John Hewitt (1907-1987)

small black and white portrait of John Hewitt

John Hewitt is remembered as the 'father figure' and prophetic precursor of the current generation of Ulster poets. He was born in Belfast and educated at Methodist College and Queens University. From 1930 he worked in the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery and in 1957 he became the Art Director of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry. He returned to Belfast on his retirement in 1972.

He began writing poetry in the 1920's and his first collection No Rebel Word was produced in 1948. During the 1940's and 1950's he broadcast talks and composed essays reflecting his interest in the idea of 'regionalism' as it related to the arts in Ulster. He also established himself as a reviewer and art critic. In 1951 he gained the MA degree at Queens with a thesis on Ulster poets 1800-1870. Whilst in Coventry he began working on his unpublished autobiography A North Light.

Between 1972 and 1987 he was remarkably productive, publishing seven poetry collections, a book on the rhyming weaver-poets of Antrim and Down, and monographs on the artists John Luke and Colin Middleton.

John Hewitts achievements have been recognised in his native place both during his life time and since. In 1978 the Arts Council for Northern Ireland produced a short film of his life and work and in 1981 he was made a Freeman of the city of Belfast. Honorary doctorates were conferred upon him by the University of Ulster and the Queens University of belfast. His lasting contribution to the arts in Ulster is celebrated at the John Hewitt International Summer School held each year in Garron Tower on the Antrim Coast.

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John Hewitt
Art Gallery Man

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John Hewitt, in his autobiography A North Light, describes how a visit to the barber's and a chance reading of a "rectangle of newsprint" led him into a life as an art gallery man.

During an exciting period in the 1930's he was a prime mover in the collaboration of a group of younger artists and sculptors who came together as The Ulster Unit. An exhibition was held in December 1934 and John Hewitt wrote the forward for the catalogue including humorous Notes on the Art of Picture Buying. It also included a Colin Middleton wood engraving on its cover and a section where the contributing artists explained their principles and intentions. John Luke emphasized his desire to represent "spatial relations of form and masses as perceived in nature or imagination".

John Hewitt took on the role of 'secretary' to the unit and his motivation is explained in a section of his unpublished autobiography held in the archive at Coleraine. The accounts, written in a notebook of Roberta Hewitt's and held in the Public Record Office, reveal the lack of financial success of the enterprise. However, the Belfast Newsletter's report of the exhibition describes the considerable impact it had on contemporary Belfast.

For the first part of his career he worked in the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery until, in 1957, he was appointed as Art Director of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry.

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John Hewitt
Poet

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John Hewitt began writing poetry in 1924 whilst still at school and in that year alone composed over 600 poems. During the next sixty years he penned over 4,000 more and produced 20 collections and pamphlets of verse. Although his calling as a poet seems to have been established early, a manuscript fragment, kept by him and dated 1925, reveals his doubts as to whether his initial creative burst would come to fruition.

Throughout his life he followed the same pattern of carefully transcribing completed poems from rough draft into a series of notebooks. The archive at Coleraine holds 47 of these which date from 1926 until 1984. Far fewer of the drafts themselves have been preserved and the reason for this is well documented in the poem On the Preservation of Worksheets. He suggests it would be as absurd to preserve these workings of poems as to hoard " the fringe of filing on the workshop floor". However, one feels it cannot be coincidence that this particular poem has been kept for posterity!

His first published collection No Rebel Word, was completed in 1948 but it was not until twenty years later that the second Collected Poems 1932-1967 was produced by MacGibbon and Kee, after encouragement from John Montague. The 1970's and early 1980's saw a period of prolific publishing with Blackstaff Press, producing seven volumes that contained both revisions and new work like the autobiographical sequence Kites in Spring.

Conacre was privately printed in 1943 and regarded by John Hewitt as the first part of a trilogy of poems concluded by Freehold and Homestead. It voices a sense of alienation by the speaker of the poem who cannot feel at home in either the countryside of his ancestors, or within the city where he resides. In his own copy of the pamphlet John Hewitt outlines the publishing history of the poem and the reaction by contemporaries to it, including the use of a section for a Queens University English examination 1945!

