Book review: This is Magritte

A concise, well written, and thoughtfully illustrated book about a master of surrealism. Learnt interesting insights about Rene Magritte. One can appreciate how aspects of his life affected his artistic work, including his family experiences, coming of age, and his (sometimes fraught) relationships with friends and peers. The book also provides good explanations of the contests for artistic narratives, for example the distinction between the Parisian and Belgian surrealists (the role of music is key). And clarity of Magritte’s views about his own work, for example his firm rebuttal of psychoanalytical interpretations: “In my painting, a bird is a bird. And a bottle is a bottle, not a symbol of a womb.” (But we can ask, “Is it a pipe?”)

@MrUlster @NorthernSlant

Exposure therapy: Natural Connections exhibition

Exposure therapy: Natural Connections exhibition
by Allan LEONARD
17 June 2021

Belfast Exposed launched its exhibition, “Natural Connections”, which showcases 60 shortlisted images, from over 1,400 received. The competition ran earlier this year, asking people to submit images that represented connections with nature, which “sustained, surrounded, supported, and encouraged people and communities” during the pandemic.


Book review: Irish Summers (Harry GRUYAERT)

Book review: Irish Summers (Harry GRUYAERT)
by Allan LEONARD
21 March 2021

Harry Gruyaert’s work is recognisable by its saturated colours of thoughtfully chosen hues. The interplay with light is also crucial. There are images in Irish Summers that exemplify such decisive moments, when colour and light come together to satisfy Gruyaert’s quest for sensual beauty in the otherwise banal.


Book review: Great Thinkers (The School of Life)

Great Thinkers is a compilation of 60 short essays — about 1,500 to 3,000 words each — published by The School of Life, which dedicates itself to “developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture”. It describes the book as a volume of some of the most important ideas of Eastern and Western culture, drawn from the works of philosophers, political theorists, sociologists, artists, and novelists “whom we believe have the most to offer us today”.


Book review: A Job to Love (The School of Life)

Book review: A Job to Love (The School of Life)
by Allan LEONARD
28 April 2018

I acquired A Job to Love by The School of Life (founder and chairman, Alain DE BOTTON) when I had pretty much decided to enter the job market of the freelancer. So perhaps this read was for self-affirmation.


Coming to terms with our interdependencies #GFA20

Coming to terms with our interdependencies #GFA20
by Allan LEONARD
10 April 2018

On the 20th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, it is easy to neglect the peace process that preceded it. My reference point is the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, because I learned about the efforts of then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald the year before, from a magazine article that I read in a local library in my rural hometown in Ohio. I knew then that what he was working on was important.


Mr Ulster buys a painting

Mr Ulster buys a painting
30 November 2017

For my 50th birthday, I wanted a special gift, something that I would always attribute to that milestone event. I have long appreciated visual arts; I even took a few art history modules at university. I dabbled with drawing, which I enjoyed, but quickly realised that getting competent in oils is a whole different matter. My father was an artist — well at least he earned a Master of Fine Arts at California State University Fullerton and produced a few items. (For my birthday, my mother kindly gifted me one of his pieces of sculpture.)

Over the years I’ve admired countless masterpieces and items of contemporary art, wondering if I’d ever be able to afford owning one myself. Framed prints have served as a substitute, and I’ve always been happy displaying them. This includes a large ‘live drawing’ by Brian John Spencer, done during a talk that my wife, Beverley, and I gave at TEDxStormont in 2014.

I’ve known Brian since he was a recent graduate of the law school at Queen’s University Belfast. He came into my office with an interest in drawing political cartoons. That proposal didn’t quite match our needs, but I remain grateful for having this introduction of an artist as a young man.

And I’ve enjoyed watching Brian evolve and mature as an artist.

Everyone enjoys his happy demeanor, and he appears to have found a satisfactory balance between working for commission and the pursuit of art as a lifestyle.

I regretted not being able to attend his first solo exhibition earlier this year, but made sure to make it for his current one, “Home is where the art is”, at Canvas Gallery, Stranmillis Road, Belfast.

At the reception event, I immediately complimented him on his snazzy dark navy with red flower blazar; this dandy sartorial choice entirely compatible with hipster sensibilities.

