Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

John Luke

Belfast City Hall Mural, 1951, John Luke
Many decades ago when I was a freshman in college, I and a few other "foundation" students were invited to decorate the office of one of the fine arts faculty members at Ohio University (Athens, Ohio). One feature of this concrete block-walled, cubbyhole, basement office was a giant bulletin board some six to eight feet tall and about four feet wide. I got approval to paint a giant Nasturtium on it. I don't think I ever got thanked, but the instructor referred to me as a good art technician. I took it as a compliment at the time (he did use the word "good" after all). In retrospect, I'm not sure he meant it that way. The image, was, in fact, copied from a two-dimensional source and thus, not very creative. It may have been his way of saying that, while the work was technically proficient, I was, in fact not an artist. College art instructors are often more interested in being honest than being kind. As a result, I've always tried to be more tactful. However, this little anecdote begs the question, at what point does technical prowess preempt creativity causing the painter to ceased being an artist at all, and merely a technician? One of the best artist to study in exploring this question, is the Irish painter, John Luke.
The Old Callan Bridge, Armagh, 1945, John Luke
Before going further, I should note there are at least three other painters bearing the name "John Luke." One is Timothy John Luke Smith, an American contemporary artist who paints giant one-dollar bills with girls posing in place of G.W. I'm not referring to him. Another is John Luke Eastman, who paints psychedelic images--not him either. A third is the 17th-century English portrait artist, John Luke of Claythorn. And worst of all, for anyone pursuing the Irish John Luke on the Internet, there's also John Luke Robertson, the teenage heartthrob son of Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame. So far as I know, he doesn't paint, but Google seems to see him as by far the most popular of the lot.

The Dancers, 1945, John Luke.
The Irish John Luke was born in 1906, the fifth son in a family of eight (he had one sister). The Belfast-born John Luke apparently excelled at drawing from an early age, though initially he worked in the textile mills and shipyards that make this working-class city what it is today and has long been. During the evening he took art classes at the Belfast College of Art. There he won a scholarship in 1927, allowing him to move on to the more prestigious Slade School of Art in London where he studied painting and sculpture, but apparently excelled most at draughtsmanship. After Slade, Luke stayed in London during the early 1930s trying to establish himself as an artist. He continued his studies part-time at Westminster School of Art, studying wood engraving. Stylistically, if I were to describe his work, I'd say it resembles a British version of Grant Wood, but without the subtle sense of humor or the eye for deeper regional content. And even though Luke obtained some galley exposure, the 1930s was a rough period for all artists economically and a horrible time for a painter just starting out, trying to succeed in the depressed, London art market. By 1933, John Luke was back in Belfast. 

The Rehearsal, 1950, John Luke--static, staged, and pretty decoratively pretty.
John Luke Self-portrait,
In truth, John Luke was more of a teacher than a painter. He eked out a meager existence teaching at his old alma-mater, Belfast College of Art during the thirties. Then, during the war, (likely to escape the blitz) he retreated to the tiny village of Killylea in Northern Ireland. There, he fit right in. Ruggedly handsome, John Luke (right) looked nothing like the typical artist stereotype of the day. His clothes were always neat, clean, his hair cut short, brushed, and his demeanor that of a quiet, thinking man. But the most telling aspect of his work as an artist was his slow, thorough, methodical, highly detailed, manner of painting. I've always referred to artists like this as giving perfection a bad name. Moreover, as any artist will tell you, the more time you take, the less money you make. Of course, that's not a hard and fast rule for successful artists, but for one such as Luke, barely keeping body and soul together, it's damned near suicidal.
Connswater Bridge, John Luke--more sculptural than scenic.
It wasn't until after the war that Luke began to gain a certain degree of recognition and local mural commissions, decorating civic buildings in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. His 1951 murals in the Belfast City Hall (top) brought him further acclaim. In the early 1960s, he became a member of the Ulster Royal Academy. John Luke died in 1975, and if his reputation as an artist was on the upswing before his death, it really took off in the years afterwards. Yet his work is not without detractors, who see it as technically adept, but largely empty of meaning, his content often dull, predicable, and boring (above). All those words are associated with mediocre art at best, non-art at worst. In my view, although he has his moments (below), and I'd be loathe to say his work was not art, I also have to sympathize with those critics who, in seeing his work, simply yawn and move on.

Judith and Holofernes, John Luke. Definitely not "yawn and move on" work,
but then again, this modern adaptation lacks the horror and pathos which
artists such as Caravaggio and Gentileschi have brought to the subject.


  1. Enjoyed the article, very much. It is great to hear about a name sake :)

  2. Enjoyed the article, very much. It is great to hear about a name sake :)

  3. Mr. Smith--
    It's not often I hear from someone I mention in one of my posts. It's a pleasure to know you've enjoyed what I wrote. Your work is quite fascinating and enjoyable. I seldom write about young artists. I consider them "works in progress." But maybe in a few years...
    --Jim Lane

    1. Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words! I am enjoying your blog very much and look forward to future entries.

    2. Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words! I am enjoying your blog very much and look forward to future entries.