Belfast-born painter whose career spanned 50 years
Noreen Rice: February 19th, 1936 - March 19th, 2015
Noreen Rice: consistently produced high-quality work over many years, exhibiting in six successive decades.
Though influenced by the trends of 20th-century art, as filtered through her Belfast contemporaries of the 1950s, she found her own vision early in life. Her art tended to the narrative and poetic, drawing on mythology. In spirit it was very Irish while also influenced by surrealism and the techniques of primitive painters.
She consistently produced high-quality work over many years, exhibiting in six successive decades. Her first exhibition was in 1956, her last in 2009.
Rice never attended art college. Rather, she was a product of Belfast’s vibrant visual art scene in the 1950s, having been introduced to it in her mid- teens. She was very much part of that scene: the only portrait noted artist Gerard Dillon is known to have painted was of her.
She was one of the last living links with those artists, and even earlier painters. As a young woman she knew Jack B Yeats. They drew sketches of each other. She disliked Yeats’s portrayal of her and tore up the sketch – much to her later regret.
In 1963 she was one of 30 artists the government sent on an Irish cultural delegation to the United States. She wanted to visit a friend in Chicago and fellow artists had to persuade her to meet President John F Kennedy instead. It was three weeks before the president’s assassination.
Noreen Hazel Rice was born in February 1936 off the Woodstock Road in east Belfast, the second of the two children of Johnny Rice and his wife, Nell (née Hayes). Rice was a master mason, who joined the army to fight in the second World War. His wife worked in a munitions factory and used her mezzo soprano voice to earn extra money singing.
Rice received her primary education at Mountpottinger Public Elementary School, where one enlightened teacher introduced her to Shakespeare. Her secondary education was at Belfast’s Methodist College, where she twice won prizes for art.
At “Methody” she embarked on the nonconformist path she was to follow for the rest of her life. Not particularly interested in academic work, she spent her time drawing, where her imagination quickly became evident. During a free class another girl asked her to draw her but was aghast when shown the finished product: the sketch showed her lying in a coffin.
When Rice was 13 her father’s work took her parents to Africa. She stayed on in the family home in Belfast, now rented out to lodgers. Her piano teacher introduced her to art, and to Belfast’s artistic circles.
After leaving Methodist College her mother insisted she undertake a secretarial course, at which she was only an irregular attender. She took a cottage near Castlewellan, Co Down, where she painted.
Despite her reluctance as a secretarial student she was to find her typing skills invaluable in later life to finance her painting.
At 18 she moved to Hong Kong, where her father was working. There she worked as a typist for MI5 and staged her first exhibition.
Next she moved to London, where she worked nights as a PA in BBC news and current affairs and painted during the day. She experimented with different materials. With her Belfast artist friend Gerard Dillon she toured junkyards and worked with wood, leather, tin and wire.
From London, she moved to Paris. There she worked for a while for Maria Jolas, who had first published extracts from what was to become Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. After Paris, she moved to Switzerland.
In the 1970s she returned to Ireland, where she lived in Fermanagh for some years. She was a skilled cook and, during her years in Fermanagh worked as a cook to supplement her income.
In the 1980s she moved to Belfast again, before returning to London and then spending some time in Spain.
Several residencies in the centre for creative artists at Annaghmakerrig brought her to Co Monaghan. As well as painting, she worked on the Tyrone Guthrie archives and decided to settle in Monaghan, making the village of Newbliss her home. She rented a substantial, rambling house, where she could have a studio. In Newbliss she completed her last major artistic work, shutters for the Pushkin house on the Baronscourt Estate in Co Tyrone.
Rice never reaped significant material rewards from her talent because she could not paint to order. Nor had she the aptitude for the business side of being a painter.
She was skilful not just with paint but with language. She once sent a note to a friend with some poems she had written: “The rhythm alone of good verse carries you off to sleep. Like a ship in full sail you can hear the water under the side as it sings; and as you drop off, you can smell the spices of the cargo. Sleep in the land of Beulah.”
Noreen Rice is survived by her son, Tristram, daughter, Trasna, brother, Hal, and five grandchildren.
*This article was amended on April 29th, 2015