Ava Gallery Focus on 'Ireland: Her People and Landscape'

From the iconic to the unexpected. Watch curator David Britton discuss the Ava Gallery's stunning summer exhibition

2012 has been a good year for art, with LS Lowry at the spanking-new MAC and a Da Vinci exhibition at the venerable Ulster Museum. However, curator David Britton wants to remind everyone that great art doesn't have to be imported. He believes that Northern Ireland has plenty of home-grown masterworks, and an impressive selection of them are on display as part of the Ava Gallery's summer exhibition.

It is only the second such exhibition since Adam's at Clandeboye, under the curatorship of director David Britton, took over the gallery. 2011's Irish Art and Modernism set the bar high, showcasing work by Charles Lamb, William Conor, Mainie Jellett and Beatrice Glenavy, but Ireland: Her People and Landscape might actually be a stronger exhibition.

The theme – 200 years of how artists have depicted the Irish people – is less stylistically cohesive than the former exhibition, but, as Dr Roisin Kennedy notes in her foreword to the catalogue, the 'sheer variety of work does, however, pay testament to the fact that Irish artists engaged continuously in new and challenging practices'.

Ireland: Her People and Landscape deals with everything from religion to class, trade to politics. And some of the works on show are truly magnificant. Britton points out 'Ruins of The Four Courts' by Kathleen Fox, painted in 1922 just after the bombardment of the area. 'It is probably the only picture of that bombardment in art rather than photos,' he explains.

There is also Jerome Connor's iconic 'The Pikeman', the second maquette of a bronze sculpture commissioned for a 1798 memorial in Tralee, County Kerry. The intent was for the sculpture to replace a stone figure destroyed during the Irish War of Independence.

'Connor deliberated over it for 10 years, to the extent they took him to court and he was rendered bankrupt,' Britton reveals. Despite the fact that 'The Pikeman' was never finished, 'many people this is one of the finest pieces of sculpture in the early 20th century'.

Religion is represented in William Conor's 'Going to Mass' and Diarmuid O Ceallachain's 'St Mac Dara's Pattern', showing the procession honouring the patron saint of Connemara fishermen. Sir John Lavery's 'The Walnut Tree' also captures a religious pilgrimage at St Patrick's Purgatory, Lough Derg.

Although one of the Lavery's most famous works, and viewed as capturing his love for Ireland, Britton notes that the island wasn't all the artist had hoped. 'He had gone there expecting to find Irish peasants, and managed to find – to his disappointment – professors from England and other professional types,' Britton says. 'He had thought they would all be barefoot in country shawls.'

An interesting economic contrast is captured in 'The Rag Pickers' by Henry Allan and 'Making the Bed' by Joan Jameson. In one Allan captures the crushing poverty of women scouring the dumps for cotton to sell to paper manufacturers. The other, from the 1930s, shows two servants in a country house – Britton believes it may be Turin House in Waterford – making a bed.

'It shows that the Anglo-Irish still had money, still had staff,' adds Britton. 'It contrasts with our view of what is typical.'

Other artists exhibited in the exhibition include Jack B Yeats, Louis le Brocquy, Norah McGuinness, Colin Middleton and Nano Reid. There are also a few unexpected pieces, such as an embroidered work by Lily Yeats (sister of William and Jack B) and 'Street Scene' by Kenneth Mahood, who went on to become a cartoonist at Punch.

It would not, of course, be an Ava Gallery exhibition without at least one piece by Charles Lamb. For Ireland: Her People and Landscape it is the iconic 'The Connemara Harvesters'. Widely hailed as one of Lamb's finest works, it hasn't been seen in public since 1969.

'When we had our Charles Lamb show earlier this year, a local lady informed us she had this work and agreed to lend it to us for the summer,' Britton recalls. 'That's the significance of this exhibition. Everything is on loan from private collections, these are works that the public usually never get to see.'

Ireland: Her People and Landscape is at the Ava Gallery until September 6. A selection of the works shown will be included in the Important Irish Art sale in December.