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Neil Shawcross: 'Since I arrived in 1962, Belfast has nourished and sustained me ... this is me giving something back'

For his new exhibition, artist Neil Shawcross has unveiled remarkable seven-foot high paintings in his tribute to authors, poets, playwrights and musicians of Belfast. In a rare interview, the famously private painter tells Una Brankin how it came about

Neil Shawcross with paintings from his new exhibition, Writers Of Belfast
Neil Shawcross with paintings from his new exhibition, Writers Of Belfast
Neil Shawcross with his Van Morrison painting
Van Morrison
Neil Shawcross with Rosemary Jenkinson, the writer of Aphrodite’s Kiss
Neil Shawcross with writer Anne Devlin
Neil Shawcross with writer Michael Longley
The late Seamus Heaney with his portrait by Neil Shawcross
Anna Burns

He's recognised as one of our leading artists and was acknowledged as such when he received an MBE in 2014 for his services to the arts. But Neil Shawcross confesses that he's clueless at organising his stunning exhibitions - and even negotiating the internet.

"I just do my painting," he says. "I don't do notes and I haven't a clue how to send an email, but I do love entertaining. I have a get-together in the studio every Tuesday and Saturday, without fail.

"We sit around a swivel tray with food and wine that goes around. Had 15 people there last Saturday."

There was a much larger turnout at the launch on Tuesday of Writers Of Belfast, Shawcross's latest collection, at Belfast's Titanic Building.

Featuring almost 40 dramatic 7ft-high paintings of book covers, posters and albums, the work is the artist's personal tribute to the city's authors, poets, playwrights and composers.

The 36 writers include Booker Prize winner Anna Burns, CS Lewis, Michael Longley, Marie Jones, John Hewitt, Van Morrison and Seamus Heaney who, although not from Belfast, was based in the city for the formative and early part of his career.

Shawcross isn't from Belfast either, but he has been here since he arrived from his native Lancashire to teach at the Art College in 1962, settling in Hillsborough with his locally-born wife Marge.

Five decades on he is gifting his entire Writers Of Belfast collection to Belfast City Council in appreciation for what he feels the city and its people have given him over those years.

An exciting and valuable addition to the city's cultural portfolio, the idea for the collection was hatched over a lunch Shawcross had three years ago with his friend Mike McCann, an honorary member of the Royal Ulster Academy, and Sinn Fein MLA and former Belfast Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir.

"Belfast gave me a wonderful welcome when I arrived here from Lancashire to teach in 1962 and the city has nourished and sustained me throughout my career, so I wanted to give something back," he says.

"Northern Ireland is home to me now, very much so. I still go back to Lancashire to visit family, and they come here, it is very much my adopted home."

A member of both the Royal Ulster Academy and Royal Hibernian Academy, Shawcross asked McCann to write the proposal for the fledgling Writers Of Belfast project. He had originally envisioned paintings of 15 writers' book covers and, unsurprisingly, Belfast City Council loved the idea. Many of the writers/artists included in the project are or were personal friends of Shawcross and he relished the opportunity to pay tribute to them.

"Neil Martin and Martin Lynch were two of the first portraits I painted in my studio here - it was easy to get their permission - and David Hammond, who passed away a few years ago, was a very good friend of mine," he says. "Basil Blackshaw was also a very close friend, as is Michael Longley. His daughter painted the front cover of his book in this collection. I admire her, too.

"I have to be intrigued by a subject to paint it. I was very intrigued by Derek Mahon's book cover by William Crozier - I'm an admirer of his - and the image of a tree on the Patricia Craig front cover.

"I'm fortunate to have all these connections and friendships. I have great respect for literary people."

The collection includes a painting of the striking cover of Anna Burns' lesser known (2007) second novel Little Construction, which features a pistol and a scribbled depiction of gunfire.

He says: "That arose out of a conversation about four months ago with Damian Smyth from the Arts Council, way before the Man Booker Prize. He mentioned a number of people, including Anna, but little did we know she'd win the prize.

"The feedback from writers has been tremendous. None of them was going to say no, nor the publishers."

Absent from Tuesday night's launch - one of the biggest events of his career - were his wife Marge, a private person who prefers to keep out of the limelight, and his children, one of whom works as a financial journalist. Humble and unassuming, the artist is known to cherish his granddaughter but doesn't like to talk about his family - or read about himself in the media.

Although he retired from his lecturing post at the University of Ulster 10 years ago, Shawcross has no such intentions for his art. He paints every day, mostly on canvas on the floor or on a table.

Given his vibrant, almost childlike approach to composition and colour, it's not surprising to hear that he enjoys working with children.

He has visited dozens of primary schools to help children with art projects, including murals. One such enterprise, at Harberton Special School in south Belfast, resulted in 50 art works, the sale of which raised £20,000 for the school.

He's looking forward to meeting art enthusiasts of all ages at the ongoing Conversations With Neil events, part of the exhibition's support programme which encompasses artist tours, a writers' seminar and writing workshops for young people.

The collection is on exhibition at The Andrews Gallery in the Titanic Belfast building until next Thursday, November 1, when it moves to the Waterfront Hall ahead of an Irish and international tour. Thereafter, the council is planning a permanent display.

"It is a tribute to the writers - there is no commercial agenda," the artist concludes. "The paintings are not for sale and nor will they be for sale in the future. I believe that this is a win-win project for all: art, literature, the writers, publishers, designers, the city and its people and its visitors."

  • Writers Of Belfast runs until next Thursday at Titanic Belfast. For further information on the support programme of events delivered by Belfast International Arts Festival to celebrate the exhibition, visit belfastinternationalartsfestival.com

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