FE McWilliam

Visual Art

F.E. McWilliam is an artist of international distinction. The son of a doctor, he was educated at Campbell College, Belfast and began his studies at the Belfast School of Art in 1926.

In 1928 he went to the Slade School in London where he studied with Henry Tonks and was a contemporary of John Luke. He won a scholarship to Paris and after that lived in London. In 1938 McWilliam exhibited with the British Surrealist Group and held his first one-man-show at the London Gallery in 1939. In 1940 he joined the Royal Air Force and served for 5 years. From 1946-1968 McWilliam taught at the Slade School. Many of his sculptures were commissioned for public places, for example, a large work for the Festival of Britain Exhibition (1951) at the South Bank Centre, London and Princess Macha for the Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry (1957).

In 1981 the Arts Councils in Ireland organised an exhibition of his work which toured throughout Ireland and in 1989 the Tate Gallery, London held a major retrospective of his work. McWilliam’s varied body of work is characterised by a love of the visual and verbal joke although his ‘Women of Belfast’ series depicting women caught in a bomb blast demonstrates his engagement with life in Belfast during the 70s.

The ‘Women of Belfast’ (1972) series documents the violent outbreak of the Troubles with jagged, roughly textured bronze sculptures. Here women are caught in dishevelment: flung by the force of a bomb blast, their legs flail and their faces bear the imprint of screams of protest.

“The images that FE McWiliam forged out of the Northern Ireland conflict are expressive. The shock-waves emanating from Belfast established links of compassion and involvement. For me the poignancy of that expression is that it is twofold; the women are victims of a storm of hatred; the artist was born in the country where the storm arose…The art historian Bernard Berenson noticed that in Northern European Art, emotional expression tended to be conveyed more successfully when it involved the action of the total figure, as in some of the work of Durer and Grunewald. Similarly FE McWilliam’s figures communicate because all the body is involved - extended hands, splayed legs, are in this sense more vocal than faces. Indeed in many instances the heads of the figures are hidden, buried in clothing. Equally the clothing is shamelessly stripped back to reveal the taut muscles of buttock and thigh: the figures have sacrificed any quality of seduction that normally partial nudity would impart; their predicament dehumanises them, they become the poignant contradiction of W B Yeats ‘engines of delight’.”

TP Flanagan on FE McWilliam

Selected Solo Exhibitions:
1939 London Gallery, London
1949,1952, 1956 Hanover Gallery, London
1958 West of England Academy, Bristol (retrospective)
1960 Queens University Belfast
1961, 1963, 1966, 1968,1971, 1973, 1975, 1979 Waddington Galleries, London
1963 Felix Landeau Gallery, Los Angeles
1969 Travers Gallery, London
1973 Dawson Gallery, Dublin
McClelland International Gallery, Belfast
1977 Bell Gallery, Belfast
1980 Taylor Gallery, Dublin
1981 Arts Council Northern Ireland (retrospective)
1989 Tate Gallery (retrospective)

Selected Public Collections:
Tate Gallery, London
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Irish Museum of Modern Art
Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
Ulster Museum
Banbridge District Council

Selected Writings About F.E. McWilliam:
Paul Nash, FE McWilliam, London Bulletin, 1939
A.T Broadbent, Sculpture Today, 1944
Eric Newton, British Scultpure, 1947
Patric Heron ‘London Arts’, May 1956, New York
DR J.P Hodin, ‘Art Journal’ XXV 2, New York 1966
Interview with Harriet Cooke, The Irish Times, 31 October 1973
W.J Strachan The Sculptor and his Drawings, The Connoisseur, 1976
W.J Strachan Towards Sculpture, Thames& Hudson, 1974
John Sexton, F.E.McWilliam, The Arts Review Vol XXIII N.o 1
Mike Catto, Art in Ulster Vol II