Brian explained the inspirations for “Home is where the art is” as emanating from his “32 counties in 32 days” grand tour of the island as well as the story of Seán Keating, who documented the Irish war of independence.

On one side of the gallery were a selection of original paintings he made for a series of prints that hung on the other side.

The prints are clearly in the style of Ulster Transport Authority and others’ efforts to promote tourism in the province of Ulster — an updated version, refreshed with new sites, such as the Titanic building and the Peace Bridge in Derry-Londonderry.

One of the paintings particularly caught my eye: the Stormont Estate. Beyond admiring Brian’s rendition of Parliament Buildings on top of the hill, with billowing clouds passing overhead, this image is one that I am familiar with, as it is from the perspective of the car park where I walked from when I worked here.

The longer I admired this painting, the more I knew that I would cherish it. I had to own it.

I returned to Brian and told him that this would be my first ever purchase of an original painting. After explaining to him why so, he showed me some “en plein air” photographs that he took of himself painting this image, as well as several others. “I know that tree!” I replied.

En plein air

After making payment, I asked the exhibition hostess, Meghan Downey (an artist in her own right; see her selected piece at the RUAS exhibition at Ulster Museum), if she’d take a photo of patron and artist. She kindly obliged.

The patron and the artist

I was buzzing with excitement, which Mark Neale generously let me share with him. Mark also worked at Parliament Buildings, and we both reviewed the painting’s beauty and significance for both of us. Mark teased that he only wish it was an official flag day when Brian painted the image.

Considering the journey that I have made to relocate and settle in Northern Ireland — a place I call home — and to do my wee bit to encourage political and social progress here, I find it most fitting that my first proper art acquisition is of a place where many have tried to make peace work.

“Home is where the Art is” exhibition is on display at Canvas Galleries, 76 Stranmillis Road, Belfast, from 30 November — 9 December 2017:


Book review – The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction (John ROBERTSON)

Review: The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction (John ROBERTSON)
by Allan LEONARD for Mr Ulster
1 May 2017

The Enlightenment is one of Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introductions” series; there are over 400 volumes. Written by experts, they “are for anyone wanting a stimulating and accessible way into a new subject”.


Book review – The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Alain de BOTTON)

I have read most of de Botton’s books, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work took me the longest to finish, partly because I am a slow reader, but I blame more on the editing. The chapters are his brief immersions in ten jobs, across the professions.

While absorbing his philosophical reflections was at times illuminating, often his presentations was one of the mundaneness of it all.

Yes, work can be mundane. But for many (if not most), it provides an important sense of worth.

de Botton didn’t ask workers what they enjoy about their work, if they derived any pleasure, even if only social.

Because most work brings people together — colleagues we call them — and for some the proverbial water cooler gossip or post-day pint makes the toil bearable.

Indeed, I would have liked to learn de Botton’s thoughts on the increasing remoteness of work — hot desking, meetings in coffee shops, virtual meetings via Skype calls.

Here, the first two chapters — on cargo shipping and logistics — speak to the physical dimension of our consumption.

But they also provide scope to ponder about how we make those purchases, frequently from our beds tapping an iPad rather than a journey to a town centre.

de Botton serendipitously finds himself in a graveyard of jumbo planes, and he uses the metaphor fittingly to conclude the chapter and the book.

Perhaps this was his intention all along — to make the reader endure the tedium, to learn that our jobs are just ‘matchstick protests’ in the wave of life.


A good afternoon @UlsterMuseum

At the Ulster Museum, my method is to head straight to the lift and go to the fifth floor, avoiding the history sections; it’s gotta be fine arts for me. My motivation today was the Francisco Goya exhibition, The Disasters of War, which I learned about in an art history module at university. I remember being fascinated about the documentation of the horrors of war. Goya’s illustrations are a kind of pre-camera war photojournalism.

But I was thrown off now by a desk of catalogues: where these of the Goya exhibition? No, they were of the 135th annual exhibition of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts.

“Can I help you?” asked a woman sitting behind the table.

“I’m here to see the Goya exhibition,” I replied.

