information on naive artists not included in this brief survey, as well as further evidence of surviving works by Andrew Foyer and others.
Further Reading
Two Painters: Works By Alfred Wallis and James Dixon (1999) by Matthew Gale; Dictionary of Art (1998) edited by Jane Turner; Primitivism and Modern Art (1994) by Colin Rhodes; World Encyclopedia of Naive Art (1984) by Oto Bihalji-Menin; Art in Ulster Vol 1 (1977) edited by John Hewitt with biographies by Theo Snoddy.
By Peter Haining. Additional research Sarah Gibbons.