OBITUARY: Joseph McWilliams was a painter of controversy and conflict

Joe McWilliams and son Simon
Joe McWilliams and son Simon

Joseph McWilliams turned his paintbrush to everything from pastoral landscapes to his Troubles-ravaged home district of north Belfast.

A former president of the Royal Ulster Academy, he produced colourful, caustic and occasionally controversial work spanning many decades.

Born on November 28, 1938 in Belfast, his father was Patrick and his mother was Nora (nee Connolly), and he was the youngest of five children.

During World War Two the family was evacuated to his mother’s hometown of Rostrevor, and when they returned to the city in around 1943 they settled in the New Lodge Road, north Belfast.

He attended Star of the Sea Primary School, then St Malachy’s, before going to the Belfast College of Art.

Upon graduating he worked at St Gabriel’s College on the Crumlin Road and then taught art at the deaf-and-blind school in Jordanstown, before taking up a post as senior lecturer in art at the University of Ulster, Belfast.

"Riots and Barricades, New Lodge Road" (1971)

"Riots and Barricades, New Lodge Road" (1971)

He moved to the Cavehill Road area of north Belfast in 1966, around the same time he married his wife Catherine (whom he had met while studying art).

Just over two decades later they opened the Cavehill Gallery together there, in the large front room of their Edwardian detached house.

He had been a keen painter of landscapes until the Troubles broke out, at which point his widow said he came to realise that continuing with such work was a “singularly inappropriate exercise”.

“By the time 1970 came along, he said: ‘I can’t paint these landscapes any more. My landscape is here in north Belfast’,” said Catherine.

"My Greenhouse", gold medal-winning picture by J McWilliams

"My Greenhouse", gold medal-winning picture by J McWilliams

Instead he began painting barricades, bombed-out buildings, and loyalist and republican parades.

His work was in a modern, sometimes abstract style, and among the contentious episodes he portrayed was the playing of the Famine Song outside the city’s St Patrick’s Chapel by loyalist bandsmen in 2012 – a painting criticised by unionists after it went on display in the Ulster Museum.

In a corner of the painting there are indistinct, pointy figures with flashes of orange on them, who – it has been claimed – are Orangemen clad in Ku Klux Klan garb.

The Irish Times reported that in 1978, “attendants at the [Ulster] museum refused to hang a number of pieces in Art for Society”.

Among them was “Joe McWilliams’ Community Door, featuring a petrol-bombed door from a community centre, blistered and blackened from repeated attacks, woven through with an incongruously cheery rainbow motif”.

Catherine described him a “political animal” who “loathed bigotry on all sides”.

Asked if he saw himself as a nationalist, she said: “I think he would have, probably. But he wouldn’t be a republican...

“He disliked Sinn Fein as much as he disliked loyalists.”

He himself said once: “(Padraig) Pearse and Carson have all been glorified in retrospect. There is absolutely no doubt about it; they are saints, in terms of political saints...

“But were they saints in reality? Most people know very little about Carson, or indeed Pearse. But they have been canonised with time.”

He painted a series of pictures of both of them, showing their iconic images beginning to age and peel.

“What happens with icons who are canonised [is] over the years, what they meant at one time is long since gone,” he said.

“They are eroded with time. Time image half-disappears and it becomes something totally different.”

Explaining the work, he added that the nuances and intentions of these once-living figures had gradually vanished, and that what remained were icons who “aren’t much different”.

He left the University of Ulster in 1989, and earned a living by selling his paintings.

In 2000, he became president of the Royal Ulster Academy – an invitation-only body set up in 1879 to promote visual art – for a four-year term.

Both his son Simon and his widow are also full members of the Academy – a unique achievement for a single family in the organisation’s history.

He won a raft of awards throughout his life, and despite his focus on politically-related work he also developed a great interest in painting his own garden, winning a gold medal from the Academy in 2003 for a picture of his greenhouse.

He suffered from depression from his mid-teens onwards, and gardening helped him to cope.

According to his list of awards on the Academy’s website, among the other accolades he won was the “Belfast News Letter prize for painting”, in 1994.

He died peacefully at home from cancer on October 7, aged 76.

Following his passing, Arts Council CEO Roisin McDonough called him “one of our major artists was a great influence on the shape of the art to come out of Northern Ireland over subsequent decades”.

Dr John Kyle of the PUP described him as “a person who could represent working class urban life and as an artist who responded passionately to the violence of the conflict”.

He added: “We recognise that he would not always have agreed with us but we would like, at this time of his passing, to record that his artistic endeavours were appreciated and that the people of Belfast should be proud to have had such an artist among them.”

Opera music was sung at his funeral in Belfast’s St Therese of Lisieux Church, on October 13, and he was cremated at Roselawn.

He is survived by son Simon, daughter Jane, bother Arthur, grandchildren Anna, Niamh and Rosie, and his widow.