The Ulster Unit

Perhaps the most exciting collective arts experiment in pre-1980s Ireland

Perhaps the most exciting collective arts experiment in pre-1980s Ireland, the Ulster Unit evolved from the short-lived Ulster Society of Painters, founded 1933, and modelled itself on the London based Unit One of Paul Nash and Herbert Read. The group’s secretary, poet John Hewitt, described the work of the Ulster Unit as ‘avowedly and demonstrably modern.’

Of the artists involved in the group, Colin Middleton, John Luke, George MacCann and Romeo C Toogood went on to establish significant national or international reputations. Also involved were painters Mabel Annesley, Kathleen Bridle, Elizabeth Clements, WR Gordon and Margaret Yeames, as well as architect Denis O’D Hanna, potter Jean McGregor, and printmaker Crawford Mitchell.

Most of the younger artists involved in the Ulster Unit’s single group exhibition at Locksley Hall, Belfast, in December 1934, had themselves studied or worked in London. Their personal experience of modern British and European art and ideas had been reinforced by the decision of the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery in the late 1920s to sell the conventional Victorian works they had received from the Lloyd Patterson bequest, and to purchase contemporary work with the proceeds. The Ulster Unit exhibition contained linocuts, sculpture, pottery, etchings and architectural designs, as well as oils and watercolours.

The multi-disciplinary make up of the group, and the presence of technical or craft disciplines alongside the ‘fine arts’ of painting and sculpture, signal an affinity not only with Unit 1, who exhibited at the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery in March 1935, but also with continental models like the German Bauhaus. However, it also reflects the interrelationship between the fine and applied arts in Belfast, where the municipal school of art had long worked closely with local printing and damask industries.

Further reading:
Irish Art & Modernism (1991) by SB Kennedy; John Luke (1978) by John Hewitt; Colin Middleton (1975) by John Hewitt; Causeway: the arts in Ulster  (1971) ed. M Longley; Dictionary of Twentieth Century Irish Artists (2002) by Theo Snoddy; The Arts in Ulster (1951) by Hannah Bell et al.