Fine Art and Local Industry

Theo Snoddy shares his thoughts on the relation between art and industry in Northern Ireland

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).


There seem to be common themes in the lives of some of the northern artists in the Dictionary: one of them might be a connection with local industry, with a craft tradition. A number of artists have been involved with draughtsmanship at, say, the shipyards, or have worked for commercial printers … Is there a wider cultural connection there?

There’s certainly a link between a number of artists and publishers, and also with the linen industry. Some of the artists were designing for the linen industry, tablecloths and handkerchiefs and that sort of thing. In fact, one of our well known Ulster artists, Hans Iten, who came from Switzerland early in the twentieth century, was a damask designer. He was a great asset to what was happening in Ulster art and became involved in exhibiting in Belfast and Dublin. Within a few years of his arrival buyers were accepting his pictures—a very good flower painter and landscape artist. So you had this linen connection.

The famous firm of publishers Marcus Ward and Company in Belfast employed artists of considerable standing. So you had a small group of artists forming at Marcus Ward’s who went out and did a bit of sketching, and out of this in 1879 came the Ramblers’ Sketching Club, which was probably composed mainly of Marcus Ward’s employees, but which definitely included other people too. This was the natural thing at the time, to go out into the country and paint landscapes.

And then out of that came the Belfast Art Society, and out of that came the Ulster Academy of Arts, later becoming the Royal Ulster Academy. It’s interesting to see that someone whom we haven’t mentioned, Sir John Lavery, who left Belfast and went to Scotland and finished up in London and painted in France, never forgot his native city and at one time was president of the Belfast Art Society and would come over here for the annual exhibitions. He made generous donations of his works to Belfast and Dublin.

Lavery became world famous, spent a lot of time on society portraits unfortunately, but you’ve only got to look at some of the landscapes which he produced in France to see how marvellous a landscape painter he was. A visit to the Ulster Museum is always worthwhile.

And The Tennis Match

Out of the blue … out of the blue! People could not have understood The Tennis Match. They probably thought, what is this awful picture, this subject, who would paint tennis? And Lavery had produced the tennis match, now in Aberdeen Art Gallery … a surprising painting for its time.

From the point of view of artists working for printers and publishers, William Conor in fact worked for David Allen and Sons, and had a connection there with work on posters. And one of the things that affected Paul Henry in his career was that he was asked by the London and Midland railway to produce posters, and this didn’t help his career, because people could dismiss him as just a poster painter. But very effective posters. And Henry has come much to the fore with a large retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland.

John Hewitt was convinced that those early lithographic techniques of Conor’s had an influence on Conor’s draughtsmanship.

I think that would probably be correct. I would say on the whole in the province you could say that our artists concentrated more on the ‘linear’ side of art. Not three dimensional.