Our engineering was good enough to be called art
Belfast should have a Museum of Industrial Art to record its aesthetic and its economic legacy, argues John Wilson Foster
Published 24/03/2012 | 08:00
This is a familiar photograph, taken by R J Welch, of workers streaming out from Harland -amp; Wolff shipyard at the end of the day's shift. Hundreds of men fan out past packed trams setting out for north and west Belfast.
The walkers stride towards (and under) the camera on their way to east Belfast. You can sense the rough energy even after a hard day's work.
The offices in the middle-ground are nondescript and anonymous. In the dusky background we can just make out the adolescent Titanic in her gantry.
The scene could not be farther from the scenes that came to symbolise Irish culture in the 20th century - rural and romantic.
Yet the duncher-clad workers in the foreground came to represent the only alternative to the poetry of the Irish countryside.
Writers have tried to wring literature out of urban working-class life, using sectarianism, labour agitation and domestic troubles as their chief engines.
Indeed, working-class life and values have come to dominate our cultural life in Belfast.
With the rare exception of St John Ervine, writings about the shipyard have ignored life inside those offices in the middle-ground of Welch's photograph and in the boardrooms in which Titanic and other marvels of technology were conceived.
This has carried over to our human interest in Titanic: we are preoccupied with the 'reality' of steerage passengers and the 'falsity' of idlers in the first-class cabins and ignore second-class, to whose stories we are indifferent.
Certainly those workers fanning out in an orderly fashion as befits a workforce could become an unruly crowd and then a mob, as they sometimes did in the riots in the shipyard.
But we and the artists have preferred to see Belfast working-class and factory life as undifferentiated even as a workforce, the urban equivalent of a rural peasantry.
But Welch's photograph of the shipyard workers belies the impressive diversity of expertise hidden by the uniformity of cloth caps and durable three-piece work-suits.
Those are caulkers, riveters, platers and drillers walking towards us. But they are also those who have just spent their day where specialty work was done - the pattern shop, the turning shop, the coppersmiths' shop, the joiners' shop, the brass foundry, the moulding-loft, the boiler shop, the machine shop, the timber store, and so on.
Out of sight in Welch's photograph are the countless machines that whirred all day long in Harland -amp; Wolff and Workman Clark's. Harland -amp; Wolff even made machines that made machines. And when they needed others, they bought them from the manufacturers of England and Scotland - from Rhodes, Shanks, Bennie, Bateman, Buckton, Hulse and Arrol among others. There was a huge industrial complex of which Harland -amp; Wolff, itself a complex, was a giant component.
Now that the whole enterprise has wound up, to get an idea of the scale and intricacy of operation, one needs to read the long, detailed and wonderfully written articles of the day in such journals as Engineering, International Mercantile Marine, The Engineer and The Shipbuilder. We in Belfast, indeed in Ireland, have never properly appreciated our heritage in industry and industrial art.
Yes, art. Welch, who was Harland -amp; Wolff's official photographer, took some extraordinary photographs of turbines, rudders, shafts, propellers and other machines and ship parts.
What strikes you is the beauty of these, particularly the engines. Only a few artists and philosophers abroad, from John Ruskin to Ezra Pound, appreciated at the time what one historian, writing about American industry and design, has called 'the machine aesthetic'.
It is partly because of this that I have called more than once for a dedicated Museum of Industrial Art and Archaeology in Belfast.
Such a venue would celebrate the hardware of manufacture, the achievements in design and the aesthetics of the manufactured product. It would commemorate what was, for the most of a century, the genius of the Irish north. The sheer beauty of Edward Harland's "ocean greyhounds" alone are worth hymns of praise.
And to celebrate our achievements in industrial design would be to raise Harland, W J Pirrie, Alexander Carlisle and Thomas Andrews to the level of local cultural heroes, which they deserve to occupy.
Francis Sheehy Skeffington, in Dublin, attacked Andrews as embodying materialist and dehumanised Belfast. Certainly there were poverty and misery in parts of Belfast, but he was nevertheless betraying a narrow idea of what constitutes culture and beauty. But then Skeffington wasn't seeing past those workers in Welch's photograph and we haven't been much more perceptive.
Aesthetic matters aside, the sheer scale of endeavour deserves commemoration since we in Belfast have often been accused, rightly, of provincialism and narrow-mindedness.
The most famous journalist of the time, W T Stead, said that Pirrie had built "the greatest business that has existed in the world since men first began to go down to the sea in ships".
That business stretched into the distance beyond the growing Titanic in Welch's photograph. Nevertheless, the knocking-off workers had just helped play their indispensable part.