The Writing on the Wall (Stuart Borthwick) – gable wall imagery & the history it portrays

The Writing on the Wall Stuart BorthwickOne of the archaeological aspects of the last few hundred years of history that may be hard to uncover and investigate will be the murals painted on walls. These often transient and irregularly updated works of art capture aspects of community thinking and understanding.

In The Writing on the Wall, Stuart Borthwick takes a chronological approach, not based on when the mural was painted, but on the date of the historical event being portrayed. So flicking through you’ll find pictures of the Titanic sit alongside Edward Carson, the Easter Rising nestling next to the Battle of Jutland and the Somme.

The huge body of photographs reinforce the dominant and contrasting styles, the varying levels of sophistication, as well as the incongruities and contradictions as opposing factions claim ownership of the same historical characters and events. Early on readers are introduced to Cúchulainn who was adopted in both republican and UDA murals!

I’d no idea that Luther’s 95 Theses had been illustrated locally (to assert Protestant theology and reject the Pope’s Supremacy). Brief notes accompany the pictures, adding a richness to the analysis. So many pictures of King William III portray him on a white horse and holding a sword in his right hand … while the commentary suggests he’d been hit with a cannonball the day before and had his arm in a sling and is reckoned to have been riding a chestnut horse. I’d never have noticed the inclusion of a man dressed as a dog (representing ‘D Company’) in The Falls Curfew mural without that explanation below the image.

The Writing on the Wall Stuart Borthwick 2By capturing the murals at specific times of the day with a wide angle lens, parked cars and street furniture are avoided and the pictures are uncluttered. Yet dark and oppressive cloudy skies often hang above the sometimes menacing imagery.

Many murals will be familiar from east and west Belfast. The political/Troubles taxi tours and tourist bus routes cover some of the better known painted sites. But Stuart’s book archives a much richer variety from right across Northern Ireland, including a good selection from Derry.

Relatively few artists are acknowledged – murals aren’t typically signed in the corner! – though it would have been nice to be able to trace through some of the work by the more prevalent painters and see how their styles and motifs had advanced over the years.

With a big ‘coffee table’ format, it’s a volume I’m going to enjoy returning to as the decade of centenaries continues and as I read other books that examine this land’s troubled history.

The Writing on the Wall is published by Bluecoat Press and available in bookshops (including No Alibis) as well as online retailers. If you’re quick you’ll be able to source a copy before Christmas … though you’ll need a large stocking to put it in!

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