A Titanic task but artist Jim’ll fix it

SONY DSC
SONY DSC

BANGOR artist Jim McDonald is sharing a busy working schedule with countless thousands of people in Belfast, Liverpool, Southampton, Cobh and Cherbourg - Titanic’s final ports of departure.

And 100th anniversary preparations aren’t restricted to her last five anchorages. A Brazilian shopping plaza in Porto Alegre is hosting a major event called Titanic A Exposicao.

In the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, diners in a restaurant appropriately called The Titanic are munching borsch served in lifeboats slung from the ceiling!

On offer in a town hall in the Williamstown suburb of Melbourne there’s an Australian version of Titanic’s last breakfast, with tripe and onions instead of ham and eggs. Traditional music is performed by ‘top Irish group’ The Wake!

And in his studio in Bangor, Co Down, artist Jim McDonald is awake day and night applying the last brush strokes to the final canvases in a hundred centenary paintings that he’s been working on since his first depiction of Titanic almost a decade ago.

“That was for an exhibition in Ballynahinch,” he told me, “and at five by four feet the painting was probably one of my biggest.”

His personal connections with Titanic-city’s maritime past are as long and wide, and as colourful, as his frames. Jim’s London-born grandfather Donald McDonald, a WWI ship’s stoker, lived on the Belmont Road and became an engine-shop labourer in the shipyard.

Donald’s son Jim followed him onto Queen’s Island, first in an electrical squad, and then as a red leader. Back then ships’ hulls were painted with red lead, which was probably the McDonald family’s first brush with painting!

In 1954 Jim junior joined H&W as a 15-year-old apprentice fitter, after a job in a linen warehouse “lifting 40-pound rolls of linen and throwing them into a lorry,” he recounted.

This undoubtedly strengthened his arms, a valuable asset for life at an easel where concentrated hand, arm and finger movement controls every brush stroke.

“It was like weight-lifting,” he told me, though his warehouse salary was less uplifting. “I think my first week’s wage packet was 27 and sixpence,” he remembered grimly.

With his father and grandfather in the shipyard, Jim lived with his mother and sister in a close-knit East Belfast shipyard community. The children played hop scotch and marbles outside their “two-up two-down with outside toilet” Moore Street home. Herds of cattle on their way to the market sometimes stampeded through their youthful tranquillity. The youngsters dashed to the relative safety of doorways “and I remember a man trying to catch one of the cattle,” smiled Jim, “holding tightly onto its two horns like the handlebars of a bike - more Wild West than East Belfast!”

Young Jim was inadvertently storing away memories of the local yardmen, which in years to come he would transfer onto his canvasses – with the rough and the smooth.

He recalled “a 50-year-old neighbour, sleeves rolled up, fighting with his two sons on the street, and winning”. And there was a lady on the street who displayed home made lollipops in her window. “They were yellow and sticky, a penny each, and we loved them,” said Jim, with a passing reference to his legacy of recent dental appointments.

When he was 15 he joined his father and grandfather, and the fighting neighbour and his two sons, and the man who wrestled with cattle, and they all headed down to the Island.

“I remember watching grandfather sweeping bits of coal and metal from the floor around the furnaces in the engine works,” Jim recalled, “I went to work smoothing piston rings and rough edged pipes with a file and emery paper. It was very repetitive.”

He also worked on the slipways, and remembered two famous vessels – SS Southern Cross and aircraft carrier HMS Bulwark. He went on a frigate for sea trials which was three days of excitement he’ll never forget. “They were firing off depth charges,” he laughed, “and as they shot over the deck I was hoping they wouldn’t land on it!”

He was building his future as a fitter, but unknowingly his mind was filling with vibrant characters to inhabit his canvases when his fitting days were over, like his first foreman, nicknamed Molotov “because of his bushy Russian-style moustache,” explained Jim.

And there was Jack who had arthritic feet and hobbled as he pushed his four-wheeled wooden bogey, gathering off-cuts from the lathes. “Young boys usually pushed the bogeys,” smiled Jim, “and we called them the bogey boys. Jack was a lot older than them, so we called him the bogey man!”

Jim studied mechanical engineering at night school and in 1959 passed his exams for H&W’s diesel drawing office. Poised at a drawing board with his set square, dividers and ruler, and surrounded with draughtsmen, he was being drawn unwittingly towards his preferred vocation in an artist’s studio. He drew cartoons of his colleagues, and at night painted watercolours at home.

“One of the draughtsmen, a big Scotsman, was an amateur painter, and I suppose,” mulled Jim, “that he was my first influence towards art.”

Jim also loved William Conor’s work “particularly his paintings of shipyard men – the characters, all working class people, riveters and labourers. Those made a great impression on me.”

Jim started painting them too, the men he knew so well, and a decade ago the Titanic crept into one of his canvases in Ballynahinch. He has never looked back, yet he’s always looking back!

“I love painting the people I knew in the yard,” he emphasised. His work sold out an exhibition in Toronto, and he has paintings hanging in the USA, France, Australia, Dubai, and all over Ulster.

But recently he’s been concentrating on the 100 canvases he’s doing for the Titanic’s centenary, depicting Belfast’s most famous vessel, and the men in caps, overalls and heavy boots who built her.

His favourite painting focuses on the man who turned their workmanship into a sad icon that will soon be at the centre of centenaries all around the globe – Captain Smith, at a dinner in Titanic’s grand dining room, and the aperitif was a terrible tragedy.

If Jim McDonald had been on board for the maiden voyage, I wondered which scene he’d have most wanted to paint. “Down in the boiler room,” he answered, “all those furnaces and stokers stripped to their waists in the heat, shovelling coal into the red hot fires to keep her moving, and the flickering red light that the fires threw out onto them.” Jim paused to savour the scene, and to think of his grandfather, stoker Donald McDonald, bathed in the long distant glow of Queen’s Island’s furnaces.