Belfast Telegraph

We need to find a permanent home for great artist's 'missing mural'

By Nelson McCausland

John Luke (1906-75) was born in Lewis Street in north Belfast and was one of our most interesting and unusual Ulster artists.

Many folk will be familiar with his work through the wonderful mural that he painted in the City Hall for the Festival of Britain.

That mural, which depicts the history of Belfast, is one of three that he painted.

There is a second mural in the Masonic Hall in Rosemary Street and it depicts the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

However, his third mural, entitled Building and Engineering, could well be described as the "missing mural".

It was commissioned by Belfast City Council and painted on a wall in the old Belfast Technical College building at Millfield.

John Luke started it in 1961 and worked on it sporadically for some years, but at the time of his death in 1975 it was still incomplete.

However, we know that the mural, which measures 20ft by 12ft, includes elements such as an aeroplane, a ship, a turbine, a crane, blueprints, technical formulae, high-rise buildings and workmen, with the City Hall at the centre of the composition.

Some years ago, the Belfast College of Technology became part of the new Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (BIFHE) and under its director, Dr Patrick Murphy, BIFHE took forward the development of a new complex at Millfield at a cost of around £20m.

This was built by Northwin and the contract, which was signed in July 2000, merely stated that the mural was "to be retained for removal by others". However, no legal advice about the mural was sought prior to signing the contract.

The college considered the transfer of the mural to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2001 for £44,500 for its removal to Cultra, but this was unsuccessful as the museum could not guarantee when and how the mural might be put on display - a condition imposed by the fund.

Meanwhile, Northwin had awarded a demolition contract to John Eastwood and Sons and this included salvage clauses, whereby Eastwoods were able to claim ownership of the mural. As a result, Eastwoods were left in possession of a huge chunk of wall with a John Luke mural on it.

It sat there for some time, covered up to protect it from the elements, but eventually, on February 2, 2003, it was removed to the paint shop at Titanic Quarter, so that the construction of the new building could proceed.

Later, the mural was removed to another site and, in spite of approaches to Eastwoods by the college, the mural remains locked away in storage.

In 2007, BIFHE was merged into the new Belfast Metropolitan College and I asked questions about the mural in the Assembly in 2008 and in 2014.

Unfortunately, it seems that nothing has happened.

This cannot be allowed to continue. John Luke was too important an artist and, as part of the cultural heritage of Northern Ireland, the mural should be back on display for all to see and enjoy.

It seems to me that there are several important questions here: (1) How can we get the mural back on display at a suitable location? (2) How did this happen and who was responsible? And (3) What lessons can be learned?

This year is the 40th anniversary of the death of John Luke and there could be no better time than this to get the mural back into public ownership and on public display, where it rightly belongs.

It's time to get all the key players around a table to work out how that can be done.

  • Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

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