The Ulster Museum has the largest collection of Belfast-born artist John Luke’s work. This includes prints, sculpture and paintings.
With thanks to Dr Joseph McBrinn, University of Ulster, for his research on John Luke.
Artistic beginnings- Pencil drawing
John Luke was a painter, sculptor, muralist and printmaker. He began his life working in Belfast’s shipyards.
He was a modernist who cared about craftmanship. Luke's artwork known for its unique sense of 'rhythm' he found in Northern Ireland.
Artistic beginnings- Pencil drawing
John Luke worked as a ‘heater-boy’ in the Workman and Clark shipyard of Belfast from 1918. He had to stop working there in 1922 after a fall. He then worked for the York Street Flax Spinning Company, ‘cutting fibre’ in the flax-preparing mill .
At the same time he started evening classes at the Belfast School of Art. By 1925, after losing his job at the mill, he became a full-time student. He won his first prize for ‘Object and Memory Drawing’, going on to win many more prizes during his time there.
This drawing of a harbour was inspired by his knowledge of the shipyards of Belfast. It has no date but thought to be from around 1927. This was the same year as Luke enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London for a Fine Art Diploma.
Luke was interviewed for the Slade, by the artist and teacher Henry Tonks. He looked at his drawings and said "These are rather good, as far as they go, but there’s no form in any of them". After this Luke put drawing at the centre of all his work.
Slade School of Fine Art
In 1929 Luke won second prize at the Slade school for his painting of Judith and Holofernes.
In the biblical story, Holofernes was an Assyrian general who was about to destroy Judith's home, the city of Bethulia. Judith, a beautiful widow, is able to enter the tent of Holofernes because of his desire for her. He passes out after drinking too much and is beheaded by Judith. His head is taken away in a basket (often shown as carried by an elderly female servant but here as a faceless young woman). It is a story of the oppressed overcoming the oppressor, or virtue winning over vice.
This story has been painted by many different artists from the Renaissance to the modern day. It still shocks audiences, like this painting because of the normal setting and the figures’ modern-day clothes.
Luke did not paint many portraits, of himself or others. Though his few early portraits showed clear vision and precise detail.
A ‘tipster’ is a person who provides information on the likely winners of sporting events. While the title is nameless, it is a portrait of Luke himself. He has cast himself as the tipster.
Compared to his other self portrait, painted in the same year Dr Joseph McBrinn says it displays a "larger degree of imaginative illusionism" .
His portraits of other people, including those he knew well, show detachment. They are often looking off into the distance. In contrast, in his self portraits the artist looks directly at the viewer with a piercing, confident stare.
Luke met John Hewitt in early 1932 and the friendship was important for both men.
Hewitt was a young aspiring poet who had recently been appointed Assistant Curator at the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery (now the Ulster Museum). He ordered commissions from Luke, for his own personal collection and later for the museum.
In the winter of 1934, Hewitt asked Luke and another artist, Billy McClughin, to paint portraits of himself and his wife Roberta. The portraits took almost two years to produce. McClughin finished his in 1936 but Luke didn't like his portrait of Roberta, and destroyed it. Only this drawing from 1935 survives, it shows a rather formal and serious figure.
In contrast, this quick pen and ink sketch of John Hewitt, completed on the night the two men met in 1932, is much more carefree and friendly. It shows a different side to an artist known for his well thought out and planned works. Hewitt later said that it was ‘the best’ of all the portraits of him.
Luke explored many different art forms in his artistic career. He is best known for his paintings but it was his sculpture that won the Robert Ross Prize at the Slade School. He was to become very interested in sculpture towards the end of the 1930s and early 1940s.
In an attempt to develop his skills and stone-cutting abilities, He went to a local stonemason’s yard. He also learnt how to make his own tools.
Yorkshire stone is a natural sandstone of very high quality and strength. It is best known for its use as a paving stone.
Luke made this sculpture as a model in direct carving. It shows his typical style of a figure with few identifying features in smooth and precise lines. The waves of the woman’s hair also bring to mind the rolling hills of his later landscapes.
