Carol Graham

One of the leading portraitists working in Northern Ireland today

Carol Graham has become one of the leading portraitists working in Northern Ireland today. She was educated at Cambridge House School, Ballymena, after which she studied at Belfast School of Art from 1970 to 1975, including a postgraduate year.


At this stage in her career she worked very slowly, producing on average one painting in two months, she was awarded an Arts Council bursary for the purchase of photographic equipment in 1976, and in this year she received her first portrait commission of Gloria Hunniford in 1976.


Amongst her portraits are the current President of the Republic of Ireland, Mary McAleese (1994), the former President, Dr. Mary Robinson (1993), the flautist James Galway (1987), the surgeon Sir Ian Fraser (1994) and Tom Mitchell, Provost of Trinity College, Dublin (1998). She was awarded Gold medals by the Royal Ulster Academy in 1985 and 1996, elected an Academician in 1985, and is currently President of the Academy.


Graham’s exhibitions have included ‘Women of Ulster’ in the Arts Council Gallery, Belfast (1976), the Royal Hibernian Academy Annual Exhibition, Dublin (1978 to 1995), a two-man show with Basil Blackshaw in the Arts Council Gallery, Belfast (1982), and solo exhibitions ‘Into the Darkness’ in The Engine Room, Belfast (1999) and The Guinness Hop Store, Dublin (2000), ‘Imaginings and Other Realities’ in Elaine Somers Gallery, Holywood (2001), and a recent exhibition in the Naughton Gallery at Queen’s.


Until 2001, Graham had for 17 years had a studio in Harmony Hill, Lisburn. Her work is represented in the collections of the Armagh County Museum, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council, Belfast Harbour Commissioners, Trinity College, Dublin, the Ulster Museum and Ulster Television. Most of these venues make their art work accessible to staff and the public.


Graham has also painted still-life, animal subjects and a series of works based on a striped skirt, including Light Falls Within in the Ulster Museum Collection.


This painting plays with the idea of ‘framing’ a picture by ‘cutting off’ a scene. As in a photograph, the artist makes the viewer question what lies outside of the frame. To Quote Mike Catto from Art in Ulster: 2 (1977), ‘Carol Graham works in an almost Pre-Raphaelite style but her framing of the subjects she paints is determined by the angles and perspectives created by camera lenses at varying focal lengths.’ This skirt motif was repeated soon after in studies of a woman in magenta, with colour signifying on a more symbolic level – magenta and reds for woman, fused with opposite, cool blues for masculinity.


In recent years, following a period of reactive depression, Graham has continued to explore the symbolic potential of colour and motifs. Fire and water, signifying alchemy and the unconscious have had particular resonance in her work, and elemental forces are experienced by the artist in recent years through walking on the Mourne Mountains. Canvases such as Lough Shannagh in Winter demonstrate these concerns.