Saturday, 9 July 2011

From Shaw's Bridge to Ballyhagan: John Luke (1906 - 1975)

Although Anna Findlay and Ian Cheyne have been admired amongst the Scots on Modern Printmakers, and Ethel Kirkpatrick had her roots deep in county Dublin on her father's side, it's not untill now that I could write up an artist from Ireland. Not only that, John Luke was that rare Irishman who produced a colour woodcut. Here you have his wonderful view 'Farmhouse, Ballyahagan', a townland on the slopes of Cavehill near to Belfast. The same hamlet I believe is shown in the linocut below. (It's called 'The dead tree').

He was born in Belfast and went to work as a rivetter at Clarke's shipyard. He undertook evening classes and in 1927 won a place at the Slade School. He stayed untill 1930, studied part-time at the Westminster School of Art under Walter Bayes, tried to establish himself in London but was forced home by the economic downturn. Neverthless he arrived back in Belfast a skilled and accomplished artist (mind you, he was pretty good before he left). Painter, muralist, printmaker and occcasional sculptor, he was able to continue working in the city as a professional artist and part-time teacher at Belfast College of Art. (His life-class there was apparently as rigourously memorable as the one at the Slade).

Partly because his prints are so few and far between, I've included a couple of his paintings. But they also show just how consistent his vision and range of interests were. Limited, in some ways, perhaps, but he has a significant lyrical feel for form, light and colour and yet everything is firmly located. The view you see above is of the branch canal near Edenderry, also in county Kildare. The little Downshire Bridge was built 1797 - 1802, a fateful period for Ireland, and the Grand Canal lies beyond.

This linocut 'Shaw's Bridge' is nearer to home. It crosses the river Lagan, in county Antrim, near Belfast and although it recalls Iain Macnab with its dark masses, twists and turns, the varied light and realistic outlines places him somewhere between the British topographical tradition and Irish localism. But again, he is more of an imagist than his English contemporaries; the bridges, for instance, that he returns to, are significant images for all his interest in form.

This linocut 'Bedtime prayers' is a fairly unusual interior for Luke. With the subject's face turned from the viewer, he throws attention on what interests him - both the spatial arrangement of the room and the inward life of a child. The use of partial outline round the girl - especially her face - and the folds of her bedclothes are intriguing touches.

I think I've chosen work that is generally less austere and formalist, if you like. He was a varied and fairly prolific artist so far as I can make out. That said, these are the only prints I've found so it is interesting that these small works are intimate. He does use their small scale to make them more personal. The severity he was capable of, even as a young man at the Slade, is obvious in his self-portrait below. This intense, uncanny drawing recalls WB Yeats 'bartering gaze for gaze' with unseen creatures. And speaking of barter, if you were thinking of keeping an eye out for one of these prints on ebay, let me tell you now that 'Shaw's Bridge' fetched €3,700 at auction a few years back and the sublime 'Farmhouse, Ballyhagan' well over €4,000! So much for localism.


  1. i'm fascinated by the variety in the trees on shaw's bridge.

  2. I know what you mean. I used to drive between Dublin and Donegal and found the trees and water wonderful, especially as we approached Fermanagh. I've never been to county Antrim but the print reminds me of the Fermanagh countryside.

  3. John Luke's farmhouse in the first woodcut pictured in this blog is in Ballyahagan according to its title not Ballyhagan. Ballyahagan is a townland in north Belfast (not Kildare) on the slopes of Cavehill, very near the area where he lived.

  4. Ah, I'm very grateful for that information. I can often only go for the information I find and, as I said, I was making an assumption. So, many thanks. It is interesting find he worked in an area he knew so well.

  5. Many of his best painitngs are in private hands and unknown to art lovers as never been catalogued or exhibited.

  6. I suppose one reason for his neglect is that he returned to Belfast and was away from the London art world. But, really, his work was very hard to come by online and I only have a rather weak idea of what he did.