Catherine McWilliams: Selected Work 1961 - 2021

Catalogue published on the occasion of a retrospective of the work of Belfast artist Catherine McWilliams at the F.E.McWilliam Gallery & Studio. Co curated by Dr Louise Wallace and Dr Riann Coulter 2023

Catalogue published on the occasion of a retrospective of the work of Belfast artist Catherine McWilliams at the F.E.McWilliam Gallery & Studio. Co curated by Dr Louise Wallace and Dr Riann Coulter 2023


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Catherine McWilliams

Catherine McWilliams

Selected Work 1961-2021



Dr Riann Coulter

The F.E. McWilliam Gallery and Armagh City,

Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council are

delighted to present Catherine McWilliams: Selected

Work 1961 – 2021. For over six decades, McWilliams

has produced original and compelling images of life

in Northern Ireland. From a self-portrait painted

when she was 21 to recent compositions exploring

the threat of climate change, her work ranges from

the domestic to the surreal and prioritises the

experiences of women and children. McWilliams

lives in North Belfast, in the shadow of Cavehill, and

taught in a local secondary school during the worst

years of the conflict. Throughout those decades,

her work documented everyday life – from marriage

and motherhood to teaching and teenage rebellion

– at a time when the media was saturated with

images of violence and destruction. Within this

context, McWilliams’ paintings of home and the

suburban landscape constitute a radical alternative

to the dominant view of Northern Ireland during the


Initiated and co-curated by Dr Louise Wallace,

Lecturer in Painting at Belfast School of Art,

this exhibition provides a unique opportunity to

appreciate the quality and range of McWilliams’

practice and confirms her place in the canon of Irish

art. A painter, an academic and a fellow resident

of North Belfast, Dr Wallace’s deep engagement

with McWilliams’ work has been central to both the

exhibition and this publication. I am grateful to

Louise for proposing the project and for sharing

her research with us.

Gathering together work made over 60 years

requires a great deal of cooperation and goodwill.

We are grateful to have been able to borrow work

from numerous collections including the Irish

News, NI Civil Service, National Museums NI, the

Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Queen’s University

Belfast, Ulster Hospital, Unison and BBC NI. Thanks

also to the private collectors who have generously

lent their work for the exhibition. Thank you to

Graham Rees, Simon Mills, Colin Finley of Grallagh

Studios, David Kearney of Concept Framing, Brian

Delaney of Caldwell Installations and the staff at

the F.E. McWilliam Gallery for all their work on our


The exhibition would not have been possible

without the support of Simon McWilliams

whose knowledge of his mother’s work has been

invaluable. Most of all, thank you to Catherine for

her patience and enthusiasm and for allowing us a

glimpse into her world.


Hope is Something Rooted – the work of Catherine McWilliams

Dr Louise Wallace

‘Pandora has a box filled with all the woes and

miseries of the world. When she opens the

box and lets them all out, the one thing left is

hope’ 1

Catherine McWilliams

Catherine Mc Williams is singular among artists

in Northern Ireland. She has painted life in Belfast

for over 60 years, a period of great difficulty and

change in the North. The overarching stimulus

across these works may be termed ‘painting

as empathy’, a practice that mines deep and

complicated feelings for a city, its people and

environs. McWilliams’ commitment to that project

elevates her depiction of the everyday to the status

of radical act.

In some ways, her project begins with Self Portrait

(1961) where she captures her own resolute gaze

in a range of Van Gogh yellows. McWilliams’ use of

yellow across key works may be seen as a marker

of hope, an attribute which Liam Kelly describes

as her ‘irrepressible tendency’. 2 This tendency

radiates from the image of herself as a young

woman to encompass and define her life’s work. For

McWilliams, hope is something rooted in home and

hills, in city streets and back gardens, motifs she

returns to throughout her career.

McWilliams moved to North Belfast in 1966 with her

husband, fellow painter Joseph McWilliams. From

this point onwards, her practice becomes largely

focused on the urban. While art history highlights

the isolation of the painter’s studio, McWilliams’

seems to be full of locals: people running in the

park; dinner ladies; council workers with a digger.

