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Colin Middleton: ‘Among this Peace and Noise’ opens at Ulster Museum

Pictured left to right: Jane Middleton, the artist's daughter; William Blair, Director of Collections at National Museums NI; Dickon Hall, co-curator of the exhibition; and Anna Liesching, Curator of Art at Ulster Museum.

Four people standing in a lit up gallery, with paintings on every visible wall, at the opening of an exhibition at Ulster Museum.
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An exhibition dedicated to the works of renowned Belfast-born artist Colin Middleton MBE has opened at Ulster Museum. Middleton is widely regarded as the most significant artist working in Northern Ireland in the twentieth century, and one of the greatest Irish painters of this period. Titled ‘Among This Peace and Noise’, the exhibition features paintings and drawings spanning six decades and explores Middleton’s complex relationship with Belfast and its inhabitants and his radical visual response to the city’s challenges in the 1930s and 1940s. Middleton lived, worked and painted in Belfast as it survived the Great Depression, the Second World War and the Belfast Blitz.

Anna Liesching, Curator of Art at National Museums NI said: 

“Colin Middleton’s work has long been a favourite for visitors to Ulster Museum. His ability to capture familiar sites and engaging scenes whilst utilising diverse modern and international techniques has led to his work being among the most admired and respected in the collection. He was the first solo artist exhibited for the reopening of the museum following World War II and it’s quite poignant that this latest exhibition is back in the very room/gallery where his work was first shown at the museum. A testament to how his works were received then and still are to this day. It’s wonderful to have collaborated with Dickon Hall to share this exhibition with our audiences and to tell the stories of Middleton’s life and work.”

The exhibition features works drawn from private lenders and National Museums NI’s collection and has been co-curated by Dickon Hall who completed a PhD on Middleton in 2019. 

Commenting at the exhibition’s opening, Dickon Hall said: 

“This year marks 80 years since a ground-breaking exhibition that Middleton held at the then Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. It’s a fitting time to celebrate his work and examine it in the context of his relationship with Belfast, the city of which he said, ‘I belong here as I never belonged anywhere else in the country’. I am very grateful to National Museums NI and to lenders who contributed pieces for the public to explore, and also to Colin Middleton’s daughter, Jane, who has been extremely supportive.”

Some of the works included in the exhibition are ‘Allotments: Annadale’, which Middleton painted in 1941 to express his concern with the impact of the war and the city’s social conditions, and ‘Strange Openings’ which features a mill or factory building in striking proximity to terraced houses, and appears overwhelming, to depict industry as a dehumanising force. ‘If I were a blackbird’, also painted in 1941, has references to wartime too, with absence, separation and isolation a part of daily life at the time. Whilst fewer in number and less well-known, paintings in the style of ‘Fish and Chips’, completed in 1939, depict the city with leafless trees and deserted streets - highly revealing of Middleton’s attitude towards Belfast at this time.

During World War II the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, now the Ulster Museum, closed as a result of the Belfast Blitz and the threat of further bombing that existed. It reopened in 1943 with a Middleton exhibition, which was held in the same gallery where ’Among this Peace and Noise’ is now on display. Some of the paintings on show back then are being displayed in the same gallery 80 years on. 

William Blair, Director of Collections at National Museums NI, said: 

“We are passionate about sharing our collection with the public. Middleton was arguably one of the most progressive artists this island has ever had and this exhibition affords us the opportunity to showcase the lasting legacy of home-grown talent with audiences already acquainted with Middleton’s work – and those yet to experience it.”

Published alongside the exhibition and available to purchase in the museum gift shop is a new study by Dickon Hall, ‘Among this Peace and Noise: Colin Middleton and Belfast’, based on fascinating original research and insight from the artist’s family and friends and charts Middleton’s development as a designer and artist giving new context to this vital figure in Irish and British art.

A gallery talk will take place on Saturday 11 November at 1:00pm and is an opportunity to form a deeper understanding of Middleton’s prolific modernist output and lifelong interest in documenting ordinary life. 

There is no admission charge to the Ulster Museum and ‘Among this Peace and Noise’ is on display until 14th January 2024.