The role of gallery owner isn’t just about business and mark-ups. In many ways, it can be as creative a job as that of the artists he or she selects to hang on their walls. Think of the Saatchi Gallery in London; it’s an exercise in promoting Charles Saatchi’s taste and influencing ours as he was the man who first exhibited members of the stellar Young British Artists group in the early ‘90s, including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
In Northern Ireland, certain galleries have promoted particular painters, from the Eakin Gallery which majors in probably Northern Ireland’s most commercial artist Terry Bradley, to the Tom Caldwell Gallery with its exhibitions of artists such as modernist Neil Shawcross.
Now there is a new gallery in town, the Hallows Gallery in south Belfast, and the owners have started by showing a collection that explores notions of Irish identity via some unashamedly traditional art.
The spacious, airy art gallery is set in a substantial Victorian property at 222 Ormeau Road, and is the brainchild of Meabh Nichol, her father Denis Nichol and her partner Dylan Wyn Banks. It is a family enterprise.
Talking to Mr Nichol, who was the Lyric Theatre’s accountant, it’s clear Meabh’s passion for art comes from the daddy. He recalls growing up in an artistic household where, although the family business was bacon curing, the Nichols placed great emphasis on the visual and creative arts. His uncle, for example, was the late artist Sean Nichol (1920-2005) and he is well represented in the Hallows Gallery. His landscapes and conversation pieces showing men in conversation on Market Day capture a real sense of place.
Self portrait by Sean Nichol
According to Meabh, the gallery was launched last autumn partly as a tribute to Sean, whose humorous self-portrait hangs in the first room. 'He was the inspiration but we didn’t want to flood the market and have included other important figures of the nineteenth and twentieth century,' she says.
The Nichol family socialised with some of these artists. 'My father was an entertainer of artists and knew people like Daniel O’Neill, known as Dan, as part of his set,' says Denis'. 'They used to drink in the Elbow Room and at one point, they noticed Dan, who was very good company, was missing. My father bumped into him, asked why and Dan said he was embarrassed because he owed my father £20. My father said it didn’t matter but he would take a few canvases in return if he insisted.' Those four rolled up canvases remained in the Nichols’ kitchen for a while but are now part of Denis’s private collection.
Although the ground floor of the Hallows Gallery majors in Irish representational work by people like Charles McAuley and Frank Egginton, there are also some stunning primitive canvases by J.P. Rooney. He has brought an almost South American palette to his version of white thatched cottages with his use of strong reds, ochre and black, as if underlining the peasant culture. This artist, originally working under his real name, Martin Hasson, reinvented himself with striking canvases such as 'Connemara Women'. Strong, determined, these archetypal figures dominate a hard landscape.
'Connemara Women' by J.P. Rooney
Different in style, the landscapes by McAuley, Nichol and Egginton portray a softer Ireland. Meabh says they named the gallery Hallows to suggest something spiritual and hallowed. In one corner, she indicates her great-uncle’s watercolour painting, 'Restoration', as an example of what she means. 'It’s ethereal and shows the interior of a church.' Next to it is Sean Nichol’s 'Figure in Ruins', again portraying an ancient place of worship.
You might at first glance consider some of the work nostalgic. Yet as Denis points out, these paintings are not nostalgic but historical pieces, recording a particular time. In oil paint and water colour, they evoke sea and country scenes while paying homage to a way of life that has disappeared. Donal McNaughton’s 'Thatching the Roof' is a good example. The subject matter and technique raise the thorny question of whether this art is in any way 'chocolate box', presenting visual pleasure and sentiment that do not necessarily challenge the viewer.
In English art, that normally means school of John Constable, while here it would be school of Paul Henry, whose incredible depictions of the Donegal sea shore and fishermen make you experience that part of the world differently.
Meabh rightly dispels the term. 'The lineage starts in the 1930s and 1940s with Nichol, McAuley and the mid-century artists. They are quite radical in their approach at times.' She goes on to point out that these artists experimented with subjects. 'People come into the gallery interested in paintings they like or that may remind them of their childhood. Yet this isn’t chocolate box art as it addresses the on-going question of Irish identity.'
That is why McAuley and artists such as Maurice C. Wilkes and Frank McKelvey, who are represented here, were bought for the collection of the Museum and Art Gallery Stranmillis, now the Ulster Museum.
There is a fascination in this work with the Irish landscape in all its moods. 'Sean’s work is also about land and that’s a theme in our national identity - you even get that with the Irish father in Gone with the Wind,' Meabh notes. 'I think this relationship with the land is inherent in painters like Gerard Maguire too. He is a little more abstract, more modern but his work is about colour and awareness of nature. Existing by those beautiful mountains, it’s in your soul.' Maguire’s 'Early Morning Shoreline', with its swirls of green impasto brushstrokes, makes the point.
'Early Morning Shoreline' by Gerard Maguire
Denis describes Sean Nichol’s paintings as “'snapshots of something innate in Irish people, that sense of place and landscape that you get in Cathal O Searcaigh’s Irish language poems'. 'The Kelp Gatherers', for example, provides a genuine sense of labour and communal effort, albeit using a romantic palette and style which recalls Millais.
'I prefer his paintings featuring people and Sean has captured the light falling on the workers' Meabh adds. 'We’re storytellers in Ireland, whether oral or visual artists. This seaweed they gathered was used as an antiseptic and as a dye. Everybody joined in to make a bit of extra money and they’d then buy something extra special, maybe some new clothes. Hence the phrase they use in those communities, "You can see the kelp shining on you."'.
The next phase of the Hallows Gallery will involve totally contemporary art. Dylan Wyn Banks, who runs the framing side of things, is excited about showing young Northern Irish artist Paul Doran. 'I’m framing a nine by eight foot canvas by him which is going to hang in one of his friend’s restaurants in town,' he says.
Dylan has continued the painting’s vital colour and shapes onto the frame so that the canvas seems to extend beyond its physical limits. Meabh points to Doran’s use of black lines on the massive work that look a bit like graffiti over the Kandinsky-style shapes. 'It’s a bit like Basquiat,' she says. 'In terms of identity, Doran’s work is more urban and places us in a different world.' The Hallows Gallery will be showing some of Doran’s smaller canvases in the spring.
Another artist they are working with is the acclaimed Irish painter Alan Graham, whose bold, broad brush stroke take on real and imaginary landscapes will energise the rooms.
You sense the enthusiasm of these new gallery owners. Meabh (32) and Dylan (36) met in London and had careers in food and communications before making the break. Their excitement about the Hallows Gallery is infectious. 'We have big names, not necessarily at Lisburn Road prices, and if somebody comes in wanting art because of their colour scheme, we don’t judge. But we hope to introduce them to art they don’t yet know.'
Hallows Gallery is open from 10.00am - 5.00pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and from 11.00am - 7.00pm on Thursdays. To find out more go to www.thehallowsgallery.com.
This article was commissioned ahead of Creativity Month, a celebration of creativity and the creative industries in Northern Ireland which takes place in March. See what events are coming up at www.creativityni.org/events.