Ulster Bank gifts Belfast’s ‘flying figures’ to Ulster Museum
The future of an internationally significant piece of public art in Belfast has been secured through an arrangement between Ulster Bank and National Museums NI.
’Airborne Men’ - aluminium sculptures by renowned artist Dame Elisabeth Frink that have been on the side of Ulster Bank’s former Shaftesbury Square branch since the 1960s - are being gifted by the bank to the Ulster Museum with a view to them going on prominent display at their eventual new home.
The work was commissioned in 1961 by the Lurgan architects Houston & Beaumont and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, on behalf of Ulster Bank, as a focal point at the new and impressive banking facility at Shaftesbury Square, which opened in 1964.
Ulster Bank sold the building in 2009, with the bank then taking back a lease of the whole building and retaining ownership of the sculptures to help protect and preserve them.
From August 2023, there will be no remaining connection between the bank and the building, and with the aim of ensuring that the people of Belfast can continue to have access to these internationally important works, the bank has decided to gift them to the national collection.
The works have today been carefully and sensitively removed from the wall at Shaftesbury Square by Ulster Bank-appointed expert Maurice Ward Art Handling Ltd. After a thorough conservation assessment and preparation, National Museums NI intends for the works to go on display in a prominent position at the Ulster Museum.
Terry Robb, head of personal banking at Ulster Bank said:
“This is fantastic news that will see the future of these internationally important art works secured and will enable them to continue to be accessible to the people of Belfast and Northern Ireland. Ulster Bank recognises their significance in artistic terms and as a landmark, and after careful consideration, we strongly believe that this is the best outcome for the sculpture and the city.”
“National Museums NI is a world-class museum organisation and therefore an appropriate custodian of the artwork. National Museums NI also cares for an internationally significant collection of art, including a collection of works by Elisabeth Frink which they took in 2019 following a multi-way gift from the estate of the artist’s son who died in 2017. The fact that the Ulster Museum is in relatively close proximity to the sculptures’ current home is also a real bonus,” he added.
Anne Stewart, Senior Curator of Art at National Museums NI, said:
"We are delighted these magnificent sculptures are coming into the national collection. This generous contribution by Ulster Bank, not only enriches our collection but also strengthens our commitment to preserving and showcasing exceptional artworks that hold cultural and historical significance.
“Elisabeth Frink's sculptures are renowned for their powerful and emotive representations of the human form, and they will undoubtedly captivate and inspire our visitors when they eventually go on display at the Ulster Museum. We extend our sincere gratitude to Ulster Bank for their invaluable support in making this happen.”
Dame Elisabeth Frink CH, DBE, RA (14 November 1930 – 18 April 1993) was one of the UK’s most important 20th century sculptors and artists. Born in England she was brought up in rural Suffolk. The work ‘Airborne Men’, also referred to as the ‘Flying Figures’ and ‘Draft and Overdraft’, represents a significant piece from the 1960s. Unusually, rather than creating them in her preferred medium of bronze, these were created in aluminium. Frink also created Crucifixion for St Bernadette’s church in Belfast in 1964, and examples of her work can be found in public collections around the world.