Luke had, in fact, ceased painting at the outbreak of the war and his self-imposed exile from his native city. This painting was to be a major turning point for the artist. It remains one of the most exquisitely beautiful paintings of his entire oeuvre – remarkably small like a miniature yet imbued with a radiant and delicate luminosity and wrought by a profound, almost religious, workmanship that would become his leitmotif. Named in tribute to the ‘peace’ he found in Knappagh, Killylea in Co. Armagh, the painting depicts a pastoral scene, an Arcadian vision of the local landscape populated by rolling hills, glassy lakes and harmoniously populated by vernacular buildings, figures and a whippet that look like emblems drawn from medieval heraldry or a Renaissance altarpiece. Completed in the summer of 1943 Pax broke a dark four-year cycle in which Luke was almost overwhelmed by depression. Since his arrival in Armagh he had been preoccupied with a teaching job he had taken in a local school out of financial necessity and somewhat unexpectedly he began to give what was left of his time to gardening. Being an evangelical vegetarian it was here that he was able for the first time to grow his own food. Impassioned commitment to a small kitchen garden perhaps helps explain, in part, his turn to the landscape after the experiments, in painting and printmaking, with portraits, still life and urban imagery, as well as with sculpture and mural decoration, in the 1930s.
Pax was immediately bought by his friend Major Paul Terris on whose farm Luke and his mother would live for the duration of the war. Invitations to send the painting to London or Dublin were declined and Luke remained even unsure whether to let the painting go to the Ulster Academy exhibition in the autumn of 1944. Sensing his difficulty, Major Terris encouraged Luke to show the painting first at the Arts and Crafts sections of the Belfast and Armagh feiseanna (festivals) that summer, where it received rapturous praise. Before committing the painting to the Ulster Academy show, in the late summer of 1944 Luke invited his friend, the poet, museum curator and art critic, John Hewitt and his wife, the potter Ruby Black, to come stay with him at Knappagh. Luke wanted Hewitt’s opinion of Pax. The trip, that August, made a strong impact on Hewitt who penned a long poem about it, (‘Freehold’), in which he paid tribute to his friend, ‘the tall dark painter who / no careless line or lazy contour drew’, clearly seeing the link between Luke’s identity as an artist and his new life in ‘organic horticulture’. Hewitt saw in Pax a new beginning for Luke joyously reflected in ‘the buoyancy of his spirits’. Indeed, Luke wrote to Hewitt in December 1943 describing Pax as ‘bright and luminous, yet rich and colourful. Very precise yet soft. Firm but yet gentle. Smooth yet lively. Broad yet detailed’ stopping short of calling it ‘material yet spiritual’. Amusingly, he continued – it is, ‘Gloriously, Brilliant Technicolor. It’s Stupendous. It’s COLOSSAL! but it is only 15 x 11”. At the end of their visit the Hewitts commissioned a landscape painting from Luke to mark their tenth wedding anniversary. This painting, known as Road to the West (coll. Ulster Museum), continued Luke’s exploration of a visionary yet modern-day ‘et in arcadia ego’ that was first conceived in Pax.
Dr. Joseph McBrinn
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