John Luke

A distinctive easel painter and muralist

John Luke was born in January 1906 near Belfast’s North Queen Street, and educated at Hillman Street national school. While waiting for a shipyard apprenticeship to become available, he found work cutting fibre at the York Road mill, then became a ‘heater boy’ or riveter’s assistant at Workman Clark’s ‘wee yard’.

In 1923, Luke enrolled in night classes at Belfast College of Art. The award of the Dunville Art scholarship allowed him to enrol in Slade, London, where he shared a studio with fellow Belfastman FE McWilliam.

In the 1930s Luke began to experiment with a distinctive tempera technique, developing a style his friend, the poet John Hewitt, described as ‘decorative and rhythmical’, simultaneously acknowledging a potential ‘coldness’ and ‘detachment’ in his rigorously stylised draughtsmanship.

Luke abandoned easel painting around 1948. In 1950 he was commissioned to paint a mural in Belfast City Hall to mark the 1951 Festival of Britain, and in 1956 another mural, Solomon Building the Temple, was commissioned for Rosemary Street Masonic Hall. A mural for Millfield Technical College was started in 1961 but never completed.

Luke became increasingly interested in Zen Buddhism and other eastern philosophies in his later years. He exhibited work for the last time in 1960. A lifelong vegetarian, his 'spartan' diet may have weakened his health and he died in the Mater hospital in February 1975.

Further reading:
Dictionary of Twentieth Century Irish Artists (2002) by Theo Snoddy; John Luke (1978) by John Hewitt.