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Belfast City Council, Ulster University and National Museums NI have come together in a unique collaboration to showcase an artistic masterpiece as a Christmas gift to the city of Belfast.

The ‘Art Unwrapped’ project and special exhibition were unveiled at the Belfast School of Art at Ulster University today.

An iconic work from the Ulster Museum’s national collection has been loaned to the School of Art to go on display in the Belfast campus ground floor gallery for a month during the festive period (13 December – 13 January). In this, its inaugural year, the selected masterpiece is James Glen Wilson’s ‘Emigrant Ship Leaving Belfast’ (1852), a much-loved piece created by one of County Down’s finest painters.

James Glen Wilson was a young Irish artist, who trained at the Belfast School of Design, before joining the Royal Navy and exploring the South Seas, a voyage recorded in many of his surviving drawings.  He later married and settled in Australia.

Art Unwrapped will provide the public with a unique opportunity to experience the stories of James Glen Wilson’s own journey of migration, along with tales of the many other city citizens who left Belfast to create new homes across the world in the 19th Century.

Local school pupils joined representatives from the Council, Ulster University and National Museums NI and other guests for the unveiling of Art Unwrapped.

Speaking at the launch, Professor Raffaella Folli, Provost of Ulster University, said:

“In Ulster University, we are proud of our unrivalled history of providing art education to nurture the artistic environment and culture of Belfast. Widening access and increasing appreciation of art for all is central to this, and, working in partnership with Belfast City Council and National Museums NI on Art Unwrapped, we are giving the public a unique opportunity to see this artwork of global significance.

“Visitors to the exhibition will not only have the opportunity to view the classic painting but also have a guided introduction to the work and journey through interpretative panels. In this, its inaugural year, we are honoured to be the host of this gift to the city and we look forward to it becoming a fixed element of the Christmas event calendar.”

Speaking at the launch, Deputy Lord Mayor Councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown, said:

“’Belfast City Council is delighted to work on this exciting new partnership with Ulster University and National Museums NI to bring a much loved painting from National Museums’ national collection into the public domain as a gift to the city and its people and visitors during the festive period. It’s inspired by a similar programme in Milan where a major artwork is unveiled to the city over Christmas. James Glen Wilson was a local artist and his work as a painter and photographer in the Royal Navy took him all over the world but this particular painting of Belfast Harbour is considered his masterpiece.”

Kathryn Thomson, Chief Executive of National Museums NI, said:

“National Museums NI is honoured to loan James Glen Wilson’s wonderful painting from the Ulster Museum’s expansive collection, as a gift to the city this Christmas, and to tell the story of Belfast’s emigration history. Art Unwrapped is a brilliant collaboration that helps us make the national art collection more accessible to the public.  It is a unique opportunity to share one of our masterpieces in a new and different way.  As this particular painting depicts people who left their homeland, it allows us to reflect on how many Belfast citizens, including Wilson, made a cultural impact internationally by sharing the unique creativity and character of their Ulster roots.”

The special exhibition will run until 13 January and public tours, which are free, must be booked in advance. Tours will be created and guided by students from Ulster University’s Fine Art programme, and places will be limited to 15 per tour. Bookings can be made online via Eventbrite.