‘This was to prove the most hair-brained and irresponsible decision that I have ever made,” wrote artist, Chris Fiddes, on the subject of one particularly memorable trip in 1972.
Chris’s dangerous destination was Ulster, at the height of Protestant/Catholic ‘troubles,’ and the aim of his visit was to sketch, and later paint, what he saw.
Nine surviving paintings from the trip will now go on display for the first time since the 1970s. The exhibition is due to take place from February 8–July 7 at Northampton Museum & Art Gallery in Guildhall Road.
Chris, who lives in Watford village, said: “My intention was to record the visual evidences, whatever they might be, of the Ulster conflict. I was completely naive. I had not realised that, by this time, Belfast had been divided up into Catholic and Protestant areas, separated by corrugated iron ‘peace walls’ 15 feet high, and that no one in their right minds ever moved from one sector to another.
“I had not realised that, in that crucible of hatred, everybody knew everybody else, and that a stranger was as obvious as a fly on a whitewashed wall, and always the object of suspicion. And I had not realised that the city of Belfast was, at that time, rocked on average six times per day by car bombs.”
The paintings capture the turbulence of a time when tensions were at their peak.
He recalled: “The previous week an IRA Bomb had shattered The Bluebell pub plus its bar full of drinkers. It had been an attractive early Victorian building a week earlier.
“What I saw and drew was a shattered hulk, with the remains of window frames projecting like broken spectacles from black sockets with the tap room window filled with corrugated iron. A few yards from it was a wall, decorated with a huge Union Jack, underscored with the legend ‘This we will maintain.’
“I was in Protestant territory and every major building and end-of-terrace wall contained crude murals that announced the fact. Looking back on all of this, I find it difficult to believe now that it really happened. At the time the hardest thing to believe was that I would get back to England alive.
“But the pictures do tell of the situation, how it was, or how it seemed to me, for all that is in them I saw at first hand. If they do nothing other than show the horror of civil strife within a small and close-knit community, I still believe they were worth doing.”