“Yes, everyone wants to see the Goya exhibition. It’s behind you.”

* * *

Perhaps out of a tinge of guilt, I decided to walk forward and inspect what the RUA had to offer. It was a collage of paintings, sculpture and other artwork by RUA members. The red dot stickers on some of the title placards told me that they were for sale.

So my heart skipped a beat (or two) when I saw Joseph McWilliams’ The Governors of Anguilla, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands and the Last Governor of Northern Ireland. I had seen this is several art books, but never the original.

McWilliams, Joseph; The Governors of Anguilla, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands and the Last Governor of Northern Ireland; National Museums Northern Ireland;
McWilliams, Joseph; The Governors of Anguilla, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands and the Last Governor of Northern Ireland; National Museums Northern Ireland;

And here it was, it all its brash, bold, colourful glory, with its projection of historical and social significance.

Surely this couldn’t be for sale. But here it was, lot 225. I made a note of it.

I continued walking along the perimeter of the rooms. Many accomplished examples of fine art, but now my barometer was The Governors of Anguilla. A few of my favourites were Mirror Mirror (2) (by Dave Mardigan) and Cake in Jar (by Stephen Johnston); I liked their play of reality, nods to surrealism.

Back at the exhibition reception desk, the woman was gone, and I had a quick browse of the catalogue book. My desired artwork conspicuously had no sale price in its listing.

The woman returned and asked if I was interested in any of the items.

“Oh yes,” I answered, “but I see that The Governors of Anguilla is not for sale.”

“The Joseph McWilliams piece. That’s because he’s dead. That is on the ‘obituary wall’, of our members who have died this year. Sorry for any confusion.”

“I thought it was too good to be true,” I replied.

“You would have considered buying it?”

“Well, I can only imagine the price. But it is an outstanding piece of art.”

Now satisfied by my curiosity of the RUA exhibition (I picked up some leaflets to learn more about the academy), as well as relieved of any financial consideration of fine art beyond my means, I proceeded to my original planned destination.

* * *

On display were 40 of 80 illustrations of The Disasters of War, which Goya created between 1810 and 1820. However, likely because of fears of censorship, they were not published until 1863, 35 years after Goya’s death. These are on loan from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, and a museum steward informed me about this Irish-American mining magnate’s strong interest in drawings and Orientalist art.

This body of work is made up of three sections — the brutality of warfare, the famine in Madrid (1811-12), and a series of dream-like scenarios — and are shown sequentially. The lighting is understandably very low, and you need to get close to see the detail in these A5-sized drawings.

It seems everyone has a favourite illustration. No se puede mirar (One cannot look at this; plate 26), has figurative piercing of the executing rifles’ bayonets in the right frame of the image. But for me the most provocative is Tampoco (Not (in this case) either; plate 36), with the general slouching against a large rock in the field of war, inspecting his handiwork of death, a man hung at a tree.

It is rare to be able to view The Disasters of War. As a student, I regretted not going to the Museum of Fine Arts to see them on slides. But until 4 June 2017, they are here for all to see in our own backyard. They are significant and important to experience.

* * *

I carried onto the next room, which presented work under the title, Bare Life, which is reference to how the human form has been applied artistically. I was pleased to see the medium of photography included, Woman and Child (2005) by local artist, Paul Seawright. Mat Collishaw’s self-portrait on a backlit transparency is very good, challenging our confirmation bias of dress and costume in portraiture.

* * *

The New Past of Irish works since 1800 in another room shows the known and lesser known works of Irish artists. I have to say that most do not excite me, in that many just tell me of someone’s competency in a particular style of art, whether neoclassical, impressionist, abstract. An exception is Willie Doherty’s Ghost Story (2007), which is a powerful mixture of prose (poetry?) and moving images that submerge you:

* * *

The lift down to the ground level plonked me at a part of the building that I wasn’t familiar with. I could see more paintings through the window panes of a double set of doors, so I let my now compulsive desire for more artistic stimulation drive me forward.

This was Texaco Children’s Art exhibition, showing artwork by those under 19 years of age, throughout the island of Ireland. All entrants are to be commended for their time and devotion to their work, which hopefully was more joy than a piece of school work.

