What you see: Northern Rhythm, a 1946 tempera on board by John Luke. It’s from his celebrated Armagh series, painted between 1943 and 1948 at a farm in Northern Ireland that he moved to after World War II bombings that devastated Belfast. Sotheby’s estimates the painting at £100,000 to £150,000 ($129,000 to $194,000).
Who is John Luke? He was a 20th century Irish artist. He wasn’t as prolific as others due to his meticulous approach. He passed up ready-made paint in convenient tubes to grind his own oil and tempera pigments, and he worked slowly, pointing his full concentration at one painting and one painting alone for up to a year at a time. The Armagh series is regarded as among his best group of works, if not the best. He also painted murals for Belfast’s City Hall and other Irish venues. He died in 1975 at the age of 69.
How rare is it for a work from Luke’s Armagh series to come to market, never mind go to auction for the first time, as Northern Rhythm is? “It certainly is an event,” says Charlie Minter, deputy director and specialist in British and Irish art, post 1850, at Sotheby’s. “The last one that sold from the group was in 1997–Landscape with Figures–and that’s among his top ten at auction. They are pretty special occasions.” Minter adds that of the eleven Armagh paintings, five are in private hands, five are in institutions, and the location of the last one is unknown.
Where does Northern Rhythm rank among Luke’s paintings? “It’s certainly regarded as one of his best, if not his best,” Minter says, noting that Luke wrote in a 1949 letter to a friend, “No painting has so much or so deeply expressed my own particular type or state of mind & spirit as Northern Rhythm.”
I’m surprised Luke sold it. “At first, he didn’t let it go,” he says. “He sold it in the sixties, probably because of financial reasons. He did keep it close to him. He was reluctant to part with it.”
Three of Luke’s top ten most-expensive works at auction come from the Armagh series: Landscape with Figures, Pax, and The Dancer and the Bubble. Do you think that Northern Rhythm will set a new auction record for the artist? “As much as I’d love to say it will, no,” Minter says. “The auction record [The Bridge, a 1936 tempera on board, sold in 1999 for £441,500, or $711,752] is so high, it’s really hard to beat. There’s a chance it will get to the second most-expensive level [held by Landscape with Figures, a 1948 tempera on board that sold in 1997 for £194,000, or $319,446]. It’s really a fantastic work. I’d be delighted if it got the second-highest price. The top is out of the stratosphere, unfortunately. A group of focused collectors [of Irish art] bid the high prices, and we won’t see the same participation at this auction.”
What makes Northern Rhythm special? “It has a jewel-like quality. It’s immediately striking, and people want to talk about it,” Minter says, explaining that his colleagues at Sotheby’s who catch sight of it invariably stop and want to know more. “Luke painted it in tempera, and you feel this intensity to it. Tempera adds to the drama of it. Northern Rhythm has exquisite detail, fine brushwork–it’s really amazing, an extraordinary vision.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.