There are plenty of us who would say that you need to have a fair level of surrealism about you to live in Belfast. But Colin Middleton, who is the subject of a new exhibition in the Ulster Museum, was once described as Ireland’s Greatest Surrealist, so this show is bound to be worth a visit.

The exhibition, ‘Colin Middleton: Among this Peace and Noise’ is free and runs until the 21st January. With paintings and drawings spanning six decades and a range of styles including abstraction, expressionism and surrealism, by the 1930s and 40s Colin Middleton had established a reputation as one of Ireland’s leading artists.

He was born in Belfast in 1910 to English parents and his earliest influence was his father, Charles Collins Middleton, a damask designer and founder member of the Ulster Arts Club who was a keen amateur artist specialising in impressionism. Raised in an artistic household he wanted to study at Slade, but his father’s ill health and early death in 1935 meant Colin had to take over the running of the family damask business. He worked there for twelve years, taking trips abroad to study art whenever he could. He saw a Van Gogh exhibition in London in 1928 and a James Ensor exhibition in Belgium in 1931 which both had a great influence on him. Back in Belfast, he started experimenting with modernist painting styles and was soon producing work that was very different to the conservative tastes that were prevalent in Northern Ireland at the time, where impressionism was still considered modern.

In 1934 he formed a group with 16 other modern artists, calling themselves the ‘Ulster Unit’. They held an exhibition which the poet and art critic John Hewitt described as the first ever exhibition of “demonstrably modern work of artists living in the north of Ireland”.

In the late 1930s he became strongly influenced by Joan Miro, Salvador Dali and Carl Jung, and this is when his surrealist style developed. But in 1939 the death of his first wife and the outbreak of World War II brought a stop to his work.

Middleton’s experience of the Belfast Blitz in 1941, when over 1,000 people were killed by German bombing raids, affected him deeply. In a 1983 interview with Eamonn Mallie, he said:

“The air raid, the big air raid…it’s one of things I’ve never been able to reconcile; coming out after the all clear the next morning, an absolutely beautiful morning, and I lived up Salisbury Avenue in those days, looking right out over, over to the line of the Old Park Road and Clintonville, and there was this beautiful, this deep cerulean blue sky and the whole fringe of that was a mass of chocolate-coloured smoke and flames. And I have never been able to settle in my mind how anything so hideous could be so beautiful.”

He began to paint again, and in 1943 Hewitt invited him to stage his first one man show at the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery (which eventually became the Ulster Museum), the first exhibition by a local artist ever held there. He exhibited 115 works with styles ranging from impressionism to surrealism. The museum also bought their first work of his – an impressionist landscape of the Lagan at Annadale Embankment.

The 1943 exhibition was actually 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. There’s also a new study by exhibition co-curator Dickon Hall, ‘Among this Peace and Noise: Colin Middleton and Belfast’ available to buy in the museum gift shop for £12.

This exhibition features paintings and drawings spanning six decades, drawn from private lenders and the National Museums NI collections. If you wanted to make a day of it, you could take either our History of Terror or Best of Belfast tour in the morning, then after lunch walk up to Shaftesbury Square and use our self guided Queen’s Quarter tour, which will guide you round the most interesting sites around South Belfast including the Ulster Museum. Stop there to take in the Middleton exhibition, and then resume the self guided tour to explore Queens University and the regency architecture of Upper and Lower Crescents before ending up at Lavery’s, one of my favourite bars. Let’s just say I’ve had a few surreal experiences of my own in there.

‘Colin Middleton: Among this Peace and Noise’ runs until Sunday 21st January 2024 at the Ulster Museum. Admission is free.

Image credits: If I Were a Blackbird (1941) Colin Middleton Oil on Canvas ©️ The Estate of Colin Middleton