Coffee, food and a hidden gem of Irish art
A remarkable gallery and studio in Banbridge houses the striking work of local-born sculptor FE McWilliam, who moved with, and took influence from, the great artists of the early 20th century
HIDDEN BETWEEN two roundabouts just a couple of minutes’ drive from the busy main Dublin to Belfast road, stands a magical garden, gallery and studio, where some of the finest sculptures in the country are on display.
“The trick is not to go away from this world, but to make something just a little bit different,” sculptor FE McWilliam once wrote. “That’s where the mystery comes in.”
There’s a dim roar from the traffic beyond the high wooden fence, but you hardly notice it in this brilliant little place, which also has a Tardis-like gallery for visiting exhibitions, currently housing a fine show of recent work by Co Antrim-born Basil Blackshaw.
The FE McWilliam Gallery and Studio was set up in 2008, 20 years after the sculptor’s death, to house works his family bequeathed to the people of Banbridge, including the contents of his studio, a replica of which sits at the back of the garden. McWilliam, son of a local doctor, was born in the town in 1909 and his work spans most of the major artistic movements of the 20th century, while not entirely belonging to any of them.
The first big piece you see inside the gallery is Umbilicus. This is a tall, womanly pair of crossed legs, cast in bronze, tapering into a round belly with a navel like an eye. The piece has, says heritage officer Jason Diamond, a controversial history. “The NI Sports Council asked the NI Arts Council in 1977 to commission a piece,” he says. “But when they saw Umbilicus, they were appalled, and said it had nothing to do with sport and could well be seen as detrimental to women.”
The Arts Council took it and asked McWilliam to come up with something else. He came back with the Judo Players, but by this time the Sports Council had been disbanded.
Legs and feet, and in particular female legs and feet, were a favourite subject. The at once imposing and insouciant Legs Static is in the garden at Banbridge, and the studio has maquettes of pieces including Girl in a Cloth Cap – a pair of long legs seated on the ground, wearing a cloth cap.
A photograph in the gallery’s cafe shows the sculptor working in his studio, surrounded by photographs from advertisements for tights. The cafe, run by local company Quails, has glass walls and a terrace so you can admire the sculptures and the garden while having good coffee and food.