Ulster Museum Visit January 2017

I was visiting a friend in Belfast this weekend, and I was delighted we could fit in a visit to the Ulster Museum. Their art exhibitions are fantastic, and I haven’t been doing enough gallery-going lately.

Here are a few highlights from my visit.

Bare Life: Abstraction and Figuration in 20th Century British Art

This exhibition explored modernism, and the opposing modes of abstract and figurative art. There was a mixture of paintings, photographs and sculpture.

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The highlight of this exhibition for me was the Duncan Grant painting Interior at Charleston (1918) which shows Vanessa Bell and David Garrett at Charleston, the house the three of them lived in. Bell is shown painting a still life and while Garrett is translating Dostoevsky. It offers a glimpse into the world of the Bloomsbury group, an avant garde group of creatives that I have a great interest in.

This is an essay I wrote about the art of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.

The New Past: Irish Art from 1800 to 2016

I loved this exhibition. There was a wide selection of Irish painting on show, with works by such artists as Paul Henry, Sir John Lavery, Jack B Yeats, Margaret Clarke, Louis le Brocquy and Sarah Cecilia Harrison to name but a few. The exhibition is divided into sections – Invention, Theatre, Myth and After the Past.

Highlights of the exhibition for me included the wonderful Margaret Clarke self-portrait, Robin Redbreast. It was so different from other works by her I had seen (Stringbergian (1927), one of her better known paintings is also in the exhibition). This work was more realist in style. She has painted herself wearing a red waistcoat, part of the traditional dress of the Aran Islands.  Her expression is so compelling; she looks directly at the viewer and is quite vulnerable. I was captivated by this painting.

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One of Sir John Lavery’s many portraits of his glamorous wife Hazel, The Green Coat (1926) was another highlight of the exhibition for me. It is a large scale work, and Hazel’s height is accentuated. She looks off into the distance and has an almost mystical quality about her, like a fairy queen.

Rita Duffy’s Titanic (2002) was another work I hadn’t come across before. It’s a small mixed media work, echoing the texture of the metalwork of the ship. This aspect of the work recalls engineering and industry in Belfast and the presence of the storm and the iceberg point to the tragic outcome of the voyage.

Another modern work I enjoyed was Elizabeth Magill’s Chronicle of Orange (2007). Her landscapes have quite an eerie, almost mystical quality yet details like electricity lines firmly ground them in the contemporary. The influence of Romantic painting is there, as is the influence of photography. Her use of colour is stunning, and I always enjoy her work.

If I had to pick an overall highlight, it would be Alicia Boyle’s Potato Washers (1949). It was a delight to see this as I had researched her sketchbooks as an intern in the National Gallery of Ireland a couple of years ago. Having seen some of the sketches for this work it was a real joy to see the actual painting, especially unexpectedly! I loved the vibrant use of colour and expressive brushwork.

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There are many more wonderful artworks in both exhibitions, I would highly recommend a visit if you’re in Belfast. The Elements exhibition was also very interesting, particularly the part about poisons! Several great murder mystery ideas there…

The Private World of Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) at the Ulster Museum, Belfast

This exhibition, bringing together both landscapes and family portraits, offers a fascinating insight into the private life of this prolific painter. As both a society painter and a war artist, Sir John Lavery tended to paint elaborate and grand works. The paintings on display in the Ulster Museum are more muted, showing a quieter side to his art. The works were all part of Lavery’s private collection, and he donated them to the museum. Lavery donated 34 paintings in total to the museum, a selection of these works appear in this museum. My favourites are discussed below. I would highly recommend visiting the Ulster Museum to see this exhibition (and others!) in person.

2015-08-06 12.41.23Eileen in Primrose Yellow (1926)

Eileen was Lavery’s daughter from his first marriage, and she appeared in a number of his paintings. In this painting, Eileen is elegantly posed but there is a sense of warmth and intimacy that differentiates this portrait from society paintings. In another work in the exhibition dating from 1901 we see a young Eileen making her First Holy Communion.

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Alice (1919)

Alice was the daughter of Lavery’s second wife, Hazel. This painting is unusual among Lavery’s oeuvre not only for its small scale, but also as it is painted on board. In this painting, there is a sense of calm and repose as Alice is immersed in her reading, seemingly unaware of the viewer. The quiet mood of this work contrasts completely with The Artist’s Studio (1909-13, National Gallery of Ireland) a large scale, ostentatious family portrait painted by Lavery that has echoes of Las Meninas by Velasquez. As one of the gallery attendants pointed out to my friend and I, Alice is set in Lavery’s studio as can be seen when the work is compared to Daylight Raid from my Studio Window 7 July 1917 (discussed below).

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The Green Coat (1926)

Lady Hazel Lavery was the artist’s second wife, and frequently modelled for his paintings. Lavery was enthralled by his wife’s beauty, painting her time and time again. She even appeared on Irish pound notes in the guise of Éire, the female personification of Ireland. Lavery depicts his wife as graceful and elegant. He often accentuated her height in his paintings, as he has done here by painting a mantlepiece behind her. She is an almost ethereal figure, like a fairy queen in her green  coat. The green could be read as patriotic, and it is possible to see this as another depiction of Hazel as Éire. The way she looks off into the distance lends an air of mystery to the work. The mirror behind her shows her opulent costume to its full effect, and Hazel’s bare shoulders and neck give her a seductive appearance. She often appears wearing exotic outfits in these works – such as in the aforementioned The Artist’s Studio, in which she wears a tall feather headdress.

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Daylight Raid from my Studio Window 7 July 1917

This work can be seen as an intersection between Lavery’s private life and his work as a war artist. The painting is set in his studio, in which we can see canvases and paint brushes. The blackout blinds on the window allude to the ongoing conflict. Hazel Lavery can be seen at the sofa, looking out the window. The window and the scene of the air raid are enormous, dwarfing all other elements of the composition. This is a very deliberate decision which shows the overwhelming impact of war and how it makes everyday life seem small and insignificant. The work is rapidly painted, capturing the planes in the sky.

The Private World of Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) is an engaging and enjoyable exhibition that offers a glimpse into the artist’s life. The small number of works on display makes it possible to study each, and makes the exhibition accessible. The attendant working in the gallery when I visited was very friendly and helpful, and I really appreciated all the extra information he gave myself and my friend.