Looking For Saint-Saëns

Artist John McSorley brings the magic and mystery of the Continent to Malone House.

One of the last exhibitions John McSorley had in Belfast was in 1993, the week that the Shankill Bomb took place. With the city deserted, footfall was virtually nil in the Linen Hall Library that week, and since then McSorley has enjoyed a happy exile in his adopted Strangford, away from the unpredictable headache that is the capital city.

Now back in Belfast with his Looking for Saint-Saëns exhibition at the Higgin Gallery, Malone House, it’s clear that McSorley has his misgivings. He relates the sad news that the Artz Yard Gallery in Portaferry, where he has mainly exhibited over the past few years, has closed down – another victim of the credit crunch, it seems – and pines for the professionalism and charm of that little attic gallery just a short ferry ride from his own home.

But Malone House is a fitting substitute. In the grounds grey squirrels munch acorns until I get to within five feet of them, then dart off into the branches for safety. From the cafe indoors I watch as the rain pours down, little old ladies running along the lanes holding umbrellas as the evening gloam descends.

Then it hits me: Malone House is pure McSorley. It's just the kind of place he would paint, if he had a mind to: a place where lovers come to walk hand-in-hand, where the trees stand out against fields of green. A spectacular venue for an exhibition of the man's work.

The Higgin Gallery is on the first floor, up a staircase guarded by lifesize classical statues. McSorley was pleased with the success of the exhibition launch, when 12 of the 31 paintings were sold. Footfall has been good so far, and with a steady stream of visitors taking tea in the cafe below chances are the exhibition will sell out fast. As it should, because it's as enchanting an exhibition as Belfast is likely to see this year.

Born in Lisburn in 1948, McSorley travelled to London with a fellow artist in 1969, where they showed their work on the railings at Bayswater Road on Sunday afternoons. He returned home a year later to set up a small printing works with his father and brother, where he was responsible for design and artwork. Subsequently McSorley went into the record shop business with his brother for ten years. In 1988 he became bookseller in QUB Students’ Union and then left work in 2008 to devote his life to painting full-time.

Looking for Saint-Saëns is not a departure for McSorley, rather it's a continuation of the exploration of subjects that have inspired him in the past: foreign fields, winter light, dramatic rural scenery and the romanticism of the Continent.

As such there are paintings of Italian hills, lonely landscapes in County Down, sunflower fields in southern France and ice skaters in Copenhagen. The piece that the exhibition is named after depicts McSorley himself in Montparnasse cemetery, Paris, where the French composer Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns is buried – as well as Samuel Beckett and Jean-Paul Sartre.

It’s surprising to learn, then, that McSorley is not a fan of travelling. ‘That’s why I never go out of Europe,’ he says. ‘I don’t like flying. Once, when my partner and I were flying to America we came across a friend of ours who saw how nervous I was. He suggested I try a little chocolate brownie of his - which may or may not have contained some sort of funny tobacco. It didn’t help though. Rather than calm me down, it only made it worse!’

Not that McSorley needs any kind of extra-sensory stimulation when it comes to his art. He truly is a magician at evoking the character and atmosphere of a setting. With the rain pouring down outside, McSorley excuses himself to chat with two newcomers. I fancy a wistful visit abroad. Within seconds of introducing myself to 'The Rooftop Terrace, Provence', I'm there.

Looking for Saint-Saëns runs at the Higgin Gallery until November 30. In the video above McSorley discusses some of the works on show.