Northern Sea, James Allen, Aquatint

James Allen & BPW - an editorial

Writer Dan Brown reflects on the work of James Allen and his relationship with BPW

A word on humble beginnings:

In 1977, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland had just established itself on the premises of Riddel Hall. At the same time, a group called Endhouse Prints, a collection of passionate artists focusing on the reinvigoration of the traditional printmaking media, had just purchased an etching press but couldn’t find a suitable premises. 

As fortune and happenstance would have it, the Arts Council offered the use of a kitchen area at the rear of the ground-floor (as well as, importantly, the financial umbrella of an operating budget and additional funding for the creation of an imaginative printmaker-in-residence programme).

In 1977, this was the first resident printmaker and former-manager of the Workshop James Allen’s task: create a viable workshop out of nothing more than a vast kitchen area and a lone etching press - and he did just that. That first year of resourceful élan and collaborative efforts from artists-in-residence allowed the premises to blossom into what former-resident Kent Jones described as “a rough diamond … producing some of the most interesting and original fine art prints in Ireland”.

The impressive cast-iron aga was transformed into an effective acid cupboard, dining tables were scrubbed and converted into working and drawing surfaces. Cold-stores, complete with meat-hooks, were revived into screen-printing and photographic processing rooms.

With this in mind, and a nod to the invaluable international relationships developed through residencies from USA, Mexico, Azerbaijan, Germany, Holland as well as Britain and Ireland, one can’t think of the past 40 years of art in the region without testament to the remarkable development of printmaking in Northern Ireland.

Of all our artistic preoccupations, that of memory and our shared past in Northern Ireland is part of a necessary process of re-examining the past in order to re-imagine it and find new cultural, social and political meanings, so our past can positively inform our future. Through fine art and storytelling heritage, whether we like it or not, we visualise and articulate our society: protest, storytelling, testimony and memory are helixed into both both the maker and the made. To this end, printworks act as a meeting-point for the relationship between the viewer, the artist and their shared history - a century’s worth of poetry and protest are hand-etched onto plate.

The Belfast Print Workshop offers the space for cultural memory to grow, an unmistakable vitality in a new economic climate where competition for funding is fierce, where the vast majority pray their art becomes sentient and learns to apply for its own funding.

The stylistic focus on the sea in James Allen’s printmaking and the nature of the intaglio process are deeply communicative. Ever-changing, ever-mercurial; the seascape imagery of Allen’s work is psychovisually captivating, it interrogates perception, offering the suggestion of movement in a static image. Seascape imagery is typically subtle, coded, oblique - treading a symbolically neutral ground. Textured and layered by the depth of the print, Allen’s imagery feels palpable, somatic, sensually rendered, real.

Aquatint is the traditional printmaking media used to build tonal structures on the etching plate - firstly by using heat to infuse the plate with a layer of resin, the plate is then ‘bitten’ in a weak acid-bath, creating incisions into which ink is rubbed. The word ultramarines Latin root translates literally as ‘beyond the sea’ - as a viewer, and through the immersive use of tonal shading in Allen’s Noah’s Dove and Northern Sea aquatints, this is exactly where I was transported:


There is a fire in my harbour.
Bowline taut by knife-edge ardour
wave-lips part
for coral teeth
and press themselves
against the beach;
a forked-tongue eels
its way to me:

into deluge
delving deep
running river
into sea.
runs freely
a spume-crested
child wrapped
by blanketing brine
in the night, timeless or
at-least not fit for time, to find
fleeting feet sitting sweetly
by the waterside -
A wave:
guided blue I rush, I must-
but upon approach foam
a gentler touch.
Lapping waves hiss
and cool,
now shallow,
find themselves
as pools.

With drawl of thoughts
from sandy breach
an ocean beast
will press itself upon the beach.


Beautiful, impossible, four decades strong: through this collection of works dedication and craft have formed our most unique history of intertwined lives, places, artistic concerns, and politics. Director Paula Gallagher voiced a shared ambition that still strikes home today:
“The city is changing, art is changing and the people are changing, and we will be apart of that change even as we record it, capture it and comment on it. Belfast Print Workshop is a local, national and international arts body and as such it has a unique role to play in Belfast and beyond, with its own niche on the global arts scene. We aim to explore all the possibilities of that role.”