Northern Rhythm: The Art of John Luke at Ulster Museum

By Richard Moss | 07 November 2012
a painting of three figures dancing in a landscape
John Luke, The Three Dancers (1945)© The Estate of John Luke Collection Ulster Museum
Exhibition Preview: Northern Rhythm: The Art of John Luke (1906-1975), Ulster Museum, Belfast, until February 10 2013

The work of Northern Irishman John Luke (1906-1975) may have slipped from public consciousness since his main period of activity between the 1930s and 1950s, but at Ulster Museum he has always been an important - if somewhat enigmatic - artist.

A new retrospective at the museum, which holds the finest public collection of his work, reveals a highly original painter, muralist, printmaker and sculptor with a craftsman-like approach to his art.

Luke originally worked in the mills and dockyards of Ulster, and perhaps it is this grounding that informed his methods before enrolment in a night class at Belfast College of Art revealed a natural talent for drawing and painting. He swiflty progressed during the late 1920s to the Slade where he was taught by the great Henry Tonks.

Economic downturn in the 1930s saw him return to Northern Ireland, and a teaching post at Belfast College of Art where he developed a reputation as a quiet and private man with a famously austere and ordered lifestyle. He also forged a friendship with the poet John Hewitt and together they are credited with creating an image of Northern Ireland as a region with a uniquely modern identity. 

To experience his paintings today is to step back in time to a world of floating figures and vibrant landscapes that conjure an optimistic spirit of mid-century-Modernism.

Yet as this collection of paintings, drawings and designs reveals, his work steadily evolved to embrace some darker elements and a strange combination that was equal parts colourful landscape and highly sharpened figurative technique.

Curator Dr Joseph McBrinn, of the University of Ulster, describes Luke as a "committed Modernist” who “dedicated his life to the ideals of craftsmanship”. 

“A painter by choice but a manual worker by nature, Luke’s work is utterly unique, even by today’s standards, in its decorative lyricism and abstract expressiveness.”

Many of the pieces on show here combine this sense of craftsmanship and lyricism to offer something distinctively rhythmic and flowing. At times, his expertly honed figures recall Botticelli.

The exhibition, which is the most comprehensive critical assessment to date, also includes most of Luke's important portraits, a selection of drawings, designs for his Northern Irleand murals and sculptures as well as examples of his woodcut and linocut prints.

The beautiful Northern Rhythm, considered by Luke to be his master work, is included together with The Fox and The Road to the West which both make an interesting addition to the English topographical tradition that evolved alongside them.

It’s easy to see why Luke is beginning to be recognised by a wider audience today.

a colourful painting of eight carnivalesque figures in a landscape
John Luke 1906-1975, The Rehearsal (1950)© The Estate of John Luke Collection Ulster Museum
a painting of a stylised landscape with ploughed fields, trees, a white house in the distance and a fox in the foreground
John Luke 1906-1975, The Fox (1937)© The Estate of John Luke Collection Ulster Museum
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