Sunday, April 01, 2007

John Luke Mural Falls into Private Hands

In July 2000, the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (BIFHE) signed a contract with Northwin Limited, to enable Northwin to provide a replacement college building on the old Millfield campus site.

The project would cost around £20m.

The Northwin Consortium is the leading educational Private Finance Initiative provider in Northern Ireland and comprises some of Northern Ireland's leading construction companies, including Farrans Limited, Braidwater Enterprises Limited and John Graham (Dromore) Limited.

After the old college buildings were demolished, all that stood on the site was a single section of wall, 9 x 6 meters, heavily wrapped in protective coverings. It eventually disappeared and work began on building the replacement college.

The new campus became operational in September 2002, with Graham Facilities Management providing the on-site catering, cleaning, porterage, security and the day nursery in addition to building and engineering maintenance over the next 25 years.

I often wondered what became of that last remaining section of wall at the old college site. Painted on it was a mural depicting Belfast’s industrial past, by celebrated local artist, John Luke (1906 – 1975). Luke began work on the mural in 1961 and worked on it intermittently for ten years, but never finished it.

Although known as a traditional easel-painter, Luke turned to mural painting in 1950 when he was commissioned to paint a mural in Belfast City Hall to mark the 1951 Festival of Britain. Another mural by Luke can be found in Rosemary Street Masonic Hall.

Under a Freedom of Information request, I contacted BIFHE to inquire after the mural and discovered that the Institute made an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £44,500 funding to remove the mural from the old Millfield site and donate it to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. However, according to BIFHE, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum was unable to give any guarantees about when the mural might be placed on public display (a condition for funding imposed by the Heritage Lottery Fund) and the funding was withdrawn in February 2007.

Meanwhile, John Eastwood and Sons Ltd stepped into the picture and claimed the mural under a salvage clause in a demolition contract they had with Northwin. BIFHE initially defended Eastwood’s legal challenge. However, following protracted negotiations and legal advice the institute reluctantly conceded ownership.

The mural, once a public asset and part of Belfast's artistic heritage, is thought to be worth around £250,000 in the right location. I've no information on who was responsible for allowing the mural to fall into private hands, or if anyone at BIFHE was disciplined over the matter.

BIFHE is currently in discussions with Northwin on a project involving the replacement of existing accommodation at campuses in Brunswick Street and College Square East. The capital value is approximately £42 million.

Image: The Old Callan Bridge, Armagh 1945 by John Luke


Anonymous said...

why has no one made a comment on this matter. surely there must be someone, somewhere who has a genuine desire to see this major work replaced in the public eye.

BD said...

I happened upon this story by accident when searching for information on where to buy prints of John Luke's work. Astounded is all i can say, why has this issue not been brought to the wider attention of the wider community, or have i just had my head in the sand. Given the international attention that the wall murals of Belfast have been given, how can we let this issue pass by without a very noisy fight. Maybe Eastwoods are doing the right thing, recognising the inept way that BIFE had dealt with the issue and maybe they intend to preserve and give back to the community in an appropriate and respectful way. On the other hand if they are greedily storing this mural away in the hope of making some financial or other personal gain? If the latter is the case then feed them to the media lions and let them suffer in the arena of public outrage!

Anonymous said...

I wrote about this mural as part of my MPhil thesis and went to see the mural were it was being stored whilst the debacle raged on between the Eastwoods and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The Eastwoods were shocked to hear from me that it was stored outdoors in a freight yard near Harlen and Wolfe and beginning to get exposed to the elements as the coverings were working loose. You might be interested to know that the mural features a ship that Mr Eastwoods father had worked on in the shipyards so there was a personal reason to try and save the mural. It was otherwise going to be destroyed in the demolition as there was no more public money to save it. After the long protracted legal case the Eastwoods may not be able to afford to keep the mural and goodness knows where it might end up.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying that anonymous have you any update on the mural that you are able to share?

We're not too good at preserving our history here unfortunately, e.g the whole Titanic thing. Apparently there are many many Titanic exhibitions around the world and what have we done with the best exhibition of all so far - nothing. Oh sorry, forgot about those paving stones in the outline of a ships hull that was promised in the Titanic Quarter. My wife took a visitor on one of the red tour buses last year and the guide on the day didn't even refer to the drawing office as the bus passed by it.

The Great Wee Azoo said...

I also went on a red tour bus around Belfast and the rather ill-informed guide didn't even mention friar's bush Cemetery as we went past that important landmark.

Anonymous said...

I studied at Millfield in the late 80's and remember this mural and was wondering what happened to it, which is how I came across this post. It would be a great loss to see it disapear as it was a wonderfull peice of art in an otherwise very ordinary building. Are there any images available of the mural?

scott davidson said...

Some pretty designs alright. Doing the painting yourselves is more fun but a good place for ideas for more design is this site of, that I use to help with my wall decorations.
You can browse for a painting like this The tree, by 20th century Czech artist, Frantisek Kupka, for example, , that can be ordered on line and delivered to you.