Slow Art Sunday: "If you could take one home?"

Slow Art Reflection by Keith Ayton

For International Slow Art Day, Ulster Museum’s Visitor Guide and Slow Art guide, Keith Ayton reflects on one of his most memorable tours of our art galleries.

Image: Alice, 1919, Sir John Lavery
Alice, 1919, Sir John Lavery

The premise for my International Slow Art Day reflection relates to my own experience a few years ago upon seeing a Sir John Lavery portrait of his daughter Alice, painted in 1919.

The portrait of Alice really stood out for me, so my question for the visitors aimed to encourage them to share their thoughts and emotions about the works they found most impactful, leading me to ask “if you could take one home, what would it be?”

In preparing for the session, I considered my own response and the lasting impression ‘Alice’ had on me, opening this topic up to the floor. The discussion was lively and there was a broad range of opinions. ‘Alice’ was identified as a small, intimate, and casual painting. There was an understanding warmth to the portrait, as the sitter and painter enjoyed a close, family relationship. It’s set in the Lavery’s studio and the sitter is relaxed in the space reading a book. It is not laboured or overworked, which for me, gave it an energy. It looked as if Alice could almost get up and walk out of the painting.

The discussion meandered effortlessly in many directions, including discussing the fashion and style of the sitter – her white blouse, longer than knee length skirt and brown brogues. It was clear from her poise that she was a young, confident woman, but what really surprised me was one participant’s comment: “she could walk down the gallery without causing a stir, she looks so contemporary”. Given that the painting is over one hundred years old, I found this comment very astute, and one which I had not considered myself.

The discussion became subjective when I asked participants for their personal favourites, and everyone’s answer was different. The question allowed visitors to consider and engage with the works in the museum in a new way, and considering there are no wrong answers, participants were allowed to speak freely and explain their connection with their chosen artworks.

So next time you visit Ulster Museum’s art galleries, I encourage you to ask yourself or those around you, “If you could take one home…?” and see where the discussion takes you.