The Busts and Bonces of Belfast's Buildings

Author Daniel Jewesbury's Talking Heads 'walking narrative' is part of the 'Poets and Players, Dockers and Dreamers' festival

For Daniel Jewesbury, who will be guiding the Talking Heads 'walking narrative' during the 'Poets and Players, Dockers and Dreamers' summer festival, 'Belfast is like a book'. If you want to know the truth about the city, all you have to do is learn how to read her buildings.

Jewesbury, an artist and writer originally from London, first got the idea for the trail, which starts at Ten Square and ends at Malmaison, when he was in Tesco Metro on Royal Avenue. If you look at the dome over the check-out there are 'gnomes all around the inside'.

Once he started to keep an eye out for them, Jewesbury found a lot of other 'really unusual' heads on Belfast buildings. There is the head of a Chinese man with a plait and a long moustache at Malmaison, a sculpture of Lady Dufferin dressed up to represent Canada and a bust of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, who codified the rules of snooker.

'You can find out a lot just from looking around you,' Jewesbury argues, striding along Donegall Square West. 'There are fantastic carvings and brilliant pieces of sculpture on the sides of Belfast buildings. Most people don't see them because they don't look up.'

It is hard to do anything else in Jewesbury's company, as he points out the verdigris green sphinxes on top of the Scottish Provident building in Donegall Square West – 'For my money the best building in Belfast' – and dodges through the traffic to admire the stone heads decorating the sides of the Ten Square building.

They were crafted by Thomas Fitzpatrick, who in fact was responsible for much of the sculptural architecture of Belfast. 'Most of these building were built in a particular period of time,' Jewesbury explains. 'The old city was almost completely cleared away and Belfast, as we know it, was built very quickly during the middle of the 19th century.'

Most of the sculptures – works of art in their own right – aren't of the individuals who owned or designed the buildings. Instead they represent royalty, empire and trade around the world. The Scottish Provident building, which boasts the beautiful sphinxes, also has a whole series of friezes related to the industries that made Belfast so wealthy: linen, rope-making, shipbuilding and so on.

'That is why all these huge insurance companies built buildings here,' Jewesbury points out. 'They were underwriting and insuring all the massive industrial enterprises mounted from Belfast.'

The 'so-called virtues' are also immortalised in stone on the fronts of buildings: peace, commerce, trade and hard work. They aren't there just as decoration, they are to inculcate an idea of Belfast among the people.

'Good buildings, it was thought, would make good citizens,' says Jewesbury, striding forth toward the next building on his tour. 'That would make for a strong city. So all of these little heads tell us something about the values being instilled here.'

Talking Heads runs from July 22 - August 26 and is part of the Poets and Players, Dockers and Dreamers Summertime Festival.