Here the items were even more densely spaced on the wall than the RUA exhibition. There was a wide variety of styles, which was good to see — artistic freedom at play.

There were three pieces which made me want to meet the young artists.

Ellie’s Drawing of a Vase of Flowers, by 5-year-old Ellie Giblin, is an explosion of colour, yet in comprehendible form. That is, it’s neither an attempt to draw flowers literally, nor scratchings of crayons. It is worth a promotion from the refrigerator door to a museum’s wall.

Nutella Sachet, by 14-year-old Robert Madden, is a fine application of colour and texture. For example, there is a thick strip of paint along the packet’s side, where the artist has etched the words, ‘BEST BEFORE’. It evokes tactility. And I’ve never seen a painting of a sachet of Nutella before!

And 17-year-old Marta Turalska’s My Grandma with Grape is wonderful — a demonstration of excellent technical skill in drawing and colour, with fun through a personal subject.

Mr Ulster had a good afternoon at the museum. There is a broad range of excellent art to experience right now, and I’m glad I made the visit.

#TeamBev @MrUlster

Don’t leave carers in the dark

Allan LEONARD and Beverley BEATTIE

The following article was published in the 2015–16 annual review of the Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke:

Don’t leave carers in the dark

While we often hear what it’s like to fight the long battle of recovery after stroke, we don’t always hear what it’s like to be a carer of someone who is a stroke survivor. We may imagine becoming a carer when we are in our 60s or 70s, but no one imagines they will become a carer in their 40s.

Allan Leonard was just 44 when he became his wife Beverley’s carer. She had suffered a devastating stroke at the age of 40.

After five months in hospital, including the Regional Acquired Brain Injury Unit (RABIU) at Musgrave Park Hospital, Beverley returned home. But that was just the start of Allan’s long and sometimes frustrating experience as a carer.

“I was probably quite naïve about how soon I would be able to return to an ordinary routine. As a carer I never received any brief from anyone at any time in the process. I figured it out — as most carers do — along the way. There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the system who has any responsibility for the carer’s wellbeing, whether physical or mental. There appears to me to be too much reliance on the selfresilience of the carer.

“Once Beverley became stronger, after about a year, I succeeded in negotiating with the Health Trust to exchange some of Beverley’s personal care provision for personal assistance — a care professional who comes out to accompany and supervise activities directed by the client.

“For Beverley, this meant someone to watch her iron clothes, for example, or to go for short assisted walks in a nearby park.”

Inspired by his wife, Allan was determined to reclaim as much of his own life as practical, whilst accepting their new situation. “Many family carers are so overwhelmed with the enormity of the caring task they don’t take care of themselves. Beverley’s personal care provision meant that I could then spend more time and attention taking care of myself.”

And they both want “to turn something bad into something good,” as Allan put it. From his carer’s perspective, this includes him wanting an honest appreciation by health professionals of the carer’s role in the design of healthcare pathways. He does this by sitting on an Integrated Care Partnership for Ards, along with his wife.

Allan also attends a stroke carers’ group at NICHS, which he said has been useful:

“As with anyone dealing with a traumatic event in their lives, it helps to meet up with others in a similar situation. I suppose that I’m a more conspicuous member of the group — a younger male — but there’s usually someone else who gives me perspective, and the sincerity and goodwill by the staff, volunteers and all reminds me that I’m not alone.”

Caring can take a great physical and emotional toll on a person. If you are a carer, you need to make time for yourself when possible. Relaxing can help stave off feelings of anxiety, stress and even depression. There’s lots of help available.

To find out more, please go to

#TeamBev @MrUlster

Seeking better patient outcomes: Music to the ears of occupational therapists #ValueofOT

Seeking better patient outcomes: Music to the ears of occupational therapists
by Allan LEONARD
11 November 2016

The College of Occupational Therapists (COT) held a launch event at the Long Gallery of Parliament Buildings, for their campaign on the value of occupational therapy, “Improving lives, saving money”.

The event was sponsored by Claire Hanna MLA, who apologised for being unable to be present.

Karin Bishop (Assistant Director, Professional Practice, College of Occupational Therapists) welcomed the several dozen attending, and displayed their fresh report, “Reducing the pressure on hospitals”.

