Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Neither Irish nor British: The Identities of Sculpture in Northern Ireland, 1921-1951

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Neither Irish nor British: The Identities of Sculpture in Northern Ireland, 1921-1951

Article excerpt

Sculptural production in Northern Ireland during the period from 1921 to 1951 has been overlooked in many subsequent accounts. The period in question saw a number of complex circumstances, social, cultural and political, and it is the aim of this article to examine their impact on sculpture in the region. Northern Ireland's position since 1921, as geographically connected to Ireland yet politically located within Britain, triggered a unique and complex relationship between the three states. As a result of partition, six of the nine counties of Ulster became divorced from their neighbours, and were recast as Northern Ireland, part of Great Britain. While the south of Ireland continued building an Irish cultural and national identity separate from Britain with renewed vigour, issues of nationality were less clear-cut in the north. Officially Northern Ireland and its citizens were British, but they were distanced from the mainland and struggled to identify with either a 'British' Britain or an 'Irish' Ireland, remaining somewhere between the two. Additionally the period under review saw the increasing identification of art institutions with Britain. The Royal Ulster Academy of Arts was granted its 'Royal' prefix in 1950, in preparation for the Festival of Britain celebrations in 1951, while the Belfast School of Art, an exponent of the Celtic Revival in Ulster at the turn of the century, had to tread carefully, as certain works and styles were now considered 'too Irish' for official, British, institutions.

This article draws upon a number of case studies to illustrate the complications of Northern Ireland's identity and political relationships from 1921 to 1951, as revealed through the production and exhibition of sculpture during the period. The thirty years in question saw several important commissioned sculptures for the public sphere, such as the sculptural decoration for the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery and Belfast Cathedral, work for Northern Ireland's pavilions at the Empire Exhibitions of 1924-25 and 1938 respectively, numerous war memorials throughout the province, and the statue of Lord Carson at Stormont, in addition to key works created for the Festival of Britain in Northern Ireland in 1951. An analysis of a selection of these state commissions reveals the tension concerning national representation through sculpture in the province, particularly regarding the conflict between reinforcing 'Britishness' by importing works from England, and the employment of local sculptors as a way of encouraging a regional or Ulster art.

Although state institutions such as the Belfast School of Art and Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery were announced as firmly British, artists working during this time, despite their personal religious or political affiliation, appeared more flexible in considerations of their own nationality. The seeming contradictions and restrictions of nationality will be explored through the mapping of exhibitions featuring regional sculptors in order to illuminate the extent to which 'official' state-endorsed concepts of nationality dictated or shaped artists' activity and sculptural output. Finally, the development, or the lack, of a type of regionalism or set of characteristics unique among sculptural production in Northern Ireland, as exemplified through the work of the Ulster Unit, will be examined.

During the 1920s, following the Government of Ireland Act and the establishment of a Unionist government in Northern Ireland, the state was anxious to emphasize its 'Britishness' and to portray itself as separate from Ireland and 'Irishness'. 'Britishness', according to the Unionist state, was the opposite, as far as possible, of 'Irishness'. It is probable that the Unionist government looked to England, rather than Scotland or Wales, as a 'safe' model for the construction of an identity for Northern Ireland, as the regions of Scotland and Wales had nationalist movements and a Celtic heritage that may have been judged to be too similar to the Irish Free State's nationalism. …

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