Throughout the six decades that he painted, Middleton never left his initial training as a damask designer far behind, although at times this influence is almost submerged within paintings. Middleton’s move to the north coast of Northern Ireland in the late 1950s marked a sharp break in his work; he found a landscape and, through this, a manner of painting that coalesced to express the point at which he found himself as a man and as an artist. During this period, Middleton seems to have been ready to re-introduce elements of his design background into his painting.
This series of panels demonstrate the complexity of design and visual inventiveness of which Middleton was capable. They were painted for Morelli’s café, famous as an ice cream parlour, on the seafront in Portstewart. This was arranged by Noel Campbell, a local architect who had been instrumental in a number of commissions for murals Middleton received in the late 1960s and 1970s. It was as rare then as it is now in Northern Ireland for an artist to be thus involved in architectural projects, so these panels have an historical resonance as well as occupying a very particular place within Middleton’s career.
Like the large panel Middleton painted for the Botanic Inn in Belfast, these panels evolve their own self-referential language, while relating to his work at this period and occasionally echoing earlier paintings. Images recur throughout the panels, although each has its own particular theme or mood. The planned location, an ice cream parlour in a holiday town, might well have influenced their bright colours and energetic exuberance, as well as a choice of imagery likely to appeal to children.
There are no known photographs of the panels installed in Morelli’s, or any record of how the paintings were intended to be arranged. The diverse formats suggest that the location imposed certain demands upon the artist; the square format of two of the paintings was almost ubiquitous in Middleton’s work at this time, but the elongated panels are unusual. The cross-fertilisation of ideas does suggest that they were closely hung to be viewed together.
One panel (lot 27) dominates by virtue of the multitude of ideas with which it seems to vibrate. A simplified rendering of what appears to be a llama or alpaca is repeated on various scales, overlapping and creating a dizzying and confused sense of spatial recession. Small panels are placed within these with simplified and angular depictions of fish, a cockerel, a dog and a cat. The latter two recall the notation of Ancient Egypt and the dog is highly reminiscent of depictions of Anubis, the Egyptian jackal headed god (the alpaca might also be read as an image of a Pharaoh dog). In fact these panels carry some overtones of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The alpaca shape is subtly repeated in the forms of the little house, the train and the girl, all reminders of the holiday spirit. A similar fish image was used by Middleton for the sign of a fish and chip shop in an early painting of Belfast, presumably here another reminder of summer in Portstewart.
The simple form of the house reappears in other panels (lot 29), a shorthand that Middleton again used as early as the 1940s in some early surrealist paintings. These other panels are more abstract and economic after the overflowing ideas of the first painting. A child with pigtails dominates the other large square panel (lot 28), broken up into complex rhythmically repeating shapes. One of the upright panels (lot 30) includes another standing girl, whose striped top and leggings might easily have been observed in Portstewart in the 1970s.
Much of the imagery is simplified until it becomes extremely ambiguous. A driveway seems to lead up to a small house to the left of the girl in the striped top. The other tall panel could be read as showing a figure lying on the sand with the blue sea beyond leading to an island, or a rock beyond. Throughout Middleton’s paintings and drawings the female form is often present is extremely abstracted form. The deep blues and yellows that recur in other panels recall the idealised memories of sand, sea, sky and sun in childhood memories.
The more complex horizontal panel (see lot 29) is arguably the most ambitious of the group, full of energy and again full of shapes that hint at interpretations. Perhaps there is a house seen in the distance behind a tree at the far right, or a figure in the section just to the left of that? Middleton’s vocabulary is derived from the shapes of objects in the visible world which over decades he has pared into the most visually effective and communicative signifier capable of carrying its meaning. These panels are more than just narrative, although they seem to contain so much. It is up to the viewer to find a personal interpretation or just to enjoy their stimulating presence.
Killinchy, Co. Down
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WHYTE AND SONS AUCTIONEERS LIMITED, 2018.
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