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The mystery of the wedding party captured on canvas by chance one spring day on Portstewart Strand

They’ve no idea their big day inspired Alan Duke’s work Celebration, but now the artist wants to find the newlyweds who strolled into view for a few brief moments last year.

Audrey Watson

When renowned Ulster artist and champion surfer, Alan Duke opened the first retrospective of his work in almost 30 years in The Arcadia, Portrush — Northern Ireland's original Ballroom of Romance — the popularity of one painting prompted a search for the couple who have unknowingly become stars of the show.

The exhibition, An Artist's Perspective, which runs until June 18, has already attracted more than 1,000 visitors to the regenerated landmark, many of whom have inquired about the identity of the young newly-weds who were caught on canvas while having their wedding photos taken.

Alan himself doesn't know who they are, but because the painting has raised so many queries and proved so popular, he is now trying to find the couple, and as a thank you and belated wedding present, give them a print of one of his paintings.

“I was taking photographs to use in composing a new piece of work on a spot overlooking Portstewart Strand,” says Alan (59).

“I had found the perfect angle for the scene and was waiting for some walkers to come along and provide the foreground when the wedding party just appeared.

“They didn't even notice I was there.

“I don't even know the exact date — only that it was late spring 2010, but it would be great if someone knew who they were and I got to meet them.”

Since he graduated from Belfast College of Art in 1974, Alan has become one of the province's most successful, yet publicity-shy artists, with many pieces of work in private collections in Ireland, England and America.

Born and bred in Portrush, where he still lives with wife, Joan and their two daughters, Alan first displayed artistic talent at primary school and by the time he was 11, was painting huge theatre backdrops for Ballywillan Drama Group.

“At school, I seemed to have a knack for it and if somebody wanted illustrations, I would do them and I also did quite well in art competitions,” he says modestly.

Another talent was surfing and at nine years old, after seeing a toothpaste advertisement with Californian surfers in the background at his local cinema, he sawed the legs off an old ironing board and took up body-boarding.

He went on to become one of Ireland's best and most innovative surfers, winning the all-Ireland Nationals three times — first in 1969, when he was only 17 and then again in 1973 and 1975.

As well as being one of the founders of the now thriving North-West surfing scene, he is the only Irishman ever to have made the cover of America's Surfer magazine.

After gaining his degree in fine art, Alan taught for four years at Coleraine Boys' Secondary School (where he had been a pupil), before spending four years living in Laguna Beach in California, attracted by the area's artistic community and of course, the famous Californian surfing opportunities.

“Myself and a friend opened a nursery,” he recalls. “It was a very arty area with about 35 galleries and although the nursery was hard work, I was able to paint and surf in my spare time.

“It was hard to make a living as an artist in those days and I ended up doing all sorts of jobs and working in construction as well as the nursery to support myself.

“Unfortunately, my mother became terminally ill and that led to my coming back to Northern Ireland.

“Because I had to come back so quickly, I ended up giving away a lot of work to friends — it was easier than bringing it all home.”

On his return to Portrush, Alan began working part-time as an art teacher at Dalriada School in Ballymoney.

He married community worker Joan (who can be spotted in many of his paintings) and the couple had two daughters, Maeve and Faye.

“I'd known Joan before I went to California and we met up when I got back and one thing led to another,” he recalls.

“I worked at Dalriada for 13 years and continued to paint in my spare time. Having two young children to raise meant that painting had to be curtailed a bit,” he says. “Now they're grown up, I've been working as an artist full-time for seven years.”

Not surprisingly, seascapes feature prominently in his paintings and the regenerated Arcadia, with the waves crashing outside, is the ideal setting for the exhibition.

“You can see a lot of the landscapes that I have painted from the windows, so it's perfect,” says Alan.

“I also have fond memories of this venue. I used to go and see bands such as Ian Dury and the Blockheads in my younger days.

“The exhibition contains paintings from 30 years ago up to the present day and there's a mixture of styles. A lot of the work is fairly realistic, but some are completely made-up scenes.

“The main subjects are the seascapes around the north Antrim coast. I've tried to show it at different times of the year.

“There are also three or four portraits — two are of my daughters when they were young and also some local characters.

“Some of my work has no figures at all and some have thousands of people. Some early paintings were quite political. One called The Assassin features a central figure of a gunman.”

One of the most admired characteristics of Alan's work is his ability to capture the effect of

light on water — a technique he perfected by studying and researching 17th century Dutch masters.

“In my first year at art college, we were taken to Amsterdam and whenever I saw Rembrandts and Vermeers for real, I was just stunned by their technical ability, especially as oil painting had only been around for 100 years or so when those pictures were painted,” he says.

“One of my favourite pieces of work that I've ever done is the Raft Race, which I painted in 1991. It shows Portrush at its best.

“I had been asked to take photographs of the event by a friend who was taking part and as I was doing this, I realised that the angle I was shooting from made the scene look reminiscent of the Canaletto painting, Festival of the Sea in Venice.

“So I went back three years in a row and built up dozens of photos from the same angle and then spent four months putting them all together to make a very detailed picture.

“I'm very keen to work on more portraits in the future, but I want to blend them into the landscape more than I've done in the past.

“And because I have a fascination for architecture, I'd love to do more paintings of buildings and streets and the characters around them.”

And what about the surfing?

“I haven't been in the water for a few years now — I think I'm getting a bit too old for it,” he says.

An Artist's Perspective: An Exhibition of the Paintings of Alan Duke is running at The Arcadia, Portrush, until June 18. Opening hours: Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, 11am-4pm

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