"I think I was lucky having been born where I was, in a country town. In those days everything was made in the town ... Next door to our house was Carson the Cooper who made barrels, and of course we used to hide in them. They were actually made in the street, because Newry Street where I was born was a very wide street and people used to work in it. Then there was a shop that sold furniture where they made the furniture behind the shop ... I loved going in and watching them." F.E. McWilliam 1981.
The son of local doctor, Dr William McWilliam and his wife Elizabeth Esther Rounds, Frederick Edward McWilliam cherished memories of his childhood in Banbridge. He was particularly inspired by the town’s craftsmen, including Carson the Cooper whose shop was a few doors away from his family home and Proctor’s the furniture makers whose premises was across the street.
Receiving his early education in Banbridge, McWilliam was later sent to Campbell College, Belfast. He attended Belfast College of Art between 1926 and 1928 before continuing his studies at the Slade School of Art, London. When he started the Slade McWilliam planned to be a painter but under the influence of Professor of Sculpture, A.H. Gerrard, he left committed to sculpture. Upon graduating McWilliam was awarded the Robert Ross leaving scholarship which enabled him and his future wife, the painter Beth Crowther, to travel to Paris. There they visited the studio of the celebrated Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi and were also inspired by the work of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti.
McWilliam’s early pieces were semi-abstract, but after a visit in 1936 to the International Surrealist Exhibition, London, he had a change of direction. In 1937 he exhibited with the British Surrealist Group and he had his first one-man exhibition of sculptures and drawings at the London Gallery in March 1939. When World War II broke out, McWilliam enlisted in the RAF. He served first in England and then from 1944 – 1946, in India. On his return to England he was invited by his former teacher, A.H. Gerrard, to teach sculpture at the Slade, a post he retained until 1968.
McWilliam tended to work in series, exploring a theme in a succession of variations. Characteristic of his pre and post-war sculpture was his exploration of ‘the complete fragment’, the part standing for the whole, in works described by their titles including: Mandible (1938) and Eye, Nose and Cheek (1939; Tate Collection). His later Legs series, including Legs Static and Umbilicus, was a more playful excursion into the same territory. Another surreal device much favoured by McWilliam was ‘the missing torso’ seen in works such as Matriarch (1952) and Man and Wife (1948; Ulster Museum)
In 1949 McWilliam was elected to the London Group and in the following year he and Beth moved to Holland Park, London, where they entertained many artistic friends including Henry Moore and William Scott. In 1951 he was commissioned to create a large figurative work, The Four Seasons, for the country pavilion at the Festival of Britain. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, many more public commissions followed including Princess Macha (1957) for Altnagelvin Hospital, County Londonderry. McWilliam also undertook a number of more conventional portrait commissions, including a fine bronze of his friend, the painter William Scott (1956).
On 4 March 1972 a bomb exploded at the Abercorn Tea-Rooms in Belfast. Two women were killed, two more lost both legs and a total of 130 people were injured. McWilliam, who had never before used his sculpture for direct comment, was moved by this tragedy to create a series of small bronzes known collectively as Women of Belfast. These suffering figures, tumbled and harried by the bomb blast, have undeniable power and remain universally relevant.
In 1964 McWilliam received an honorary D.Litt from Queen’s University Belfast. He was appointed CBE in 1966, and in 1971 he won a gold medal for sculpture at the Oireachtas Exhibition in Dublin. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1959 but resigned in 1963. He continued to carve until almost the end of his life. McWilliam died of cancer in London, on 13 May 1992.
McWilliam aged 2 with his Uncle Frederick at Lenaderg Lodge, Banbridge
Working on 'Man and Wife', 1948
With William Scott, 1956
Working on Women of Belfast Series, 1972-74
McWilliam in his studio, 1990