The Artist's Overcoat Sculpture Exhibition Opens in Banbridge

The FE McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge showcases lesser-seen and unfinished work by the renowned surrealist

It will soon be five years since the gallery devoted to the work of Banbridge-born sculptor FE McWilliam opened on the southern outskirts of the town, just off the A1 junction. Its inaugural exhibition, unsurprisingly, focused exclusively on pieces by McWilliam himself, many of which had never been seen before in his native Northern Ireland.

There have been other exhibitions at the gallery since, of course, but The Artist’s Overcoat, the new show currently running there until June 9, 2013, is the first since the opening to focus predominantly on FE’s own output. As curator Riann Coulter explains, however, it in no way replicates the content of the previous McWilliam exhibition.

‘The first exhibition was really to introduce people to McWilliam’s work,’ she comments. ‘It was a big show with a lot of work borrowed from the Tate, and it was all finished work. This exhibition’s different in that it very much focuses on our own collections, which are from the studio of FE McWilliam. So we have maquettes, we have works in progress, we have works that were never cast, we have a lot of sketches, drawings and scrapbooks.’

Coulter emphasises that the exhibits in The Artist’s Overcoat have been chosen with a view to illuminating how McWilliam actually operated on a day to day basis, and the various stages of artistic activity leading to his finished pieces. ‘It really shows process, largely,’ she says. ‘And I think for those who are now familiar with McWilliam’s work from the gallery and from the studio, it gives great insight into the way he worked.’

Coulter rejects the suggestion that this concentration on process, rather than finished outcomes, makes The Artist’s Overcoat an exhibition more targeted towards specialists and working artists than its predecessor. ‘No, I don’t necessarily think so,’ she comments.

‘We’ve found visitors always want to know how things are made, even if they aren’t particularly taken by McWilliam’s work. Particularly with sculpture and things like bronze, where people aren’t entirely sure of the process of casting it.’

FE McWilliam


Coulter also points to the fact that the exhibition has been used as a springboard to create new work inspired by the McWilliam's work. ‘We have the work of 13 students from the National College of Art and Design,’ she adds, ‘a shot of contemporary practice in the middle of it all.

‘We had the original walls of FE McWilliam’s London studio,’ Coulter continues, explaining how the connection with the National College originated. ‘That came as part of the bequest in the 1990s. We had them in storage for years, and after lots of consultation we decided to advertise them for artists.

‘In the end Philip Napier, who is an artist based in Banbridge and also Head of Fine Art in the National College, took the studio walls and brought them down to Dublin. He gave them to his second-year sculpture students, and they have been using them in their space, really engaging with these structures and with McWilliam’s work. They came and visited the gallery, and that’s really where the link started.’

The work of the National College students sits alongside that of McWilliam in The Artist’s Overcoat, a feature of the exhibition which Coulter views as significant. ‘It’s very important for us to also show younger artists, and to show more experimental work. We only have four exhibitions a year, so one way of doing that is an exhibition like this, where you bring together an established artist and very much younger, emerging artists as well.’

Coulter is particularly enthusiastic about how much light the new exhibition casts on the wellsprings of McWilliam’s creativity, where he got his ideas from in the first place. ‘I really like the fact that you can see the source material,’ she comments. ‘He actually took a lot of images from contemporary magazines from the sixties and seventies, and then used them. So very much popular culture.

‘And it’s also interesting to see what he didn’t cast, what didn’t end up as finished works for the museums or the market. Some of them are more interesting than the ones he did. It’s very interesting to see where he went wrong, and to see how some things didn’t work and others obviously did.’

As the FE McWilliam Gallery approaches its fifth birthday, Coulter reflects with considerable satisfaction on the progress it has made during that period. ‘I think we’ve done a good job in building an audience,’ she says. ‘It’s always difficult at the beginning to let people know you’re here and to make people want to come.

‘We’ve been very lucky in recent times in that we’ve increased our audience from the south. Things like the Basil Blackshaw show, which we had last year, were incredibly popular and brought a lot of people in.’

Building the reputation of McWilliam himself will, however, remain central to the gallery’s mission statement for the future. ‘The interesting thing about McWilliam, which you see a little bit in the show,’ explains Coulter, ‘is that he was really very much up there in the 1950s and 60s, with the likes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. They were his contemporaries and friends, and he exhibited with them.

‘And it was really only later that his reputation took a bit of a dive in terms of the market and in terms of contemporary art. Possibly because although there’s a great continuity throughout his work when you look at it, he did tend to change his style and his subject matter, whereas someone like Moore stuck to the same themes over and over. I really respect the fact that he did change his style, and that he did try new things.’

Coulter has no doubt, however, that McWilliam’s standing in 20th century sculpture will rise again – indeed, it is already rising. ‘Particularly in Ireland,’ she observes, ‘it has increased greatly because of the opening of the gallery.

‘And also internationally, sculpture itself has become more popular in terms of the market. And I think people are realising that McWilliam is more of an interesting artist than they thought. He was a really fascinating artist, one of the best figurative sculptors of the twentieth century, and he produced some really great work.’

The Artist's Overcoat runs in the FE McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge, until June 1.

FE McWilliam