This connection to people has been evident from

the beginning. In her early career she was an art

teacher at St Gemma’s in ‘The Bone’ area of Belfast.

The locale was marked by social and economic

deprivation. During the conflict the schoolgirls

would be subject to nightly riots and police raids.

McWilliams describes the art room as an oasis for

her pupils amidst the darkness of surrounding

streets. She taught the girls life drawing and

they looked at each other to study form. As she

puts it ‘I drew them and they drew me’. 3 There is

a great tenderness in McWilliams’ pencil studies,

empathetic encounters that do not need words.

Girls and Motorbikes (1973) is a complex study of

life in Belfast at that time. There is an anarchic

energy to the group of girls out after dark. There

were 1800 explosions recorded in the city between

1970 and 1975. 4 Belfast’s back streets were spaces

of sudden, mindless violence. Despite the immanent

danger, here is a moment of meaningful exchange

between McWilliams and the girls. It is an excessive

image because of the unusual depiction of a female

gang on large motorbikes, holding the viewer’s

gaze. The artist remembers the chance meeting

as immediately ‘powerful…I had to get home and

paint that right away’. 5 Although the group is in

shadow, there are bright lights behind them which

McWilliams describes as windows in a nearby tower

block. Here, yellow is symbolic of indominable


Fionna Barber notes the painting’s significance

in relation to the depiction of the conflict, “Girls

and Motorbikes represents an important corrective

to the currency of representations of women as

‘victims of the Troubles’.” 6 Barrister Michael Lavery

purchased the painting the same year it was made.

At that time he was defending Liz McKee, the first

female to be interned at the age of 19. Lavery

greatly admired Girls and Motorbikes and believed

the figure on the far right to be a portrait of McKee.

Although McWilliams did not intentionally depict

McKee and makes no claim to be a political painter,

the painting is a memorable image of feminine

power at a time of great uncertainty and fear in

Belfast’s history.

Writing in 1977, Mike Catto described the depiction

of the city during the conflict as the preserve of

‘the urban landscapist…here the painter or sculptor

must contend with what men are and what they do

with and to each other.’ 7 Catto’s statement reflects

the way that art made during the conflict has been

collected, curated and canonised. This has arguably

led to the conflation of the masculine with the

urban and an emphasis on violence and victimhood.

Dominant discourses have pushed the remit of

Northern Irish art away from domestic, feminine or

maternal spaces. Yet these are precisely the sites

that preoccupy McWilliams’ urban landscapes: an

empty playground with paramilitary graffiti; pupils

in a local all-girls school; an elderly lady outside

her home after a police raid. These paintings

bring the ‘domestic spectre into focus’. 8 They are

extraordinary in the visual schema of ‘Troubles Art’

for representing the vital role women played both

at home and within the community. McWilliams

remembers that ‘women were left to hold onto

things and keep everything going’. 9 This recentring

of focus is as a radical reinterpretation of power

during times of conflict, placing women at the

centre of the narrative. Writing in ‘Fortnight’ in

1985, Ann Davey Orr states,

Photo: Michael Burns c. 1985

4 5

Instead of painting … the bombings and

destruction, she painted people who in general

took no active part in it. She did a series of

paintings of the children she taught and the

women she met. Most of that work was bought

by the women of the area. 10

McWilliams’ more personal work documents her

home life and marriage to Joseph, a union of two

artists based on reciprocity and understanding. As

she describes it ‘we both agreed that we would go

into teaching somehow or other and would make

our lives as painters’. 11 McWilliams was committed

to family life and art. She and Joseph met the

influential German performance artist Joseph Beuys

when he visited Belfast at the height of the Troubles

in 1974. Three years later, the young family joined a

group of artists from Belfast who Beuys invited to

Documenta 6, the international arts exhibition in

Kassel, Germany. 12 The couple were also involved in

exhibiting and selling art through the Cavehill Gallery

which they established in 1986 in their home in North

Belfast. Initially exhibiting their own art in the two

large front rooms, they soon expanded to include the

work of friends and other local artists. The gallery

lasted 16 years and became a focus for artists and

art enthusiasts in the area. 13 McWilliams’ children

remember that making art was simply part of family

life; even on holiday both parents would spend time

drawing and painting. Inevitably, they also became

her models and Boy with Pigeon’s (1982) is a portrait

of the artist’s son, the painter Simon McWilliams.

