John Hewitt: Creating a Canon of Ulster Art

Article excerpt

In 1943 Northern Ireland was at war. For four years the population had weathered the hardships of rationing and evacuation. Yet war also brought a degree of prosperity to the Province's industrial economy and with the involvement in a global conflict and influx of foreign servicemen, came a glimpse of the world beyond Ulster's shores.1 By the end of 1943, the air-raids had ceased and a new spirit of optimism was palpable. This spirit was particularly prevalent in the arts where there was a growing pride in local culture. Reflecting on the period the poet, critic and curator, John Hewitt (1907 - 87) concluded 'never before in my lifetime had the Arts seemed so lively and exciting. The war was far away and, since travel was severely restricted, we were left to cultivate our own gardens'.2 This essay explores the Hewitt's role in attempting to articulate a distinctive artistic and cultural identity for Ulster from the middle of the twentieth century. Focusing on Hewitt's interpretation of the visual arts, it examines the ways in which he acted as a curator and advocate for particular artists who he felt embodied his sense of a regional style of art for Ulster.

During the period of the war, artists and writers in Belfast were gathering to promote their own work and the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), the first public body dedicated to the arts on the island of Ireland, was established.3 Central to CEMA's visual arts committee and taking an active role in many of the artist led initiatives, Hewitt became the spokesman for a generation of progressive artists whom he believed could create a distinctive modem art for Ulster. Over the next two decades, Hewitt's critical and curatorial efforts both introduced public across the north of Ireland to modem art and promoted the idea of a distinct Ulster regional culture. This culture, he believed, could unite the divided communities of Northern Ireland through what he understood as a collective sense of identity, rooted in the landscape and nourished by a distinctive Ulster identity.

Suggesting that Hewitt's championing of regionalism shaped his approach to art, this paper argues that his celebration of the Ulster artist, Colin Middleton, was informed by the belief that Middleton's combination of local and international references could provide a blueprint for regional modernism. Hewitt's support for Middleton is particularly illuminating in this regard when contrasted with his treatment of other contemporary figures, such as Daniel O'Neill, Gerard Dillon and others.

The idea of the 'invented tradition', as explored by Eric Hobsbawm, provides a useful frame of reference for Hewitt's focus on regionalism within his art criticism. In Hobsbawm's interpretation, the nation, and its associated phenomena: nationalism, the nation state, national symbols and histories are all based on 'exercises in social engineering which are often deliberate and always innovative'.4 Hewitt's attempt to construct a canon of Ulster art can be considered within these terms, and interpreted as an effort to invent traditions that could provide legitimacy for his political and cultural claims.

Some of Hewitt's first comments on Ulster regionalism were expressed in the essay, 'Under Forty: Some Ulster Artists' published in Now in Ulster, 1944. This anthology of articles, short stories, poetry, paintings and photographs, compiled by the artist brothers George and Arthur Campbell, provided an impressive picture of the arts in the Province. In 1943, the Campbells had published the booklet Ulster in Black and White, which included their work along with Maurice Wilks and Patricia Webb and intended to provide 'a means for four Ulster artists of widely varying styles to express themselves'.5 Now in Ulster was a more ambitious project which reproduced the Campbells' work alongside paintings by five other Ulster artists: Gerard Dillon, Colin Middleton, John Luke, and John Turner. …