Geordie Morrow art exhibition at Ulster Museum recalls Maze prison in 1970s

Belfast artist and former UVF prisoner Geordie Morrow
Belfast artist and former UVF prisoner Geordie Morrow


Figures Through the Wire: Artwork by Geordie Morrow

Ulster Museum


ENTERING the second-floor gallery at the Ulster Museum to view Geordie Morrow’s show, Figures Through the Wire: Artwork by Geordie Morrow, the mood is bleak. This isn’t surprising as the artist spent three years in the Maze prison in the mid-1970s after joining the UVF and gaining a conviction for armed robbery. Through low light, instantly recognisable H-block motifs surround you, interspersed with a few dramatic portraits.

Mr Morrow apparently produced art every day while inside. He is certainly good at drawing the urban views from his cell, though the proportions of the human figures are sometimes off, the hands and feet too small.

His pencil studies, often untitled, focus on subjects like the window of the unit he shared with another prisoner. It’s detailed, well done, impersonal and claustrophobic in the mildly obsessive lines.

One of the best drawings tackles the familiar view of the City Hall from the bottom of Royal Avenue. The artist, for whom a direct view was obviously off limits, used newspaper photos to remind himself of the architecture. What’s interesting, apart from his great command of perspective, is the fact that all the figures are walking away from you, the viewer. Apparently Morrow based his male figures on prison warders and there is something unsettling, almost depressing in the Russian manner about the shot beloved of tourists.

One big, splashy oil painting shows Morrow’s keenness to experiment with different styles. Me And Joe On A Rainy Night was shortlisted for the Alice Berger Hammerschlag travel bursary and judge Brian Ballard wrote to Morrow to say his work reached the final six. It shows the two men in the foreground, indistinct in the rain which of course resembles tears falling. There is the wire, as ever, and the palate is dark, the finish blurred.

Morrow, who once said in an interview that it was tough painting in jail (“No one makes room for you in prison. No-one walks into the space where you're working and says 'Oh, excuse me, I didn't mean to interrupt,'" he told Malachi O’Doherty) was influenced at the time by masters such as Velasquez.

He had time inside to record the seasons and one summer work shows a big blue mid-West sky, inspired by the American Frederic Remington. His moody self-portrait undoubtedly references van Gogh.

These days Morrow paints haunting, spiritual landscapes, not haunted urban scenes but his art, which back in the day included loyalist motifs tattooed on to comrades’ arms, goes on.

:: Figures Through the Wire, the Ulster Museum (nmni.com), until December 16.