Important Irish Art

Bangor's Ava Gallery hosts a series of classic works before they're auctioned in Dublin

Not only does the arrival of March herald the first signs of spring but also another of Adam’s Important Irish Art exhibitions in Clandeboye’s Estate's Ava Gallery. Perhaps with the (admittedly sluggish) change in the Northern Irish weather, it is no coincidence that many pieces feel distinctly ‘summery’.

The most obvious of these (and arguably the most striking) is John Luke’s 1929 piece, ‘The Bathers’ (see image below). Valued at up to £30,000 – all the artworks on display will be auctioned at Adam’s in Dublin at the end of the month – this is one of Luke’s earlier paintings, and one of the few surviving pieces from his time spent studying at the Slade School in London.

Depicting a group of girls out bathing on an idyllic sunny afternoon, 'The Bathers' was integral in solidifying Luke’s reputation as one Ireland’s greatest modern painters, even if it lacks the auteur's stylised landscapes that would define his later work. Like ‘Judith and Holofernes’, however, ‘The Bathers’ reveals Luke’s forte for treating classical subjects in a contemporary setting.

'The Bathers'


Comparable to Seurat’s ‘Une Baignade, Asnieres’, here Luke substitutes the young male factory workers of 'Judith and Holofernes' for the women we see here, asserting their independence by bathing and dressing in public. The painting is evocative of the defiant spirit of the era, and the scenery immediately recognisable as an Irish seaside, albeit with a gallic sense of joie de vivre evident through its exuberant colours.

Elsewhere Frank McKelvey’s use of plein air painting and rigorous detailed notes on colour, light and effects add an immediacy to his oil on canvas, ‘Children In The Park’. Believed to be painted after Belfast’s Belvoir Park (although some have argued that McKelvey's used the nearby Botanic Gardens as his subject), this piece really allows the viewer to luxuriate in its depiction of high summer, the trees’ shadows making for some expressionistic chiaroscuro amidst subtle use of blues, browns, pinks, greens and whites.

The focus of the Ava’s main gallery, meanwhile, is on Derek Clarke’s ‘Connemara Family’, which has been given pride of place on the furthest wall. Showing a family of eight by their homely fireside, the appeal of this work comes from the tension that exists between certain photo-realistic elements (such as the detail in the subjects’ eyes) and the skewed, impressionistic, almost three-dimensional sense of warped perspective that draws the viewer so deeply into the painting that the warmth of the crackling fire can almost be felt.

In the exhibition’s brochure (an elegant achievement in its own right), Clarke – who is still alive at 102-years-old – ruminates on his time in Ireland, and how this particular painting came about. Along with the tasteful positioning, personal touches like this ensure that Adam’s exhibitions at the Ava are some of the finest of the year anywhere in Northern Ireland.

Of course, everything above is merely the tip of the iceberg, with other works including four highly unusual (and uncharacteristic) pen and ink pieces by JB Yeats, another taste of the east from Aloysius O’Kelly and John Turner’s comical and aptly titled ‘Contempt’ (main image), in which a scowling, pipe-smoking country man stares down the viewer.

Highlights of the other gallery spaces include a tapestry entitled ‘Garlanded Goat’ from the endlessly diverse Louis le Brocquy, and a hulking oil on linen piece by Hughie O’Donaghue, ‘Blue Water’ (see image below). Here the incorporation of a transparent photographic component is not only contemporary but adds a nightmarishly realistic element to the painting, which shows a (presumably dead) woman floating in water. Think Laura Palmer meets Nosferatu.

My only complaint with this month’s Adam’s exhibition regards the unfortunately short amount of time that Northern Irish viewers are given to see the works – a mere seven days – before they are removed to Dublin on March 26 for further viewing and auction. Hopefully next time we will get to enjoy the experience for a little longer.

'Blue Water'