John McSorley

Belfast and beyond explored in a magical light. Click Play Video for an online exhibition narrated by the artist

‘Why don’t you pretend to be me?’ asks John McSorley, doing everything he can to avoid talking into my microphone.

With his shock of white hair and devilish grin, McSorley belongs on the pages of a Roald Dahl or Daniel Handler book - the slightly eccentric, achingly comic, wonderfully talented professor with the answers to everything.

But here he is, in the Artz Yard Gallery in Portaferry, setting up his latest exhibition and leading CultureNorthernIreland on a very merry dance. ‘I’ll tell you what to say,’ he jests. ‘They’ll never know the difference.’

The Lagan at Cutter's WharfPictures In An Exhibition reflects McSorley’s love of light, night and, perhaps most of all, travel. With images of Venice, Rome, Provence, Budapest and Belfast – and even one of the Mournes – it’s an Irish exhibition with an international feel. 

As a Northern Irish painter of considerable stature, McSorley is endearingly modest and unpretentious. In this latest exhibition (and as ever) McSorley is concerned with the beautiful things in life, like Italian piazzas and the setting sun. 

Star-crossed lovers catch a late-night kiss beneath the watery Venice moon. Hungarian ice skaters spend the evening arm-in-arm on an inner-city ice rink. And Belfast, bathed in heavenly light that only dusk and dawn can provide, is reborn at the point of McSorley's brush. I can imagine spending the rest of my life there. John McSorley must be a genius! 

Given the accuracy and detail of his place paintings, it might come as a shock for McSorley followers to learn of his technique. 'When I see a landscape or an image that I like, I sketch it quick and add the details later,' he explains. 'I don't take photographs.'

Memory plays a big part in McSorley's work. His painting of the Lagan river, which he initially sketched on his way to work at Queen's University, was inspired by the early morning light of a rising sun reflecting on the water. Evidently, it's an accurate depiction. McSorley loves it because it takes him back to that moment of blissful calm.

However, artistic license (ever the artist's faithful friend) is something that McSorley is not afraid to employ when necessary. 

'With 'Lovers Moon, Venice', which is a painting that I really like, the two lovers kissing were actually on 'Lovers Moon, Venice', by John McSorelythe other side of the bridge. But I knew that the painting would work better if they were on the opposite side, with the bridge behind them and the moon above. 

'I'm not rigid about reproducing a place brick for brick. It's whatever I feel will make a painting work.'

With their beguiling charm and inherent playfulness, the paintings that make up Pictures In An Exhibition are what the French film director Jean-Pierre Jeunet might produce if his canvas came stapled to a wooden frame. 

Fans of continental films like Amelie should get down to Portaferry as fast their cars will take them. Fans of world-class oil painting and masters like Bonnard, Whistler or Samuel Palmer should hire a helicopter.

Lee Henry