The Bloody Brae: a dramatic poem is based on a massacre of Catholics by Cromwellian soldiers at the Gobbins, Islandmagee in 1642. It was written in 1936, broadcast on The Northern Ireland Home Service in january 1953 (or 1954) and performed by the Lyric Players in 1957. Frank Ormsby in the Collected Poems considers it to be:

a morality on the nature of responsibility and necessity to escape from the destructive cycles of atrocity and revenge

With such a relevant theme it is not surprising the play was revived by the Lyric Theatre and performed again in 1986.

The Day of the Corncrake: poems of the nine glens was published by the Glens of Antrim Historical Society in 1969 and again in 1984, illustrated with paintings by Charles McAuley. Most of the poems were composed between 1949 and 1953 and are to be found in John Hewitt's notebooks held at the archive in Coleraine.

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John Hewitt
Literary Historian

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In a talk for Radio Eireann, written in 1950, John Hewitt describes the discovery of the "Country Poets" of the north, who were writing during the nineteenth century, and how they provided him with:

a whole storehouse of information on the life, loves and usages of my own people which can illuminate and colour the bare lines of textbook history

Throughout his life he collected information about, and books by, these "rural bards" and particularly those privately printed for the handloom weavers writing in the Ulster-Scots dialect. In 1948 he produced a series of articles in a trade journal Fibres, Fabrics and Cordage about the lives and verses of these Rhyming Weavers; men like Herbison of Dunclug and Campbell of Ballynure.line drawing of Hewitt by Sophie Stewart In 1951 he was awarded an MA degree by The Queens University of Belfast for a thesis entitled Ulster Poets 1800-1870 and from this, some twenty years later, a book entitled Rhyming Weavers was published by the Blackstaff Press.

The archive at Coleraine records how John Hewitt researched his material for the many talks, broadcasts and articles he compiled with the aim of giving these poets a significant place within the cultural heritage of Ulster. Included are photographs, letters and copies of books of verse.

Picture by Sophie Stewart

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John Hewitt
Critic and Reviewer

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John Hewitt contributed articles, reviews and criticism to a wide variety of magazines and newspapers ranging from The Trade Union Searchlight through to The Ulster Young Farmer but he was most often associated with the literary journals-Lagan, The Bell, Rann and Threshold. His busiest period as a reviewer came during the 1950's when he produced the MacArt column for the Belfast Telegraph and wrote reviews of plays and exhibitions for the pages of the Irish Times. Nearly 200 pieces were written between 1951 and 1955. After leaving Belfast in 1957 he became poetry editor of the new journal Threshold, contributing regular criticism of current Irish poetry.

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John Hewitt
Man of the Left

small portrait of John Hewitt

John Hewitt described himself politically as "a man of the left" and although his views were, as Tom Clyde has put it, more akin to "classic British liberalism", he certainly took an active role in the political sphere. He and Roberta were involved in The Left Book Club, the Labour Party, the Fabian Society and the Belfast-based Peace League.

He saw himself continuing the line of dissenters stretching back to the heroes of the '98 rebellion. Men like Toland, Templeton and Hope had an important attraction for him. However, much of John Hewitt's ideology was influenced in the 1940's by the works of LePlay and Patrick Geddes as expounded by Lewis Mumford. He began to consider the concept of the "region" in relation to the political and cultural life of the north of Ireland and his ideas were most clearly delineated in an article Regionalism: the last chance published in The Northman in 1947. In a letter to John Montague, written in 1964, he explains how a sense of regional identity could be a way forward into a federal unity between the different parts of Ireland.

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John Hewitt
Bibliophile

Hewitt's book plate designed by John Luke

In I Found Myself Alone, an Arts Council film from 1978, John Hewitt described his personal library as "a working collection" and it was indeed just that. Many of the 5,000 books and pamphlets are referred to in his writing and used as source material for his ideas. The library is particularly strong in poetry collections from the 1800's onwards. There are a number of rare and valuable items of the rhyming weaver poets of the north which John Hewitt actively sought to collect. The library also preserves first editions of virtually every collection of Irish poetry since the 1950's, many of which are personally inscribed to him.

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