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Born in Newry Street, Banbridge (a blue plaque marking the site), Frederick Edward McWilliam was the son of local doctor, Dr William McWilliam and his wife Elizabeth Esther Rounds. McWilliam cherished memories of his childhood in Banbridge and wrote to his friend from there, Miss Marjorie Burnett, mentioning people such Carson the Cooper whose shop was a few doors away from his family home and Proctors the furniture makers whose premises were across the street. To quote the man himself – “I think I was lucky born where I was in a country town . . . Banbridge” (1981).
Educated in his early years in Banbridge, he was sent to Campbell College, Belfast and the Belfast College of Art (1926-1928). He continued his studies at the Slade School of Art, intending to become a painter, but under the influence of A H Gerrard (Slade Professor of Sculpture) and by Henry Moore, he left the Slade committed to sculpture. Upon leaving he was awarded the Robert Ross leaving scholarship, going straight to Paris where, along with his future wife, the painter Beth Crowther, he visited the studio of Constantin Brancusi and was also inspired by the work of Alberto Giacometti.
Beth and McWilliam had two daughters, sharing their first home at Chartridge, Buckinghamshire with Henry Moore. There McWilliam began carving using the cherrywood from the orchards surrounding the house. His early pieces were semi-abstract, but after a visit to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 he had a change of direction. In 1937 he joined the British Surrealist Group and exhibited with them. He had his first one-man exhibition, of sculptures and drawings at the London Gallery, Cork Street, London in March 1939.
His work was interrupted with the outbreak of World War II, McWilliam enlisting in the RAF and serving first in England and then from 1944-1946, in India. On his return to England he was invited by 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 sculpture just before and soon after the war was his exploration of 'the complete fragment', the part standing for the whole, in works described by their titles: Mandible (1938), Eye, Nose and Cheek (1939; Tate Collection), Profile (1939-40) and the extraordinary Head in Extended Order (1948). His later Legs series was a more playful excursion into the same territory. Another surreal device much favoured by McWilliam was ‘the missing torso’. In Man and Wife (1948), Father and Daughter (1949), and The Matriarch (1952), limbs tenderly and convincingly surround an empty space.
In 1949 McWilliam was elected to the London group (resigning in 1963) and in the following year he and Beth moved to a house and studio in Holland Park, London where they entertained their many artistic friends.
In 1951 he was commissioned to create a large figurative work, The Four Seasons, for the country pavilion at the Festival of Britain with many public commissions following throughout the 1950s and 60s. Probably the most important was the Princess Macha (1957) commission for Altnagelvin Hospital, Londonderry. He 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 without warning among the diners 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 never before had used his sculpture for direct comment, was so moved by this tragedy to create a series of small bronzes known collectively as Women of Belfast. These suffering figures, whirled about, tumbled and harried by the bomb blast, their faces contorted, their clothing agitated, have undeniable power. Their significance carries on through to today on a world scale – emblems of innocence violated in a violent century.
McWilliam received an honorary DLitt from Queen’s University, Belfast in 1964. He was appointed CBE in 1966, and in 1971 he won a gold medal for sculpture at the Oireachtas Exhibition in Dublin. He was briefly an associate of the Royal Academy. He was elected in 1959 but resigned in 1963.
He continued to carve until almost the end of his life. He died of cancer at 12 Pembroke Square, Kensington, London, on 13 May 1992.