Theo Snoddy and the UTV Art Collection

An interview with the curator of art at Ulster Television

Art historian, critic and curator, Theo Snoddy was interviewed by CultureNorthernIreland on the visual arts in Northern Ireland. The Belfast News Letter art critic for 25 years, Lurgan born Snoddy is now curator of art at Ulster Television and author of Dictionary of Irish Artists: Twentieth Century (2002).

Perhaps you could begin by telling us a bit about the background to the UTV collection?

It goes back to the time when the firm was founded in 1959, and the chairman was the Earl of Antrim, and his wife the Countess of Antrim was a sculptor or sculptress in her own right, and therefore interested in art, and apparently, when the firm opened in Havelock House on the Ormeau Road she was saying to her husband, ‘Look, you’ve got to get some pictures on the walls here because the place looks bare.’

Most years after that a couple of the directors went out and bought a picture or two at local dealers, or perhaps at the Royal Ulster academy; but there was never any intention of forming a collection. It was simply to decorate the building.

And then, about 15 years ago, I was brought in and asked to make an inventory of the pictures in the building, and to include the London office. Nobody had a list. So that was how I was originally involved.

It wasn’t an easy task because sometimes titles were missing, and you were just slightly uncertain about some artists … However, that was completed, and as a consequence it was decided to hold an exhibition of some of the pictures that we had at Malone House, up at Barnett Demesne, which seemed to go down very well; but after this we realised that if we were going to produce exhibitions for the public, something would have to be done to strengthen the range of pictures that we had, which were originally bought without any intention of holding exhibitions at all.

So we decided we needed work by, for example, George Campbell, Dan O’Neill, Gerard Dillon, and a number of others; and over a period of a few years, we bought works by these artists to strengthen the collection. And some of the pictures, such as William Conor’s, which were originally bought to help the man survive, now form an important part of the collection.

From then on, we were very conscious of the fact that any works that were bought could eventually go into a display that would be shown outside of the building. In addition to Northern Ireland, and this has been very important in connection with these pictures, we have crossed the border.

We have been in Dundalk, Drogheda, we’ve been in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Letterkenny, Limerick, and in Monaghan. This has meant that many hundreds of people living in the Republic have seen works by Ulster artists whom they knew little about, and certainly if they had heard about them they would never have seen these pictures before. So it’s been completely fresh to them.

In addition to showing the exhibition, we have in recent years organised classes for school parties, perhaps as many as six sessions in the first week of the exhibition. This to my mind has been a boon for the art teachers. For example, when we had an exhibition at Fermanagh County Museum, one of the art teachers there, who had brought along a group, told me that she’d organised a bus for the school to take the children to see an exhibition in Belfast. By the time they had reached Belfast they were tired, and it cost £130 to hire the bus. So here were we bringing this exhibition to their doorstep, so to speak, and this was greatly appreciated....

Insofar as numbers are concerned, in the collection, we have reached 235 works, including four sculptures, with work by the famous FE McWilliam, and Carolyn Mulholland, and a man called Joseph Sloan who came from Warrenpoint, not very well known, and now living and working in France...

You’ve mentioned in passing how people elsewhere in Ireland maybe aren’t terribly aware of artists from the north…

Well, they might have heard of some of the artists, but not really seen their work. So everything in the UTV exhibitions is really fresh to them, and when we buy a new work from a contemporary artist, I get the background material from the artist about the work, and this comes in handy if you’re giving a talk at the exhibition to the public or to schools. I would say that it’s a boost for Ulster art, moving outside Northern Ireland.

Looking at the collection as a whole, does it reveal to your mind anything distinctive about northern artists, Ulster artists?

No, I can’t see recurring themes. This I suppose is natural, because when the pictures were bought, over the years, there was never anything thematic about it, it was just walking into a gallery … The way it has been formed just doesn’t lend itself to picking out schools or that sort of thing.

The tendency would be, if I were going to maybe the annual exhibition of the Royal Ulster Academy, to look for some particular subject and style that I thought was completely different from anything we had at Havelock House.

It might be an abstract, it might be some figurative work, but the way things are you could fill a collection with landscapes and not get very far … I mean, there are a lot of gaps, but we don’t worry about it: it’s just the way the collection came together. Somebody else doing a similar thing would produce different works.