Boy with Pigeons 1982

Mixed media on paper

36 × 40 cm

All these aspects of life - teaching, motherhood

and marriage - are folded into McWilliams’ visual


In particular, the artist elevates the everyday

intimacies of her long relationship across domestic

scenes which are reminiscent of Pierre Bonnard’s

late interiors. Where Bonnard painted his wife

Marthe in the bath, McWilliams draws and paints

Joseph in the shower. There are similarities in

the formal devices of both artists. Bonnard and

McWilliams frame the figure within the confines

of the bath or shower. There is a familiarity with

a particular body, reviewed in the act of washing.

The flesh tones in both artists’ work are reimagined

through memory and painterly touch. In McWilliams’

case, she uses vivid pinks and oranges to suggest

the heat of skin warmed by water. Both artists

are interested in capturing a partner lost to her/

his own private thoughts, locating the meditative

moment within a habitual act. This similarity to

Bonnard may be seen again in Breakfast Table

(1987) where Joseph’s figure is mostly hidden in

the kitchen clutter and potted plants. These works

are instinctive for McWilliams but are nonetheless

progressive for picturing her husband in the role of

muse within the domestic interior.

McWilliams depiction of the male nude was both

unusual in Irish art and controversial in the context

of the social and religious conservatism of Northern

Ireland. In an unpublished text written in 1983, the

art historian Eileen Black discussed how McWilliams’

life drawings and male nudes became the subject

of controversy when exhibited at the Royal Ulster

Academy and in an exhibition at the Peacock Gallery,


The drawings received praise from local art

critics but attracted … abuse from other

sources, who took predictable offence at

Catherine’s unfettered approach to male

nudity (while, of course, not raising too many

objections to the nude women she portrayed).

In fact, a second showing at Craigavon in 1983

… found Catherine being accused of producing

‘pornographic graffiti’. 14 Pornography is, in this

instance, very much in the eye of the beholder.

For Catherine McWilliams, the human form has

been, simply, her chief source of inspiration

for many years. 15

Studio Interior (1991) may be read as another

landmark composition in Irish painting. McWilliams

was asked to make work for a maternity hospital

in Dublin on the theme of giving birth. She decided

to document the birth of a painting, recasting

the art historical model of the virile, promethean

artist as a mother. The image has all the energy and

physicality of painting as an embodied experience.

She describes the work as ‘expressing something

about the need (to paint); I wanted it to be gestural

and painterly’. 16 The figure in the composition seems

to twist and dissolve into the brush strokes. Again,

the colour yellow foregrounds this positive energy,

the desire to inhabit the painter’s body and to make

painterly painting, where the ‘sense of the artist’s

touch … allows for a deep connection, painter to

painter.’ 17 This work is typical of a particularly

haptic quality to McWilliams’ compositions. It is

a tactile practice, where viscous paint holds the

gesture of the brush and heavy impasto work often

pushes the surface towards three dimensionality.

