Belfast Arts Council NI
About Arts Council NI
This is the building for the Arts Council which is the lead development agency for the arts in Northern Ireland. They are the main support for artists and arts organisations, offering a broad range of funding opportunities through the Exchequer and National Lottery funds.
Set in beautiful grounds with manicured lawns, this building dating back to 1889 is of great historical interest because it was home to the famous Belfast poet, Louis MacNeice. His father, John Frederick MacNeice lived here in his role as Church of Ireland Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore.
The imposing, double-fronted Victorian house is marked by a grand portico boasting coupled Corinthian polished granite columns and stain glass windows. Inside leads into an extraordinary hallway. Floors and wall panelling highlight contrasting woods of mahogany, walnut, teak and pine. An antique fireplace reveals colourful painted tiles, which is incidentally one of many throughout the building.
The first room into the right is the Council Room used for meetings. The Parquet floor with designs along the sides may suit the theme of this building but it’s probably not the original style of this room. Art work in the form of two busts of Dr Stanley Worrall OBE and Joe Tumelty by unknown artists, sit next to recent canvases by Colin Davidson and Ian Cumberland. Other items which may appear simply as decorative elements are in fact pieces of work such as small sculptures and contemporary art.
Bells for attracting attention are still found for example on the side of the fireplaces. They are a small but significant aspect that reveal the privileged past of those who lived here.
Back in the hallway are these capitals atop more columns. They boast interesting detail especially the gold tipped plaster work which if not indicative of artistic value may be for protection. Equally fascinating details can be found in the plaster work of the coves, cornices and ceilings.
This next room is called the Snow Room and it is apparently here that Louis MacNeice actually wrote the poem Snow. The windows look out onto the gardens where he played with his beloved sister Elizabeth. A framed poster of MacNeice rests on the mantel piece.
James Johnston commissioned the Belfast architect Samuel Stevenson to design the house. Johnston was a tea merchant whose interests extended to much of the surrounding area here. The Malone Road saw many similar houses being built around the 1850s as wealthy industrialists and entrepreneurs sought refuge from the heart of Belfast’s industrial area.
Walking up the wide cantilevered stair case are more paintings and photos which date from the more recent at the bottom to the older requisites on the top floor. A noteworthy item is the stain glass window above the piano, probably reminiscent of the days when the house functioned as the Bishop’s palace.
On the first floor is this exhibit by Sharon Hay. Called ‘Innocent Chaos Collection’ it illustrates the bond that children develop with their toys. The Arts Council buy these works because it helps the artist to get established. By displaying them here the public may view them. Other works of art which are cast from the traditional to the contemporary are displayed in the staff offices.
Before the Arts Council moved here in 2001 the house was also known as Dunarnon from the time of James Johnston, and in the 1940s it was referred to as Aquinas Hall after the Dominican convent that was based here. On another literary note, the poet Paul Muldoon was also said to have visited the MacNeice household.
These last few pieces of art belong to the older exhibits. The first one here was by Jones Kent from 1981, while the next one was by Carol Graham from 1984. In a small attic room is one of their most valuable art works by William Scott called ‘Still Life with Orange Note’. This contemporary work is valued at £200,000. Exorbitant prices are not always a great indication of noteworthy art works but it’s at least some comfort to know that one of the functions of the Arts Council is to level the playing field by giving many artists the opportunity to excel at their talent regardless of their style or popularity.