Luke, John (1906–75), painter, was born 16 January 1906 at 4 Lavis St., Belfast, fourth child among seven sons and one daughter of James Luke (1874–1937), boilerman, originally from Ahoghill, Co. Antrim, and Sarah Luke (1877–1953), daughter of a weaver from near Ballymena, Co. Antrim. The couple married in 1896 and moved to Belfast c.1900. Luke was educated at Hillman St. national school and at the Sunday school of Duncairn Gardens methodist church. On leaving school he worked in the mill of the York Road Flax Spinning Co. and later as a riveter's boy in the Workman & Clark shipyard. In 1923, with the encouragement of his father, who was always keen for his children to take advantage of any educational opportunities, he began to take drawing lessons at the Belfast Technical College under Newton Penprase. His talent and diligence was soon recognised and he was awarded a scholarship for the 1924–5 session. By the time he graduated with distinction (June 1927), he was teaching part-time at the college. In the same year he received the Sorella scholarship and a £10 prize in the competition for the RDS Taylor scholarship. In 1928 he was awarded the prestigious Dunville scholarship, which allowed him to study in London at the Slade School of Art. Working under Henry Tonks, he shared a studio and flat with F. E. McWilliam (qv). He graduated in June 1930 with a diploma in fine art, and went on to study life-drawing and wood-engraving for a short time in the autumn of that year at the Westminster School of Art under Walter Bayes. Shortly afterwards he travelled to Paris for six weeks before returning to Belfast at the end of 1931.
It was from this time that he developed his highly individual philosophy of art. He was fascinated by the craftsmanship of renaissance masters such as Piero della Francesca and Botticelli. He spent a great deal of time in his own art-historical researches, concentrating particularly on the technique of tempera, the materials for which he later began to prepare himself as he combined the medium with oil paint. When in Dublin he took the opportunity of studying old masters at first hand in the NGI. His academic tendencies also drew him to the work of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), whose influence can be clearly seen in his landscapes of the early 1930s. In his circle at the time, which included the writer and critic John Hewitt (qv), there was a strong interest in the writings of Clive Bell (1881–1964) and Roger Fry (1866–1934), among others. However, in general he strongly disliked modern art, feeling it lacked the essential quality of craftsmanship. From 1933 his paintings became progressively more stylised as he moved away from recognisable scenes to imagined ones, which he painted with a dreamlike atmosphere, such as ‘The bridge’ (1936; QUB). Though his work remained figurative, he eschewed narrative content, seeing these scenes instead as reflecting the decorative aesthetic rhythms of his experience of the external world. A key device in this was his treatment of all surfaces as the same polished texture, rendered in intense and vivid colour. In this regard there are striking similarities between his work and that of the French neo-impressionist artist Georges Seurat (1859–91), though Luke is not derivative.
With the outbreak of war he stopped painting and in spring 1941 he moved with his mother (his father had died in 1937), to the steward's house at Knappagh House, Killyleagh, Co. Armagh, to escape the bombings of Belfast. He began to teach part-time at Manor House girls' school, Milford, soon afterwards. Living in the country allowed him to grow his own vegetables and he became increasingly dedicated to an organic, vegan regime. Indeed, his rigorous ecological ideas and his interest in mysticism and Hindu and Buddhist belief gradually took the place of his earlier orthodox religious outlook. He remained in the seclusion of Knappagh till 1949. He began to paint again in 1943, producing ‘Pax’ (private collection) in his painstaking technique of oil and tempera, and ‘The road to the west’ (1944; private collection). He insisted to the patron of the latter, John Hewitt, that he affix a note to the back of the panel detailing the meticulous process by which it was painted. While critics such as Hewitt and James White greatly admired his virtuosity, they also warned against its becoming an end in itself and stifling his creative impulses. Nevertheless, he continued to work in this manner, of which ‘The three dancers’ (1945; Ulster Museum) and ‘The rehearsal’ (1950; Ulster Museum) are fine examples. However, he ceased panel painting in the early 1950s. He was always a painstaking worker, and now his pace became even slower and consequently his output smaller. Much of his time was taken up by a mural (1951; City Hall, Belfast) depicting the reading of the charter of the city. This was followed by murals for the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim (1956; Provincial Masonic Hall, Rosemary St., Belfast) and Millfield Technical College (1961). He also executed for Hillsborough Castle two commemorative plaques of the coats of arms of two successive governors of Northern Ireland, Lord Wakehurst and Lord Erskine of Rerrick. This, along with a number of portrait drawings, was the sum of his output for the last twenty-five years of his life. From 1954 he taught at the Belfast School of Art, where students remembered a remote, solitary character to whom communication did not come easily. He himself maintained that the highly refined style of his painting was a way for him to get beyond his deep shyness and make contact with others. His deep reserve was coupled with a modesty and wit which his few close friends greatly admired. Ultimately, his reticent temperament stood between him and the realisation of his full artistic potential. He died, unmarried, at the Mater Infirmorum hospital, Belfast, on 4 February 1975, having been in declining health for some years.