John Luke returned to his native Belfast from the Slade School and Westminster School of Art in 1931. Luke's contemplative and analytical approach to painting worked against immediate success, although he began to exhibit at the Magee Gallery, Belfast and at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin. Luke clearly remained in touch with national developments, although his provincial roots gave his work a particular inflection. He was, nevertheless, keen to affliate himself with his English counterparts, stating at the formation of the 'Ulster Unit', an informal society of artists working in Northern Ireland but influenced by the Unit One group, that his aim was to 'arrange and represent in a personalised orderly manner, the spiritual relations of forms and masses as perceived in nature and imagination' (see J. Hewitt, loc. cit., p.26).
The works shown at an exhibition of the 'Ulster Unit' in Locksley Hall, Belfast, included a linocut of Shaw's Bridge (see lot 219). The medium with its simple marquetry of shapes, appealed greatly to his sense of abstraction. Luke's fellow exhibitors in the 'Ulster Unit', Romeo Toogood, and George MacCann shared his predilection for 'nature and imagination', and in Toogood's case, a number of canvases portraying the Lagan navigation system were produced in the mid-thirties. These compliment Luke's own series (see lot 216), which includes Barges on the Lagan, and two versions of The Lock at Edenberry (one sold in these Rooms, 9 May 1996, 1ot 139 (Ulster Museum, Belfast), a village a short distance from Shaw's Bridge. This ancient structure, a five-arched bridge, unusual in Northern Ireland, has a single track spanning the River Lagan, a few miles from Belfast. Luke's picture takes its viewpoint from the Minnowburn Beeches on the south side of the river, looking towards Barnett's Demesne. Although he simplified the bridge, removing its buttresses, and allowed his imagination to run on the undulating hills in the background, Luke's site remains easily recognisable. Before his removal to Armagh to escape the wartime bombing raids, he was to return to Shaw's Bridge to paint a more naturalistic and conventional version of the subject in 1939 (lot 218).
The Bridge marks the beginning of a period of experimentation in Luke's career. Having produced conventional oil paintings up to this point, he turned to distemper for Sunset on Lough Neagh, 1936. Consciously searching for bright luminous colour which would embody symbolic intentions, he moved to tempera, a medium which was mastered with meticulous care in The Bridge. It was this Renaissance technique with an overlay of oil glazes, which was to become his standard method in later years. Describing this process in an article for The Studio, John Hewitt (The Landscapes of John Luke, The Studio, 138, 1949, p.47) stated: 'Luke works from pencil sketches made in the open air; these are afterwards modified and abstracted under the compulsion of a strongly rhythmical intention. Although the finished panel shows ease and grace in its precision and delicacy ... the basic design is the result of much laborious concentration. This, and the care with which the materials for picture-making are prepared and handled inevitably make his work a slow process, so that Luke seldom produces more than two pictures each year, although employing himself regularly at his craft for long periods'.
The supreme distillation of experience found for the first time in The Bridge calls to mind the architectonic rigour of Paul Nash in works such as A Wood on the Downs, 1934, but Nash's colour remains on the whole naturalistic. Wider comparisons could be made with American 'New Deal' painting, especially that of Ruralists like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Yet, here again, the comparison collapses in relation to the strident colour employed by Luke. In a quite original manner, he employs the law of simultaneous contrast of colour, well-known to painters, to help him arrive at a pristine vision in which the view from Minnowburn Beeches is transformed into an ideal world.
The Bridge is therefore unique, not simply in terms of Irish art, the values of which it transcends, but also in terms of western modernism, wherein traditional methods and skills are deployed in extracting from nature a set of pure abstract relationships.
We are grateful to Hilary Pyle for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.