Hewitt Finds His Rightful Home

Ulster Museum hosts the returning exhibition recognising the literary legacy of its most celebrated alumni

Though arguably best known as a poet, it is fitting that an exhibition in John Hewitt's honour is currently installed at the Ulster Museum, given his reputation as a 'museum man'.

John Hewitt: Home Words subsequently celebrates the life, work and legacy of the Belfast writer and curator. The exhibition has been created by Frank Ferguson, Kathryn White and John McMillan from Ulster University, along with Tony Kennedy from the John Hewitt Society (JHS) and Helen Perry from the Causeway Museum Service. All are in attendance at the official opening night, including Belfast poet, Gerald Dawe, who’s our special guest for the evening.

'This is not the first time the exhibition has come to Belfast, but this is the culmination of our presence in Belfast,' says Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Ulster University, Professor Jan Jedrzejewski. 'There couldn’t be a more appropriate place.'

'I think it’s an excellent example of the way in which the study of literature and culture and the visual arts can actually make a presence in the community. This exhibition has been touring Northern Ireland for a while now and has made people more aware of the unique person John Hewitt was, and of the unique culture of Northern Ireland. It’s now come to the heart of John Hewitt country, in Belfast, in the Ulster Museum.'

Kathryn White explains that the exhibition was originally launched two years ago at the John Hewitt International Summer School (JHISS) in Armagh. Since then, it’s been displayed in the Public Records Office and the Waterfront Hall. It presents a snapshot of the poet’s work and life, she adds.

'John Hewitt was a poet, but also a curator,' she says. 'He was very much a museum man. We launched the autobiography of John Hewitt – A North Light: Twenty-Five Years in a Municipal Art Gallery – two years ago with the exhibition. He described his time at the Ulster Museum as being like ‘a 25-year stretch’, but we’re delighted to finally get this exhibition here!' 

Indeed, Hewitt worked at the Ulster Museum for some 20 years, becoming deputy director but never achieving directorship status. An artist never fully appreciated in his home country, Hewitt finally left for Coventry, where he became art director of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.

'It’s a very significant moment to have this exhibition back in this space,' says White. 'It’s been said that ‘no-one has done more for the arts in Northern Ireland than John Hewitt’. In many ways, we feel that John Hewitt has come back home.

'Through this exhibition, we hope the people of Belfast and further afield will see this, and come to recognise the significance of John Hewitt and what he did for poetry and more importantly, what he did for the arts scene in the 20th century.'

The exhibition itself includes a series of colourful wall-mounted panels which fuse Hewitt’s handwritten words with researched details about his life. It does indeed show a snapshot of his richly artistic life, and incorporates artwork alongside the story of one of Belfast’s great literary figures. It also throws light on those perhaps lesser known details about Hewitt, such as his love of travel and that significant contribution he made to the local arts scene.

Indeed, as an avid traveller, Hewitt made many trips abroad, collecting art and building up a rich resource of work for the public to enjoy back home. Frank Ferguson reflects on Hewitt’s ruminations, where he wondered if he would be remembered when he died.

'His traces are found in the paintings he went through Europe to collect,' says Ferguson. 'Art endures. Ideas endure. The vision John Hewitt had will endure and I think his work has and will too.'

One way in which Hewitt is certainly remembered is through the John Hewitt Society and its popular summer school, which takes place every July. Director of the Society, Tony Kennedy, says the John Hewitt International Summer School is subsequently 'a way of celebrating a man of ideas.' He adds that the exhibition is 'one of the most accessible' and that it 'rewards Hewitt enthusiasts.'

'I’m delighted that it’s here in the Ulster Museum,' he says. 'I think John Hewitt would have thought this was just so special.' 

Our special guest for the launch, Gerald Dawe, agrees, but adds that the exhibition has an important role to play in shining light onto an often overlooked part of Hewitt’s legacy. That is, of course, his travelling – the list of countries he frequently visited is, says Dawe, phenomenal.

'Put at its simplest, John Hewitt was a poet steeped in the real and imagined landscapes of Europe'” he says. 'This was a guy who knew where the action was. More significantly, this side of John Hewitt has, in a way, been overshadowed by the critics, who like their poets to be overtly northern. These European dimensions are sometimes shunned.

'The real artistry of John Hewitt that’s revealed in this exhibition shows what really mattered to him – the spectrum of local to universal. He was a man ahead of his time, but the imagination has to have its say…'

The John Hewitt International Summer School takes place in Armagh from July 27-31. For more information visit our Festivals section.