The Irish landscape artist and figurative painter John Luke was born in Belfast and worked in a shipyard and Flax Mill before taking night classes at the Belfast School of Art. There, he won a scholarship and the following year a prize in a Royal Dublin Society competition which led him to travel to London to study fine art painting, drawing and sculpture at the Slade School of Art under Henry Tonks. The artists Tom Carr and F. E. McWilliam were his contemporaries at the time. After exhibiting at the Redfern Galleries in London, he completed a mural for a travel company, spending the proceeds on a trip to Paris. After this, he took evening classes in figure painting at the Westminster School of Art under Walter Bayes and showed at the Leger Gallery.
In 1931 he returned to Belfast. By now, landscape painting was his dominant interest. In 1933 he exhibited with the Northern Ireland Guild of Artists. More exhibitions followed, in Belfast and at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) in Dublin. In 1938 he assisted in the painting of a frieze for the Ulster Pavilion in the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow. The following year he represented Northern Ireland at the New York World Fair. During WWII Luke stopped painting for a spell and retired to a cottage in County Armagh, earning his living by teaching art at Manor House school.
In 1946, Luke had a solo exhibition of his oil and tempera paintings at the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery: a total of 85 artworks including four sculptures. In 1947 John Luke’s work was included at an exhibition of noted Ulster artists in London. Then, in 1948, the Northern Ireland Council For Encouragement of Music and The Arts (CEMA), the forerunner of the arts council of Northern Ireland, held a retrospective for Luke in Belfast. In 1951, Luke painted a mural for the Festival of Britain in his characteristically, formalized style. There is another mural of his in the Masonic Hall, Rosemary Street, Belfast, and an oil The Old Callan Bridge in the County Museum, Armagh. From 1953 he lectured at Belfast College of Art.
John Luke spent his final years – after the death of his mother – in relative poverty in a flat in Duncairn Gardens, Belfast, and died in the Mater Hospital in 1975. The following year, the Arts Council of Ireland mounted an extensive exhibition of his work at the Ulster Museum and the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin. His artworks appear in several public and private collections, including: Ulster Museum, Belfast; County Museum, Armagh; Queen’s University Belfast; and many more.
The highest price paid at auction for a painting by John Luke was recorded in 1999, when his landscape, entitled The Bridge, was sold at Christie’s, in London, for £41,500.