Ethelbert White was an English wood engraver who made designs for booklets on the Russian ballet and book illustrations. He may have influenced Luke's print work, as seen in this print of a farmhouse. They both looked at Japanese prints and woodcuts and experimented with colour.
Colour prints would have been uncommon in Ireland. Making these woodcuts rare and further proof of his experimental approach in the 1930s.
In 1937 John Hewitt drew attention to and praised these prints in his first article on Luke’s work .
Luke returned to landscape painting in the late 1930s. His move to Knappagh, County Armagh at the end of the decade made him deeply interested in the countryside.
He began to create abstract and decorative landscapes with rolling mountains, hills and mounds. He painted in bright, almost unnatural, colours laid over white to make them even more intense.
Luke often included animals in his landscape paintings but generally there is a lack of story telling. This suggests he was more interested in the decorative aspect and symbolism of the painting than its subject matter.
This painting is one of the earliest examples of Luke’s experiments with tempera. It consists of coloured pigment mixed with a binder medium (often egg yolk). It is permanent, fast drying and difficult to work with, used by artists as early as the 1st century AD.
Luke’s use of tempera shows his technical skill in working with a difficult but beautiful medium. From this point on, he would paint only in tempera.
Figures in landscapes
Painting movement dominated Luke’s work as he started a series of paintings centred on rhythm in music and dancing.
The Three Dancers was the first painting of this series. Inspired by historic examples of a trio of dancing figures, from Botticelli’s Primavera (1482) to Picasso’s Three Dancers (1925).
Though the poses of the dancers suggests Luke was also influenced by ballet. Which was a common source of inspiration in Neo-Romantic art.
He may have been looking to images of the Ballet Russes by the artists he admired, including Ethelbert White and Henry Tonks. The central position of Luke’s male dancer and his arresting gaze is like the central role played by male dancers at the Ballet Russes. He also attended ballet performances in Dublin and possibly Belfast.
As a symbol of the rebirth of nature after the war’s end, The Three Dancers captured the mood of the public, attracting much attention and praise. It was bought by the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery (now Ulster Museum) in 1945 for £100.
Commission/ Tempera painting
The Rehearsal was the last in the series of great tempera paintings by Luke. It was bought on commission by the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery in 1950, after two years of discussion.
The museum wanted a painting that showed the process of tempura painting. Inducing ‘the three main stages of the technique, the design drawings, the underpainting and the completed picture’. It was bigger than Luke’s work of the 1940s and was to be his last panel painting. The scene shows a group of circus performers in a typical Luke landscape of cool blues and greens.
He was influenced by Picasso’s work on the set and costumes of the Parade ballet. Also by Irish artists like Mainie Jellett, Gerard Dillon and Jack B Yeats who painted images of circus performers.
Hewitt and the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery were not pleased with the slowness of Luke’s technique and the strange nature of the content. It was thought he should end his obsession with tempera and concentrate more on content over style. Though this major painting must be admired for its skill, rich colour and simplicity.
John Hewitt described Luke as a ‘mural painter waiting for a wall’. Luke’s interest in painting large-scale public murals made him stand from other Irish artists.
In 1951 Belfast City Hall commissioned Luke to paint a major public mural to commemorate the Festival of Britain in Northern Ireland. It was originally meant for the Reception Room. Luke arranged to paint under the dome facing the grand staircase, where scaffolding was already in place.
The subject was ‘Sir Arthur Chichester reading the Town’s First Charter in 1613'. Luke designed it as a celebration of Belfast’s historic industries of shipbuilding and linen-making. It is inspired by old engravings, paintings and objects of Belfast.
The painting of the mural started in January 1951 and finished in April 1952. It received a lot of praise in the press and Luke was asked to present these two sketches to the Belfast Corporation. He was also asked to paint murals in the Masonic Lodge in Belfast’s Rosemary Street and the Millfield campus of the College of Technology.