Ulster Academy of Arts 1930 – 1950
In 1930, the Belfast Art Society became “the Ulster Academy of Arts” and its annual autumn exhibition was held in the large art gallery of the Belfast Museum at Stranmillis, with 400 works, hung four or five works deep. A new era had begun and a Royal Charter was sought for the Ulster Academy of Arts. It was proposed that twelve academicians be elected “who would do the Academy honour”. At least thirty votes were needed for election and only the following nine were successful; Frank McKelvey, Sophia Rosamund Praeger, Hans Iten, William Conor, J. Humbert Craig, J.W. Carey, Sir John Lavery, Mildred Butler, and Georgina Moutray Kyle. However, in October, four more members were elected to bring the number up to thirteen. These were Paul Henry, James Sleator, Charles Lamb and Anne Acheson. In October 1930, a new category was introduced and eight Associates were elected, Mrs McCready, Theo Gracey, Donald McPherson, Snr., Stanley Prosser, W. Arthur Fry, Frederick Girling, John Hunter and Frank Wiles. The first three listed were elected Academicians the following year. A rule was instigated for Academicians, which required that “Each academician, within a period of one year from the date of appointment, shall present a representative Diploma Work to the Academy”. Enforcing this rule was problematic from the start and remains so today but it is an invaluable historic resource of works ranging from the first donation of Mildred Anne Butler’s “Dust Bath” a beautiful watercolour of a peacock cleaning its feathers in the dust.
Over the ensuing 79 years the Diploma Collection has resulted in an important survey of Ulster art, which is seldom exhibited, due to the lack of an Academy gallery space, with the exception of two exhibitions in the Ulster Museum and one in the Glebe gallery in Donegal. (5) To form the new council of the academy, it was decided that representatives be elected only from Academicians. Accordingly Humber Craig was elected President and John Lavery was elected Hon. President, a role he held until his death in 1941. Committee members elected were Frank McKelvey, Rosamund Praeger and Georgina Moutray Kyle. However, in 1933, it was decided that nominations should come, not just from the Academic group but also from the overall membership which consisted of patrons, annual subscribers, honorary members as well as ordinary members whose subscriptions provided the Academy’s core funding.
The association with the Museum at Stranmillis continued from 1929 until 1934 with the Academy holding its annual exhibition there. However in 1934 the Academy decided to hold its Annual Exhibition of 242 works in the Academy’s own gallery and in the adjoining lecture room in College Square. Sir John Lavery flew into Belfast for the opening and for the ‘Jubilee Dinner’ in the Carlton Hall to celebrate fifty years since the first exhibition of the Belfast Rambler’s Club.
In his dinner address he urged Belfast Corporation to complete the Museum and Art Gallery at Stranmillis, which did happen eventually and in 1961 an extended building became the Ulster Museum, no longer the responsibility of Belfast City Council but funded directly by government.
In 1937 and 1938, the Academy held its annual exhibition back in the Museum at Stranmillis and these two exhibitions, were opened by Rosamund Praeger and Oliver St. John Gogarty, respectively, due to Lavery’s declining health. With the outbreak of War in 1939, the Annual Exhibition was held in College Square and opened again by Rosamund Praeger who became President after Lavery’s death in 1941, a position she held for two years. The extensive catalogue was eliminated that year as an economy measure and members donated 10% of sales to the Red Cross. In spite of the war the Annual Exhibition continued at College Square until 1943 when it returned to Stranmillis, the same year that the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) was founded in Dublin and the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) was set up in Belfast. The latter, retitled the Arts Council in 1960, was an important development for the arts in general and specifically for the Academy, which has benefited from grants to the present day, enhancing the quality of the exhibition catalogues and the Academy’s education programmes. Individual artists, many who exhibit with the Academy, have been awarded Arts Council grants for studios, travel and exhibitions.
In Dublin, during 1943, the IELA was set up in revolt against the strictures of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) which, at the time, was not receptive to modern movements in art and many artists, including Louis le Brocquy had their work rejected. Academies were criticised nationally and internationally by young and avant–garde artists who regarded them as outmoded institutions in the middle of the 20th Century within an ongoing debate between the advocates of tradition and innovation. Interestingly the Irish Exhibition of Art disbanded in 1987, having, in the view of its members, served its purpose. It was replaced, in public perception, by an invigorated RHA with its own gallery space from 1984, which has recently been revamped into an outstanding gallery with art studio facilities in Dublin’s Ely Place.
What the Royal Ulster Academy now needs is an archangel patron like Matthew Gallagher who funded the core building for the RHA in 1971 on the site of the former home of Oliver St. John Gogarty, which had been bought by the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1939.