Lives Remembered

Brian Kennedy: Erudite art historian and esteemed curator at Ulster Museum

BRIAN Kennedy helped put Belfast on the international map for contemporary art.

As curator of 20th century collections and later Keeper of Art at the Ulster Museum, he used his expertise and intuition to acquire many important works and place them on public display.

Art was both his profession and passion and he also made a major contribution to art history, publishing seminal books on Irish modernism and its leading proponents.

He leaves behind a legacy of wonderful art for museum visitors to enjoy as well as the admiration of all who worked with him and benefited from his deep learning, lightly worn.

Born in Belfast, Samuel Brian Kennedy grew up in Holywood and as a child loved nothing more than being given a pencil and paper and the opportunity to draw.

He studied art at A-level at Sullivan Upper School and then enrolled at the College of Art in Belfast city centre.

It was the 1960s, before the outbreak of the Troubles, and the college was an exciting and avant garde environment, as new ideas swept the art world and old rules were being ripped up.

It was there he realised his passion lay not in practice but in art history.

Brian joined the Ulster Museum in the late 1960s as curator of its 20th century collection, and developed the legacy of the towering figure of Anne Crookshank.

She had begun the process of acquiring contemporary art and Brian enthusiastically took up the baton, travelling to art fairs around Europe to identify up-and-coming works.

At a time when few museums outside London were collecting contemporary art, the Ulster Museum in Botanic Gardens built up one of the most important collections in the UK.

Brian loved being around painters – many artists would pass through his Co Down home – but also being surrounded by art in the museum storeroom, handling works and thinking about how to hang them.

He had a particular interest in Irish modernist painting and his PhD under Anne Crookshank at Trinity College Dublin formed the basis of a ground-breaking book, Irish Art and Modernism, 1880-1950.

Among other publications was the first biography and catalogue of Belfast-born Paul Henry, who made a defining contribution to Irish landscape painting during a period on Achill Island.

When Ted Hickey, the museum’s Keeper of Art, retired in 1993, Brian took overall responsibility for the fine art collection and its exhibitions.

Anne Stewart, senior curator of art, worked alongside him for more than two decades and on his retirement in 2005, she hung some of his favourite paintings including Roderic O’Connor’s Field of Corn, Pont-Aven, and Paul Henry’s Dawn Killary Harbour.

 Among Brian Kennedy's favourite artworks was Field of Corn, Pont-Aven (1892) by Roderic O'Connor. Image © National Museums NI, Ulster Museum Collection

She said that as well as being hugely knowledgeable and generous with his expertise, he was great fun to work with and always open to new ideas.

“Brian was greatly admired by artists, writers and academics and he was able to cross over those boundaries between practice and academic history of art.

“He was hugely valued for his thoughtful opinion and erudition but also his wonderful sense of humour. He was hugely loved.”

The Estuary of the Shannon (1935), by Dermod O'Brien, was also among pictures hung in the Ulster Museum to mark the retirement of Brian Kennedy. Image © National Museums NI, Ulster Museum Collection

Away from the museum Brian enjoyed travel, good food and friendships. He was a charming host and a devoted dad to his daughter, Alison.

She said she grew up in a very happy home and, as an only child, was always very close to her father.

“He encouraged me to be open-minded and ambitious. He was kind and generous, but also had a great sense of fun. I am immensely proud of all he achieved,” she said.

“The whole family is saddened by his passing and we will all miss him greatly.”

Predeceased by his wife Doreen in 2007, Brian Kennedy died aged 79 on February 3 in England, where he was being cared for by his second wife, Jennifer.

:: The Ulster Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am-5pm. Admission is free but pre-booking online is advisable.

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