McWilliams’ dual relationships with the medium of

paint and the city of Belfast are co-dependent. Her

imagination is captured by local streets and urban

life. Even when her compositions deal with the

surrounding landscape – Cavehill, Black Mountain

and Divis – the artist’s viewpoint will frequently

pull in nearby housing estates, Lenadoon and

Ardoyne. McWilliams’ landscapes may be read in

opposition to twentieth century Irish painting used

to promote a nascent cultural identity. At the start

of that century, Northern Irish artists Paul Henry

and Charles Lamb journeyed into the rural west of

Ireland to depict an idealised ‘cottage landscape…

romanticised and emptied of critical contents such

6 7

as references to poverty’ 18 . Tricia Cusack relates the

folk roots of this type of painting to a pre-colonial

and pre-urban golden age that exists only in the Irish

imaginary. Fintan O’Toole describes the resulting

visual history as predicated on ‘the disappearance

of Belfast’. 19 Paul Henry’s work is defined by ‘the

that time such movement was curtailed by check

points, barricades and bodily searches conducted by

the police. Yet McWilliams chooses to paint a female

body lit from within, whose luminosity has the

capacity to dematerialise the barricade she passes

through. The artist explains,

be Gaia myself almost.’ 26 It is tempting to view

McWilliams’ treatment of the Gaia theme as another

self-portrait. The works are representative of a

powerful life force and determination, qualities

that were first present in Self Portrait (1961). In

this way her project of ‘painting as empathy’ has

a discussion with Beuys about the Free International

University. Fig. 3 in Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, Beuys’s

Legacy in Artist-led University Projects – Tate Papers |

Tate, accessed 10/1/2022.

13 Op.cit at 1

14 ‘Angry DUP councillor claims that art gallery staged a

Pornographic Exhibition’, Lurgan Mail, 22/9/1983.

aesthetic of emptiness…wilderness is seen as innately

more noble, and infinitely more worth looking at, than

ordinary urban existence’. 20

McWilliams shatters this fallacy of a pre-colonial idyl

to insert Belfast into painting’s history, depicting

its colonial present. Ardoyne and Lenadoon are

the product of Northern Irish emergency housing

policy during the 1960s and 1970s, when swathes of

houses began to cut into the hills to form Belfast’s

edgelands. Those communities were forged through

shared experiences of deprivation and the trauma of

conflict. McWilliams’ depiction of housing estates is

in contradistinction to an aesthetics of emptiness.

The lights are on in Ardoyne and Lenadoon; boys are

playing football in a field between the houses and the

hills; life goes on, no matter what.

When McWilliams turns to the Pandora myth for

a series of works in the 1980s, she realises an

opportunity to reiterate her theme of resilience. Six

of these important paintings were selected for the

exhibition Pandora’s Box which opened at Rochdale

Museum and Art Gallery in 1984 and toured to

several regional galleries in the UK. 21 In Woman with

a Security Barrier (1983) the delicate lyricism of the

female figure contrasts formally with the dark lines

of the metal fence behind her. Jill Bennett locates

the potential of affective art as a way of processing

trauma and conflict. Bennett describes how an

artist’s relational understanding of specific sites can

reproduce ‘… a perceiving body in ways that illuminate

encounters with specific postcolonial locations’ 22 In

Woman with a Security Barrier McWilliams reproduces

her own perceiving body and her physical experience

of movement through the city during the conflict. At

I portrayed Pandora as a Belfast girl … (who) is

accepting of the greyness of the barriers and

the soldiers, they are part of her landscape.

However, she can lift herself out of it. You can

live with all that trouble as everybody did in

those days and still elevate yourself out of it. 23

In this way McWilliams’ empathetic practice opens

up a range of complex emotions for the viewer,

moving through trauma to articulate empowerment

and hope. In somehow making visible this

experiential arc, McWilliams is painting ‘something

irreducible and different, often inaccessible.’ 24 S.B.

Kennedy suggests that the Pandora series nods to

an art historical idea of Mother Ireland, however

McWilliams’ treatment of myth goes beyond such

tropes. 25 Although her female figures are absolutely

tied to an idea of land and history, her women

are always active, not passive; urban, not rural;

corporeal, not sainted.

The link between land, female figure and mythology

recurs across McWilliams’ work. She has been

interested in the legend of Tuatha Dé Danann and

Danu or Dana, the earth goddess of Celtic mythology

and first interprets Danu as a woman bringing

peace to the North. More recently the goddess has

become Gaia, highlighting environmental concerns

that have taken precedence in sculptures and

paintings. Where McWilliams’ previously saw the

Belfast hills as protective arms outstretched to

Belfast, she now urges her audience to return that

consideration. It is clear that she feels a sense

of kinship with this narrative, stating ‘I want to

come full circle. Above all, McWilliams’ late career

is testament to her enduring relationship with the

land. The artist finds her own hope through this vital

connection to place and derives a sense of peace

from her beloved Belfast hills.

