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Why is a mural by a famous Northern Ireland artist allowed to gather dust in an Ulster Museum?

William Conor’s Ulster Past and Present hasn’t been seen in public for seven years, writes Nelson McCausland

Published 22/09/2016

Iconic piece: William Conor’s painting entitled Ulster Past and Present
Iconic piece: William Conor’s painting entitled Ulster Past and Present

In 1931, Sir Robert Baird, owner of the Belfast Telegraph, commissioned the Belfast-born artist William Conor to paint a mural entitled Ulster Past and Present.

It was a large painting that measured 24ft in width by 9ft in height and it depicted a scene from ancient Ulster, with a line of warriors marching towards a dolmen and then, beyond that, a scene of Belfast shipyardmen and shawlies walking home from the shipyard and the factories.

Sir Robert then presented the painting to the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery, which had opened at Stranmillis in 1929.

It was exhibited in the museum for many decades and was readily accessible to visitors as a visual representation of our ancient past and what was then our industrial present.

It was simple, accessible and beautiful — and it was enjoyed by generations of visitors to the museum.

However, the Ulster Museum closed from 2006 to 2009 for redevelopment and, when it reopened in October 2009, the Conor mural had been removed from display. Today, it is wrapped up and in storage somewhere.

Until its removal, I had enjoyed seeing the painting when I visited the museum, partly because of the skill of the artist and partly because of the subject.

But it was only recently that I discovered it had been commissioned and donated to the museum by a Belfast businessman.

I am sure that Sir Robert did not commission and donate the painting in order for it to be locked away in a store room, but presumably that is where it is.

Baird was a philanthropist as well as a businessman and philanthropic giving to the arts is something we want to encourage, so what sort of message does it send out to potential philanthropists when this is how their philanthropy may well be treated?

We also want to improve access to the arts among ordinary folk and particularly “hard-to-reach” communities.

Well, then, don’t remove the things that are most popular and works by Ulster artists such as Conor and John Luke are very popular.

The Ulster Museum knows that and its shop stocks prints of some of their paintings.

It even stocks postcards, bookmarks and fridge magnets with John Luke paintings on them and that is fine.

But I don’t go to an art gallery to view fridge magnets — I go there to see paintings and sculptures.

In her book on Art in Belfast, Eileen Black observes that: “Work by almost all of (these artists) are to be found in the premier public art collection in Northern Ireland, that in the Ulster Museum.”

Well, they may be in the collection and they are, but they are not very public when a visitor to the gallery doesn’t see any of them.

I visit the Ulster Museum regularly and I called in the other day to see a number of exhibits, but there was no sign of the impressive mural that Sir Robert Baird had donated to the museum. It must still be in storage.

Indeed, there seemed to be nothing by William Conor on display at the national museum in his home city. I left disappointed.

However, as I was walked down the main stairs and made my way to the entrance, I was confronted by a large, white wall that had nothing on it.

It would be ideal to accommodate the Conor mural, but the designers of the displays preferred to leave it blank and I just cannot understand it.

What better location could there be  for a large mural entitled Ulster Past and Present?

Oh, and what was the ideology, or philosophy, that led to it being removed in the first place?

I have referred to the Conor mural, but whatever happened to the Ulster Portrait Collection that was once a feature of the gallery?

Many of the paintings in that were collection were also donated to the old Belfast Museum and Art Gallery.

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