Frank McKelvey (1895-1974)

Acclaimed painter of landscapes

Born in Belfast in 1895, Frank McKelvey attended Mayo Street National School, after which he was apprenticed as a poster designer for David Allen and Sons Ltd, attending evening classes at Belfast College of Art.

In 1911 he became a full-time student at the College, where he won numerous prizes, including the Sir Charles Brett prize for figure drawing (1911-12), the Fitzpatrick prize for figure drawing (1913-14), and a bronze medal (Irish art competition, 1917).

He became a full-time painter of landscapes and portraits, opening a studio in Royal Avenue c1919, exhibiting mostly in Belfast, Dublin and Glasgow (the Royal Glasgow Institute). His landscape paintings are mostly of farm scenes in Co Armagh , the North Coast and later Co Donegal , and are characterised by their fresh, bright palette. To quote Brian Kennedy from his book Frank McKelvey (1993), ‘He had a sharp eye and could, with apparent ease, penetrate the essentials of his subject and set it down with a matching exactitude’. McKelvey was elected a member of the Belfast Art Society in 1921, a full member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1930, and an honorary member of the Ulster Arts Club in 1935.

In 1924, George Russell (AE) had lamented that ‘No one has been powerful enough to create a school in , and when we look at an exhibition of the Hibernian Academy the general effect is of an art without roots’. Together with Humbert Craig, Paul Henry and Charles Lamb, McKelvey forms part of a group of painters from Northern Ireland who forged a distinct school of Irish landscape painting in the 1920s and 1930s, responding to the clarion call from Dublin for a ‘national tradition’ in Irish art comparable to the Irish Literary Revival. Amongst his best landscape paintings are On the Road to Kilmacrennan (c. 1935-6) and Roundstone Harbour , Connemara (1948). In Art in 1 (1977), John Hewitt wrote of McKelvey:

‘In landscape his work harked back to an older tradition than Craig, to quieter colour, to a kind of Constable-impressionism, with, maybe a hint of MacKenzie, most effective in its rendering of evening light, over level estuary plains, out of a lowering sky, or mist coming in from the sea and the water flooding across the sands, or, perhaps, on a smaller scale, children in bright dresses beside the little lake in a city park.’

McKelvey was also an accomplished portrait painter, and in Hewitt’s opinion, he was the most skilful, technically, of his piers in this genre, but that he ‘lacked any originality and, indeed, much aesthetic awareness or curiosity.’ McKelvey’s portraits include the mathematician and physicist Sir Joseph Larmour (1940) and Lord Mayor of Belfast Sir William Wallace (1962). His landscape paintings and his portraits of some of ’s leading citizens may be viewed in the collections of the Ulster Museum , Queen’s University, Belfast and the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, and Cork, Limerick and Waterford municipal galleries amongst others.

Karen Brown