John Luke painted Northern Rhythm whilst living at Knappagh farm in Killylea, Co. Armagh, in Northern Ireland. He had moved there from the small house he shared with his mother in Lewis Street, Belfast, following the devastating German air raids on the city in April and May 1941. It is one of twelve small jewel-like oil and tempera paintings Luke made at Knappagh between 1943 and 1948. Critics have agreed that this was the most productive and significant period of Luke’s entire career and his most cohesive body of work.
Since the early 1930s Luke had been working to free himself from what his friend and champion John Hewitt, the poet and museum curator, called the ‘narrative and anecdotal’. He had practically ceased painting in 1939 following a decade of experimentation in which his landscapes became stylized, frieze-like composites, his figures, always in modern dress, more modulated and his colour schemes developed an intense, almost Technicolor, prismatic brightness. The retreat to the countryside clearly helped consolidate many of his ideas. Although he was relatively isolated, and became increasingly ascetic, the dozen paintings of arresting beauty and originality, that Luke produced in Armagh, commence with the lyrical, miniature-like, Pax in 1943 and conclude just five years later with his Madonna and child. These indicate an increased confidence in decorative painting that would find full resolution in his monumental murals of the 1950s and after.
James White, the Dublin art critic, and later Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, who travelled to Armagh to see these paintings, claimed they had the ‘innocence of a visionary’ and directly compared the artist to the painters of the Italian renaissance. This was far from fanciful as Luke worked in the traditional tempera technique and later in fresco. He always painted on a white gesso ground on board, refused to use readymade paint from a tube, preferring to mix his own pigments with fresh egg yokes. His pictorial style itself was a synthesis of the Flemish Primitives, quattrocento Italian art, and Greek and Egyptian sculpture. He was also influenced by the work of contemporary English Neo-Romantic artists, and particularly the work of Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Edward Wadsworth, John Armstrong and Rex Whistler, as well as the Irish painters Paul Henry and Jack B. Yeats.
The Armagh paintings were exhibited together twice during Luke’s lifetime. Firstly, in September 1946 at the solo exhibition, organised by John Hewitt, for the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery (now the Ulster Museum), when seven of the group were on display. In November 1948 all but one were exhibited in a further solo exhibition, again organised by Hewitt, for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), forerunner to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Northern Rhythm was shown in both exhibitions. It was the only major painting not to have already been sold to a museum or private collector. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. It seems that Luke initially was reluctant to sell the painting. Having sold everything he produced in the 1940s he seems to have wanted to keep Northern Rhythm. However, on 30 January 1947 Luke wrote to Hewitt informing him of his decision to sell, perhaps out of financial necessity. Soon after he took the painting to Dublin for art dealer Victor Waddington to display in his gallery.
CEMA were, like the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, beginning to build up a collection of local art. As the museum already owned three Luke paintings, it occurred to Hewitt that CEMA might purchase Northern Rhythm. At the beginning of 1949 Hewitt proposed they buy the painting. CEMA’s ‘Art Committee’, however, rejected the proposal on the grounds that they felt it was not representative of the artist’s work. When Luke heard the news he wrote to Hewitt, on 24 January 1949, that ‘no painting has so much or so deeply expressed my own particular type or state of mind & spirit as Northern Rhythm’. The reason that CEMA rejected Hewitt’s proposal probably lies with the fact that they had already initiated talks with the artist about a possible mural commission. Luke kept Northern Rhythm until 1965 when he then sold it privately.
The painting, with its fantastical mountains, billowing clouds and mysterious female figure and hound, is the summation of many of the artist’s ideas especially his interest in rhythm, which he stated in an unpublished essay, had ‘an inexhaustible power to communicate a deeper and more lasting thought of the human mind’. Luke’s nephew later recalled the artist telling him ‘while he painted Northern Rhythm he had Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony in his head’, the pastoral beauty of which had been a source of inspiration for several twentieth-century figures as diverse as Theodor Adorno and Walt Disney.
We are grateful to Dr. Joseph McBrinn for kindly preparing this catalogue entry.
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