William Conor

Portraitist and painter of industrial Belfast.

William Connor (he dropped the second ‘n’ in later life) was born in May 1881, the son of a sheet metal worker from Fortingale Street, Belfast. He was to live with members of his family at a series of addresses in the city for most of his life. From 1894 until 1904 he attended the Belfast Government School of Art, based in College Square North, then joined David Allen and Sons, lithographers, as an apprentice poster designer.
Conor soon developed larger artistic ambitions, although, as John Hewitt writes, ‘his visual vocabulary [was] established in Edwardian days.’ By 1910, he was a member of the Belfast Art Society and was elected to its committee in 1913. He worked as an official war artist and in 1916 auctioned government commissioned drawings on behalf of the Ulster Volunteer Force hospital fund. By 1921, Conor was respected enough to be asked to paint the official opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament, probably at the suggestion of John Lavery. In that year he also took a studio at 7 Chichester Street.
In 1930, William Conor was one of the first nine academicians at the new Ulster Academy of Arts (formerly Belfast Art Society), and in 1932 the first Irish artist to gain membership of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters. On the outbreak of the second world war, he again accepted a government commission, this time to record Northern Ireland’s contribution to the war effort on behalf of the Ministry of Information. Further honours followed. Conor was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1952, elected president of the Royal Ulster Academy in 1957, and awarded a civil list pension in 1959.
Nevertheless, Conor maintained his commitment to his primary subject, the working class street life of industrial Belfast. He wrote: ‘my aim has been to seek for beauty in those places where it is not often sought, in crowded thoroughfares, in the factory and in the shipyard.’ John Hewitt commented: ‘He belonged to us in a very special sense.’
Conor died, probably of hypothermia following a fall at his Salisbury Avenue home, in early February 1968.
Further reading
Dictionary of Twentieth Century Irish Artists (2002) by Theo Snoddy; Dictionary of Ulster Biography (1993) by Kate Newmann; Conor: The Life and Work of an Ulster Artist (1981) by Judith C Wilson.