‘I still walk up to Cavehill and then you’re

surrounded by the trees and you can look across

at Black Mountain, you can look across at Divis

and feel that they are there. That’s the best

part of Belfast for me.’ 27


1 Interview with the artist, 18.02.2022

2 Kelly, Liam. Thinking long: Contemporary art in the North of

Ireland. Vol. 3. Gandon Editions, 1996, p. 78

3 Op.cit. at 1

4 Brown, Stephen. “Central Belfast’s Security Segment: An

Urban Phenomenon.” Area 17, no. 1 (1985): 1–9. http://


5 Op.cit at 1

6 Barber, Fionna. Art in Ireland since 1910. Reaktion Books,

2013 p. 173

7 Catto, Mike, and Theo Snoddy. Art in Ulster 2: A History of

Painting, Sculpture and Printmaking, 1957-1977. Blackstaff

Press, 1977, p. 7

8 Reed, Christopher. Not at home: The suppression of

domesticity in modern art and architecture. Thames and

Hudson, 1996, p. 15

9 Op.cit. at 1

10 Davey Orr, Anne, ‘Pandora Rising From The Ashes’ in

Fortnight, 1985

11 Op.cit. at 1

12 Documenta 6 ran between 24 June and 2 October 1977.

In a photo in the Documenta Archive, Joseph, Catherine

and Jane McWilliams can be seen in the audience during

15 Black, Eileen, ‘Catherine McWilliams (née May) (Born

Belfast 10 February 1940)’, 1983, courtesy of the author.

16 Davey Orr, Anne, ‘Pandora Rising From The Ashes’ in

Fortnight, 1985

17 Fortnum, Rebecca. “Baggage reclaim: Some thoughts

on feminism and painting.” Journal of Contemporary

Painting 3.1-2 (2017): 209-232, p. 221

18 Cusack, Tricia. “A ‘countryside bright with cosy

homesteads’: Irish nationalism and the cottage

landscape.” National Identities 3.3 (2001): 221-238. p. 222

19 O’Toole, Fintan ‘The Lie of the Land’, Gallery of

Photography, Dublin, 1995

20 ibid

21 Pandora’s Box toured to the Arnolfini, Bristol, Midlands

Group, Nottingham; Ferens Art Gallery, Hull and Laing Art

Gallery, Newcastle.

