Northern Rhythm: John Luke at the Ulster Museum
Following a comprehensive detective search, the Ulster Museum showcase rarely seen works by the multi-talented Belfast artist
'I believe in the curve, the straight line and the holy shape, / colour-relations, tone and design – / all which go to make / a living thing and not a culled mistake.'
So wrote the Belfast-born artist John Luke in Credo of a Painter, his response to an invitation to contribute a poem to the literary magazine Lagan in 1945.
At the time, Luke and his mother were living in the gate lodge of Knappagh Farm in County Armagh, owned by an aristocratic former French army officer and his family, who had settled in Ireland some years previously. In 1941, mother and son had found refuge there when their street near the Belfast docklands became the target for deadly German bombing raids.
Away from the mayhem of the Belfast Blitz, and immersed for the next eight years in a lush, rural idyll, Luke painted some of his most memorable stylised landscapes, many of them populated by intriguing characters – human and animal – and glowing with brilliant, luminous colours.
Collectively, they are a perfect illustration of the artistic creed so eloquently expressed in the poem written for Lagan in the year that the Second World War ended. Now, in the same gallery in the Ulster Museum that hosted his debut solo show in 1946, those paintings form the lyrical nucleus of Northern Rhythm: The Art of John Luke.
The exhibition – the first comprehensive collection of Luke’s work to have been presented in a generation – has been curated by Dr Joseph McBrinn, lecturer in History of Design and Applied Art at the University of Ulster, whose scholarly, entertaining extended essay accompanies the gorgeously illustrated catalogue.
The aim of the exhibition is not wholly aesthetic. It also marks a concerted effort on the part of the Ulster Museum to offer Luke’s work for public reconsideration and critical reassessment. 'We are providing the public with an exceptional opportunity to discover, or rediscover, one of Northern Ireland’s most loved artists,' says Kim Mawhinney, head of art at National Museums Northern Ireland.
'We have the greatest publicly owned collection of John Luke’s work in the world. Here you can see some of his iconic paintings, drawings and designs for murals and sculptures, including 'Northern Rhythm', which Luke considered to be his masterpiece.'
But it is not by any means the case that everything on show has been merely taken from the museum’s vaults, dusted down and hung on its pristine walls. On the contrary. McBrinn set out on a quest, tracking down lesser known pieces from small regional museums, fine art dealers, Queen’s University, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and a variety of private collections.
'As an historian, my instinct is to go to the sources,' he states. 'You feel a bit like a detective, following your leads. It’s an exciting process, particularly when you successfully reach your destination.
'Over the past 30 years, there has been almost no critical assessment of Luke’s work, even though it has frequently appeared in the public gaze as it regularly passes through the auction rooms. Even during the past 20 years, key works have sold to private collectors, some more than once.
'The limited number of paintings that Luke completed, which remain in museum store-rooms or have disappeared into private collections, combined with a lack of scholarly research, has meant that his work has become much less known and understood than ever before. This publication and exhibition are aimed at countering this.'
On entering the Belfast Room in the upper reaches of the museum’s Art Zone, it is impossible not to share McBrinn’s thrill of the chase. It is spine-tingling to come face to face with paintings so familiar that they register as much-loved old friends.
They include the graceful trio of Ballets Russes-inspired figures in 'The Three Dancers'; the stylised, rolling meadowlands and casual promenaders of 'The Old Callan Bridge'; the swirling, mysterious scenarios of 'The Dancer and the Bubble' and 'Landscape with Figures'.
Also of note are the strangely expressionless, silently posed circus performers of 'The Rehearsal' (main image); the sly little animal interventions of 'The Fox' and 'Goat and Mountain' (top image); and the exquisitely delicate 'Madonna and Child', commissioned privately by an Armagh priest.
In all of the works showcased here, Luke displays his expert use of the ancient medium of tempera, a blend of ground colour pigments and egg yolk, resulting in a sheeny, hard-edged, vibrant finish. But also on the walls is an abundance of compelling evidence of the former shipyard worker’s extraordinary skills as a draughtsman, mural painter, sculptor, wood carver and printmaker.
Present at the exhibition launch were his nephew Neville McKee and his wife Pat, an art teacher, who was taught by Luke. They have plundered the family treasure chest and unearthed an intriguing collection of brushes and palette, hand-crafted tools, pigments and oils, woodcuts, books, catalogues and periodicals, as well as the original jug from the early still life 'The Lustre Jug'.
They speak affectionately of ‘Uncle Jack’ as a gentle, private, mischievously humorous man, always immaculately turned out, a vegetarian, a hill walker, a lifelong friend of the poet and critic John Hewitt (himself a former keeper of art at the Ulster Museum), a prominent member of a glittering artistic circle, a modest man.
Stay a while in the gallery, look carefully and reflect. Slowly, you will become aware of the presence of that same multi-gifted man, his intriguing personality and remarkable, arresting artistic vision, now re-emerging into the light after so many years in the shade.
Northern Rhythm: The Art of John Luke (1906 – 1975) is at the Ulster Museum until February 2013. The exhibition will be accompanied by a number of special events and guided tours by Dr Joseph McBrinn.