Coffee, food and a hidden gem of Irish art
He and Beth and their two daughters lived in London, where their circle included Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Elisabeth Frink. Terence Flanagan was also a friend and his wife, Shelagh, was McWilliam’s Irish agent. The studio has busts of the couple.
Another friend, the artist and biographer Roland Penrose, described parties in the garden where the sculptures seemed to join in the conversation.
The Banbridge gallery has one of McWilliam’s powerful Women of Belfast series, inspired by the IRA bombing of the Abercorn café in Belfast in 1972. These bronzes show women flung backwards by the force of the explosion, their clothes stripping away, their faces draped. Diamond says they have to explain to children what the sculptures depict, but also says that surgeons and nurses visiting the gallery have commented that he has captured well the impact of a bomb on the human body. McWilliam wrote that “representation can lead one into complexities of design”.
Although he never returned to live in Northern Ireland, it influenced his work. “Having been born in Ulster, near the Border, in a town half Catholic, half Protestant, brought up during the ‘trouble’, this may account for a special awareness I have of the antithesis in life, and the necessity to find some reflection of this in art,” he wrote. “Good and evil, male and female, romantic and classical, solid and void.”
Not all of McWilliam’s experiments worked. He was cheerful about this – believing that there was no virtue in never getting out of your depth.
Curator Riann Coulter thinks McWilliam will be favourably re-assessed in the light of a magnificent new book on his work by Denise Ferran and Valerie Holman, published by Ashgate. “He’s been a bit ignored in Ireland,” she says. “People who come here are constantly surprised by the quality of his work.”
The FE McWilliam Gallery Studio is at 200 Newry Road, Banbridge, Co Down. femcwilliam.com