Visual Arts Publications

A survey of Northern Ireland’s visual arts publications.

While not intended as a ‘further reading’ section for the entire visual arts section of the CultureNorthernIreland website, the books, periodicals and other outlets for criticism and commentary cited below set out some of the most influential or exhaustive local sources in the field.

The Arts in Ulster, edited by Sam Hanna Bell, John Hewitt and Nesca Robb, was published in 1951 and constituted part of Northern Ireland’s contribution to the Festival of Britain—a celebration of and showpiece for post-war reconstruction. Individual essays on architecture, painting and sculpture, prose, poetry, drama and music, share a reluctance to overstate the case for provincial arts, coupled with a desire to acknowledge, according to Bell, ‘what [we] may justly claim in [our] tradition.’ Hewitt’s essay on ‘Painting and Sculpture in Ulster’ is a scrupulously honest historical survey of the visual arts which, ‘for a variety of reasons, began late in Ulster, were long and to a large extent still are derivative.’

Causeway: The Arts in Ulster, edited by Michael Longley, was published by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to coincide with 1971's celebratory Ulster Exposition. Longley's volume paid testimony to a recent dramatic growth both in the production and quality of the arts, and in the self-awareness of local artists and writers. Chapters on jazz and on the new Ulster Folk Museum reflect new cultural diversification, whilst Kenneth Jamison’s essay on the visual arts examines the mature, often complete careers of those who were only emerging artists in Hewitt’s earlier essay.

Hewitt himself also published lengthy studies on Colin Middleton (1976) and John Luke (1978). Both studies are well illustrated, fully contextualised, and strongly influenced by Hewitt’s experience as a curator at the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery and his personal friendships with both artists.

The two volumes of The Arts in Ulster (1977) consolidate and update the commentary provided by Bell and Longley. John Hewitt is author of the first volume, covering the period from 1557 to 1957, while Mike Catto’s study of contemporary Northern Irish visual arts takes over in the second, with an acknowledged debt to Longley's precedent. Catto focuses particularly on the artists and sculptors of the 1960s and 70s who attempted to adapt experimental art practices to the Northern Irish situation. Artists surveyed include Basil Blackshaw, Deborah Brown, Brian Ferran, TP Flanagan, Alice Berger Hammerschlag, FE McWilliam, Joe McWilliams, Colin Middleton, Carolyn Mullholland, Clifford Rainey and Neil Shawcross.

Bill Rolston’s Politics and Painting: Murals and Conflict in Northern Ireland (1991) is a politically sophisticated study of the competing traditions of mural art in Northern Ireland. Examining loyalist and republican gable murals and state-sponsored ‘community art’ mural projects, Rolston contextualises these images both locally and internationally.

The Linen Hall Library’s Troubled Images: Posters and Images of the Northern Ireland Conflict (2001), forms a useful companion to Rolston’s study, lavishly documenting the library’s collection of political ephemera, with posters completing the picture of a unique visual culture.

Irish Art and Modernism (1991) by SB Kennedy is a study of painting and sculpture throughout Ireland. Kennedy, the curator of twentieth century art at the Ulster Museum, is particularly fluent as to the engagement of local artists with the rest of Ireland, and with the century’s wider intellectual and artistic movements.

Stepping Stones: The Arts in Ulster 1971-2001 was published in 2001 by local broadcast journalists Mark Carruthers and Stephen Douds. In a conscious echo of the earlier publications mentioned above, the volume consists of essays on various art forms by critics, commentators and practitioners. Martyn Anglesea’s study of the visual arts charts the ‘phenomenal’ progress of the 30 years since the publication of Causeway, also marked by the progress of the Troubles. Anglesea’s essay includes a consideration of the effects of political violence on artists and arts institutions, covers the development of Arts Council policy and practice, and looks at individual artists including Carol Graham, Mark Shields, Felim Egan and Rita Duffy.

Also noteworthy is the development of a number of local visual arts periodicals since the 1980s. Appearing quarterly, Circa magazine is dedicated to reflecting visual culture as it unfolds throughout Ireland while reporting on important developments further a field. The magazine aims to be a vital resource for artists, academics, students, researchers, arts administrators, and all such parties interested in visual culture.

Source magazine evolved from the newsletter of the local photography organisation Photo Works North. With the assistance of National Lottery, European and Arts Council funding, Source has developed into an adventurous, articulate and lavishly illustrated local publication, dedicated to the promotion of local and touring exhibitions and talks.

Further Reading

Stepping Stones: The Arts in Ulster 1971-2001 (2001) edited by Mark Carruthers and Stephen Douds; Troubled Images: Posters and Images of the Northern Irish Conflict from the Linen Hall Library, Belfast (2001) edited by Yvonne Murphy et al; Irish Art and Modernism (1991) SB Kennedy; Politics and Paintings: Murals and Conflict in Northern Ireland (1991) by Bill Rolston; John Luke (1978) by John Hewitt; The Arts in Ulster, 2 vols (1977) by John Hewitt and Mike Catto; Colin Middleton (1975) by John Hewitt; Causeway: The Arts in Ulster (1971) by Michael Longley; The Arts in Ulster (1951) by Sam Hanna Bell, John Hewitt, and Nesca Robb.