Northern Ireland

Clifton House: Family reunited with portrait in attic

clifton house
Image caption Chief Executive Paula Reynolds presenting a portrait of his great uncle to Mr Allen Sinton

A Northern Ireland man has discovered a 60-year-old portrait of his great uncle that lay hidden in an attic for years.

The owners of Clifton House in Belfast want to return 27 paintings of its former residents with their extended families.

The portraits were stored among black bags, suitcases and historical documents dating back up to 300 years.

Image caption The secret gallery of oil paintings was found in the attic of Clifton House, where they had been stored since the property's renovation in 2003

One such painting is thought to be that of William McMurty, a former resident, who died in 1963.

His great nephew, Allen Sinton, spotted the portrait on the BBC News NI website and described the "weird sensation" when he saw the familiar face of the man he knew as "uncle Willy".

Mr Sinton remembered being told his great uncle lived in a residential home on the Antrim Road, but only realised the connection with Clifton House after seeing the appeal.

"I was only about 10 or 11 whenever he passed away. But I remember him visiting the house for Sunday dinners, Christmas Day, that sort of thing.

"I looked at the pictures and one of them jumped out at me - uncle Willy as we knew him, my father's uncle."

Mr McMurty, a former linen trader from Islandmagee who had family in east Belfast, resided at Clifton House from April 1953.

Image caption Mr Sinton only had a younger photograph of his great uncle to identify him

The only picture Mr Sinton had of his great uncle was a photograph from 1930.

Image caption The portrait of Allen's great uncle was painted by Spence in 1957

The paintings were created by Belfast artist Tobias Everard Spence, the former president of the Belfast Charitable Society that owned Clifton House, in the 1940s and 1950s.

The majority of the portraits are still without a permanent home.


Most of the portraits only have small scribbled names on the back alluding to the subjects' identities. Others are completely nameless, with the society hoping keen-eyed relatives spot a family resemblance.

Clifton House opened as a poor house in the 18th Century, but after World War Two, it became a home for the elderly.

Image copyright Clifton House
Image caption Clifton House, a Georgian mansion on Belfast's North Queen Street, was built as a poor house by the Belfast Charitable Society

The secret gallery of oil paintings was found by heritage and archive manager Louise Canavan. They had been stored away when the property was renovated in 2003.

Image caption The majority of the 27 portraits remain without a permanent home

The property once housed up to 100 elderly residents at a time, before the residential home relocated to more modern facilities in the 1990s.

Ms Canavan said: "We will continue the process, it will not just finish today.

"We plan to create a small gallery and exhibit them."

Those who had relatives at Clifton House between 1940 and 1980 have been urged to look at the gallery of remaining portraits and get in touch if they think they could know the subjects.

Image copyright Clifton House
Image caption The Belfast Charitable Society are appealing for possible relatives of the other subjects to come forward

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