William Conor, artist with an abiding affection for the working people of Ulster

A work by William Conor
A work by William Conor

Historian GORDON LUCY explores the life and legacy of one of Northern Ireland’s most enduringly popular artists, who passed away 50 years ago today

Ulster has produced many fine artists but few have ever come close to outstripping the popular appeal of William Conor.

Unlike so many Ulster artists, William Conor never succumbed to the temptation to abandon his native land

Unlike so many Ulster artists, William Conor never succumbed to the temptation to abandon his native land

For most of us he is the artist whose art portrayed the ordinary working people of Ulster: the mill girls, the ‘shawlies’, and shipyard workers.

His paintings testify to the value of his commentary on the social life of Ulster.

In 1922 the art critic of the Westminster Gazette described him as ‘the delineator of Ulster industrialism’.

As Judith C Wilson quite rightly points out in ‘Conor, 1881-1968: The Life and Work of an Ulster Artist’, such narrow characterisation irked Conor because he regarded himself as a ‘portraitist, landscapist and genre painter’.

A bronze statue of William Conor stands at the corner of Northumberland Street and the Shankill Road in Belfast

A bronze statue of William Conor stands at the corner of Northumberland Street and the Shankill Road in Belfast

Conor was born on May 9 1881, at 5 Fortingale Street, off the Old Lodge Road, in Belfast, into a large Presbyterian family of modest means.

His father, also William, was a tinsmith and sheet metal worker who subsequently became a gas fitter. Conor believed that any artistic abilities he possessed were inherited through his father but he also believed that there was more intelligence on his mother’s side of the family.

The family name was Connor but William dropped one of the n’s, joking that he could never make n’s meet.

Conor never strayed far from Belfast for long.

Much of his output was an affirmation of his abiding affection for the people of Belfast and Ulster.

Unlike so many Ulster artists, he never succumbed to the temptation to abandon his native land.

He once observed: “I suppose to some Belfast is ugly and sordid. I never found it so.

“I never run short of subjects with which to illustrate its industry and the beauty it has for me.”

Although an agnostic, Conor was extremely proud of the Presbyterian heritage.

Visiting the studio of the celebrated artist Augustus John for the first time, Conor ventured the opinion: “Mister John, there’s only one thing wantin’ in yer pictures.” “What’s that?” asked John. “They have no Presbyterian feelin’,” replied Conor gravely.

John retaliated by contending that Conor’s ‘Presbyterianism’ detracted from his work.

Conor’s charm lay in his warmth and humanity.

He had a wide circle of friends, by no means all drawn from the artistic community.

There was nothing he enjoyed more than meeting friends for coffee and a chat in the Chalet d’Or or the Linen Hall Library.

Jack Loudan recalled: “One morning a waitress, scarcely more than a child, spilt some coffee on his trousers.

“When she watched him telling me about this a few minutes later she came to the table and said ‘do you know what you are? You’re an oul’ clashbeg.’

“Nothing could have pleased him more. It was friendly acceptance by one of his own Ulster people, more important than praise from a higher level.

“It was as if one of his own creations had spoken to him from the canvas.”

His humility and his self-deprecating sense of humour were among his most endearing qualities.

He loved to regale friends with an account of his visit to Lady Lavery, the American second wife of Sir John Lavery, in her salon.

“There was Lady Lavery lying on one of those chaise-longue, looking very, very beautiful and she put out a long languid hand and said, ‘how do you do’.

“I shook it and said, ‘how do you do’ and then I sat down.

“Then in came a marvellous young artist with a big bow tie and long floppy hair who went down on his knee, took the long languid hand, kissed it and said ‘dear lady, dear lady’.

“Man dear was my face red!”

Another story which he enjoyed sharing with friends concerned a Christmas morning party at Richard Hayward’s home.

Conor found one type of canapé particularly enjoyable.

Inquiring of his host what it was, he was told “that is caviar”.

“Oh!” said Conor. “Well tell me what exactly is caviar?”

A look of dismay crossed Conor’s face. After a pause, he said, “I was enjoying it so much I wish I hadn’t asked. That’s what you get for asking questions.”

Conor served as a war artist in both world wars.

During the Great War he produced 33 sketches of the Ulster Division in training and drawings of munition workers commissioned by James Mackie & Sons Ltd.

His depiction of Miss Madeleine Ewart, fourth daughter of the linen baron William Ewart, operating a turret lathe for 18lb shrapnel shells is truly memorable.

In the early days of the Second World War, he was going up in a lift to his studio in Wellington Place when he encountered a stockbroker who said to him: “I thought, Mr Conor, that you in a profession like yours would have joined up by now.”

Conor was indignant: “There was I standing looking on myself as a bastion of civilisation and this jumped-up bookie was suggesting I should go to war instead of him.”

Conor may have misread the situation. In 1940 Conor would have been 59. The stockbroker may have been paying him a compliment.

To his regret Conor never married. In the 1920s he took a young French governess to the Café Royal intending to propose to her.

A young man of their acquaintance joined their table, uninvited, and monopolised the rest of the evening, speaking in French to the young lady.

As Conor was unable to understand French or join in the conversation, he felt inadequate and abandoned his intended purpose.

Conor died from hypothermia on February 5 1968, a few months short of his 87th birthday.

In his will he bequeathed his personal collection, sketches and notes to the people of Ulster.

At the funeral service, Captain Terence O’Neill, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, read the lesson.

The Rev Rupert Gibson, minister of Townsend Street Presbyterian Church, observed that if Conor “had lived on the continent, or perhaps in another age, he would have achieved even more universal fame, but he preferred to live in this Province. Because of this Ulster is richer.”