The Invisible Collection

Tracing the influence of past masters on artists in the present day. Click Play Video for commentary with Dickon Hall 

In Bangor's Ava Gallery, The Invisible Collection gathers paintings, prints and drawings by contemporary Irish and British artists, each paying tribute to famous past masters through copies and loosely-inspired work. 

13 artists working in media including charcoal, oil, pencil and print pay tribute to established names as diverse as Matisse, Gaugin, Rembrandt and Picasso. 

At The Invisible Collection’s opening, proud parents and art lovers chat easily under the Ava Gallery’s beams and small skylights, under the arch that leads to the white space. The size of images on display range from Colin Watson's postcard-like pencil sketches, to Ken Hamilton's 'After Ribera', more than a metre wide.

Emma Connolly pictured with 'Joan of Arc, after Bastien-Lepage', oil on canvas, 140x84cmBeyond the visitors, Emma Connolly’s ‘Joan of Arc’ hangs above the staircase. The oil figure presides over the gathering, appearing to welcome visitors to the gallery. The canvas came into being after Connolly encountered Jules Bastien-Lepage’s 1879 ‘Joan of Arc’ in Germany.

‘I was in Berlin on a residency in 2007 and the original was there,’ she says. ‘I felt an electric shock and knew that this would inspire me for the rest of my life.’

If you are to gaze upon the original it’s not difficult to see the source of Connolly’s crackle. A finely-rendered, almost photographic Joan of Arc stands in domestic dress, receiving revelation in her parents’ garden. 

Behind her emerge the spectral figures of saints Michael, Margaret, and Catherine. Connolly’s reputation was established long before tonight, however, as she sold all of the work in her 2004 University of Ulster graduate show in one night.

A religious icon occurs in Ken Hamilton’s ‘After Ribera’, showing a Christ-like figure with a pink gash on his ribs. In repose upon white sheets, he is attended by disciples. 

Despite the violence, the deep red of the attendants recalls the rich fabric worn by figures in classic historical portraits, or the recently-revealed Van Dycks from the British Prime Minister’s retreat at Chequers. The light and focus of the oil is on the wound, although the silent shock of recognizing a vague face on the top right of the canvas is the feeling that lasts.

'Copse (while looking at Pollock)', Colin Davidson, oil on canvas, 91x91cm The Ava Gallery exists on the grounds of the 2,000 acre Clandeboye Estate, a five-minute drive out of Bangor, down the Old Belfast Road.

The estate is surrounded by Northern Ireland’s largest broad-leaved woodland and its grounds contain lakes and walled gardens, where osprey and fallow deer roam. One of the first paintings you encounter in the exhibition is Colin Davidson’s ‘Copse’, an outdoors scene painted after Jackson Pollock.

Pollock is best known for the colourful, explosive streaks of his ‘action paintings’ and Davidson has successfully appropriated the explosive style. 

Branches whip around the frame and the rustic scene seems to say something about nature and aggression, or brittle decay. The palette is lighter than - yet reminiscent of - fellow Northern Irish artist Gareth Reid’s 2007 acrylic ‘Landscape’, which was on display at the Ava Gallery in October of that year.

Copy of detail from 'White Doors', by Gareth Reid Painted after Hammershøi, a detail from ‘White Doors’ depicts the off-white frames of a house’s interior extending away from the eye. This is one of two Reid contributions, the other being ‘Winter Tree’, after Van Gogh’s ‘Winter Garden’. 

The two side by side are amongst the smallest hanging on the gallery walls, and taken together match neither the size or immediacy of Hamilton’s ‘After Ribera’ or Gemma Anderson’s ‘Twins’.

Anderson’s etching (artist and etching pictured top), relating specifically to Hans Holbein's 'Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling', possesses a symmetry that dissolves as you approach. 

The opposing girls' faces become like a landscape within the frame, where foliage merges with feathered wings and strands of hair. On the left, a bird’s beak caps one girl's forehead.

‘Everything I do is drawn from life, straight on to the copper plate,’ she says. ‘I wanted to draw Emma and Olivia because I have known them since they were born - I used to babysit them.’

In the course of our conversation the word ‘transmogrification’ is used, and my mind immediately throws up the 1895 image ‘The Transmogrification of Bloom’ by Richard Hamilton. The picture graces the Oxford World’s Classics edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, an etching and aquatint printed on Rives paper.

Richard Hamilton's 'The Transmogrification of Bloom', etching and aquatint, 1984-85In addition to the much-celebrated work for Joyce, Hamilton’s 1956 collage ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ is considered to be the first work of pop art.

So long, Warhol - Hamilton discovered a talent for draughtsmanship while working as an apprentice at an electrical components firm. This led to entry at Central St Martin’s College, not far from London’s Royal College of Art where Anderson graduated.

'I think I knew early on what I was interested in communicating, without taking off on a whim to do something else,’ she says.

‘Painting and etching deal with different sensibilities; the drawn line is more anatomical and can transform from one shape to the next and unify the image.’

One painting in The Invisible Collection transforms the work of Belfast-born Sir John Lavery, the esteemed artist whose career as a ‘society’ painter took off after he was commissioned to paint Queen Victoria on the occasion of her visit to the Glasgow International Exhibition.

Simon Williams, 'Tennis Party', oil on canvas, 76x90cm Simon McWilliams' ‘Tennis Party’ re-imagines Sir John Lavery’s gentrified, lace-wearing Victorians as present-day sportspeople on floodlit courts. 

Urban lights glitter in the background and in McWilliams’ painting the lawns are replaced by man-made courts edged with tennis-ball yellow, retreating like a mirror held up to a mirror. The players on the latter courts appear as white specks in the purple night.

Like Emma Connolly, Lavery drew inspiration from Bastien-Lepage, showing that as well as influencing today's young artists, the masters influenced each other. 

They met only once, on the Pont-des-Arts, and Lavery never forgot the advice he received on figures in motion. 

'Always carry a sketchbook. Select a person - watch him - then put down as much as you remember. Never look twice. At first you will remember very little, but continue and you will soon get complete action.'

Kiran Acharya