She explained that the origins behind their campaign was their own value of providing high quality care amidst challenging financial circumstances in the health and social care services.

Bishop said that there is much good work taking place in Northern Ireland, and now occupational therapists (OTs) relieve pressure at the front door (by keeping hospital admissions low), the back door (by taking steps to prevent readmissions), and through the hospital itself (by getting patients out as quickly and safely as possible).

She encouraged us to read the square leaflet left on our seats, of the six key recommendations of their report.

The first of several intermission videos was shown; Emily’s story was one of re-enablement after a fall down stairs left her with broken wrists and limbs. (I was surprised to see her stairwell not subsequently fitted with a double rail.)

Dr Sean McGovern (Clinical Director of Emergency Medicine, Ulster Hospital) described hospitals as like airplanes: “Everyone’s been on one, but like airplanes, not everyone knows how to fly one.”

He presented a series of slides with key points, such as demonstrating that Ambulance and Emergency (A&E) pressures in Northern Ireland “are not special; there are real pressures here across these islands”.

McGovern said that based on his experience, the number of patients awaiting admission to hospital far outweighs the number of “inappropriate attenders” at A&E. He said that setting a target of a 4-hour assessment for someone who shows up at A&E, while at the same time advising people not to go to A&E if they can avoid it, is a confused message.

He also said that patient discharge from hospital into community support should involve patients and their families from day one in its planning.

Eddie Lynch (Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland) gave an overview of his organisation and its powers.

He highlighted changing demographics — a forecast of a significant increase in the number of older people living independently — and called for a plan to prepare for this.

Slippers matter! Lynch said that he was surprised to learn that a third of falls in Scotland are attributable to worn out or ill-fitting slippers: 120,000 falls are caused this way.

Paula Bradley MLA (Chairperson of the Health Committee, Northern Ireland Assembly) praised the COT report and its timeliness, “because Allied Health Professionals will provide a key role in realising the recommendations from the Bengoa Report”.

Bradley reflected upon her working experience as part of a social work team in Antrim Hospital. She described OTs as invaluable colleagues in assessing the needs of patients and discharging them from hospital: “We needed to work together and we did work together.”

“We do good work, and we need to replicate it all of our [Health] Trusts,” she added.

Bradley finished by saying that she looked forward to those who will come forward and give evidence at the Health Committee, in order to inform and influence the Minister of Health’s actions.

Dr Patricia McClure (Chair of Council, College of Occupational Therapists) said that there are 31,000 members in COT across the UK, with 1,000 members in Northern Ireland.

She described the uniqueness of occupational therapy, as understanding the significant impact that occupations have for people — getting out of bed, eating food, getting out, doing the hobbies and jobs that we love to do: “These are all things we take for granted until we can’t do them.”

McClure said that the Health Minister’s declared mission of “person-centred care” is “music to the ears” of OTs, as is the focus away from action targets, towards patient outcomes.

She called for a greater appreciation of the contribution that Allied Health Professionals make, and a critical role they can play in achieving long-term goals of improving health and social care.

Catherine McLaughlin (Chair, Northern Ireland Board, College of Occupational Therapists) closed the event by expressing a desire to work in collaboration and partnership: “We want to work for change, and change is pushing itself towards us.”

Afterwards, I spoke with Kate Lesslar (COT), who asked me what I thought of the event. I replied that it was good for what it was, but that the emphasis was overly about older service users, and did not feature anyone returning to work, which is another way of demonstrating “improving lives, saving money”. Lesslar took this on board, and advised me that there will be a forthcoming COT report that addresses re-employment.

There is no denying that occupational therapy improves lives and saves money. I look forward to learning more about how this benefits a broader spectrum of individuals.

Catherine McLAUGHLIN, Kate LESSLAR, Julia SCOTT, and Patricia McCLURE

Julia SCOTT, Eddie LYNCH, Karin BISHOP, Paula BRADLEY MLA, Kate LESSLAR, Patricia McCLURE, Sean McGOVERN, and Catherine McLAUGHLIN

Beverley BEATTIE, Allan LEONARD, and Kate LESSLAR