22 Bennett, Jill. Empathic vision: Affect, trauma, and

contemporary art. Stanford University Press, 2005, p. 71

23 Op.cit. at 1

24 Ibid, p. 10

25 Kennedy, S.B. “Catherine McWilliams, a Retrospective

1961 - 2004” (2004) p. 13

26 Op.cit at 1

27 Ibid.

8 9

Self Portrait 1961

Oil on board

63 × 52 cm


Family Landscape 1970

Acrylic on paper

74 × 54 cm


Head with Plants & Birds 1987

Oil on board

56 × 41 cm


Studio Interior 1991

Oil on canvas

91 × 91 cm


Jane Asleep 1974

Pencil on paper

26 × 38 cm

Jane in Pyjamas 1977

Pencil on paper

40 × 40 cm


In Bed 1993

Oil on canvas

61 × 51 cm

Brown Bedroom Chair 1994

Oil on canvas

41 × 41 cm


Breakfast Table 1987

Gouache on paper

73 × 53 cm

Green Wallpaper Still life 1988

Acrylic on paper

51 × 56 cm


Mouldy Orange 1993

Oil on board

51 × 61 cm

Northern Ireland Civil Service Art Collection

Allotments 1967

Oil on board

52 × 63 cm


Bubbles 1975

Oil on board

53 × 53 cm


Girls & Motor Bikes 1973

Oil on board

51 × 63.5 cm


Grey Street 1975

Oil on board

59 × 60 cm

Sunday Tied up Swings 1975

Acrylic on paper

41.5 × 58 cm


School Girl Belfast 1974

Mixed media on paper

58 × 49 cm


School Girl 1

Pencil on paper

40 × 33 cm

School Girl 2

Pencil on paper

57 × 42 cm

School Girl 3

Pencil on paper

50 × 43 cm


Dark Lady 1972

Mixed media on board

48 × 29 cm

Oil on canvas

100 × 67 cm


Belfast Girl (Pandora) 1983

Mixed media on paper

76 × 58.5 cm


Irish Landscape II (Pandora’s Box Series) 1983

Mixed media on paper

56 × 73 cm

Former UTV Collection


Irish Landscape I (Pandora’s Box Series) 1983

Mixed media on paper

76 × 56 cm


Pink Nude with Stripey Towel 1988

Oil on canvas

73 × 38 cm

Showering Nude 1988

Pastel on paper

33 × 18 cm


Showering Nude 1 2000

Pastel on paper

33 × 18 cm

Showering Nude 2 2000

Pastel on paper

33 × 18 cm


Free to Fly 1979

Pencil on paper

45 × 30 cm

A Woman’s Place 1979

Pencil on paper

76 × 56 cm


Our Ladies Acre 1 2003

Oil on Canvas

51 × 66 cm

The Irish News Collection


Pink City with Football Field 2006

Oil on canvas

72 × 86 cm

Black Mountain: Lenadoon 2000

Oil on canvas

89 × 121 cm


Swimming into the Landscape 1979

Pencil on paper

53 × 76 cm

Dark Cloud with Bird 1980

Pencil on paper

53 × 74 cm


Nude with Crinoids 1979

Pencil on paper

41 × 51 cm


Dark & Golden Birds 1980

Mixed media on card

47 × 75 cm


Deck Chair 1992

Acrylic on paper

22 × 29 cm

Dinner Lady and Sink 1994

Oil on canvas

51 × 40.5 cm


Dinner Ladies Study no.3 1995

Acrylic on paper

20 × 35 cm


Dinner Ladies Study no.4 1995

Acrylic on paper

20 × 35 cm



Celtic Tree 1979

Viscosity print

50 × 25 cm

Angry Goddess with Cavehill 1986/87

Mixed media on canvas

107 × 141 cm


Cherry Tree 2018

Earth Goddess (Gaia) 2015

Mixed media on canvas

133 × 109 cm

Oil on canvas

120 × 80 cm

Northern Ireland Civil Service Art Collectiom


Misty Cave Hill 2012

Oil on canvas

61 × 76 cm

Arts Council of Northern Ireland Collection


Red Trees 2 2003

Oil on canvas

56 × 66 cm

Ivied Tree, Cave Hill 2004

Oil on canvas

76 × 91 cm


Yellow Digger, Cave Hill 1985

Acrylic on card

22 × 32 cm

Cave Hill with Traffic Lights 2001

Oil on canvas

51 × 61 cm


Evening North Belfast 2004

Oil on canvas

103 × 119 cm

Queen’s University Belfast Art Collection


Programming Committee of F.E. McWilliam Gallery & Studio:

Prof Philip Napier, Dr Suzanne Lyle, Dr Briony Widdis,

Jasper McKinney, MBE, Anne Stewart, Dr Louise Wallace,

Deirdre Quail, Christopher Hobson, Jill McEneaney and

Dr Riann Coulter.

Published by the F.E. McWilliam Gallery and Studio, January 2023

ISBN: 978-1-908455-31-4

Texts: Dr Louise Wallace and Riann Coulter

Editor: Riann Coulter

Design: Graham Rees

Print: GPS

© F.E. McWilliam Gallery, Catherine McWilliams

and the authors 2023.

F.E. McWilliam Gallery & Studio

200 Newry Road


BT32 3NB

T: +44 (0)28 40623322

W: www.femcwilliam.com

E: info@femcwilliam.com

Front cover (illustrated fully on page 17)

Studio Interior 1991

Oil on canvas

91 × 91 cm





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