Catherine McWilliams shows the romance and reality of Cave Hill and Black Mountain at the Gerard Dillon Gallery
Catherine McWilliams has a distinguished record as an artist with a history of exhibitions stretching back to 1966, but if you want to know where her heart lies you will find it here.
She has had an affinity with hilly places since childhood, when the Mourne Mountains and the Cooley Mountains on the other side of Carlingford Lough were part of her terrain. Then as a schoolchild in west Belfast she looked up to the Black Mountain, and latterly she has lived in the shadow of the Cave Hill, where she and her husband, fellow artist Joseph, run the Cavehill Gallery.
For her the Cave Hill is ‘my hill’, while the Belfast hills generally are ‘the best part of Belfast’, offering alternatively ‘a playground’ or ‘huge protective arms’ for the city. An intensity of experience as an artist follows from this. 'To paint for me is to be part of the hill,' McWilliams writes.
The paintings on display as part of this exhibition in the Gerard Dillon Gallery in Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich on the Falls Road are fruit of a love affair that has lasted at least quarter of a century, and one realised with expressionistic flair.
While Belfast citizens are generally aware of the steepness of the hills that provide the backdrop to the city, McWilliams captures their plunging verticality particularly well. It is striking in ‘Pink City and Football Field’, where we look down from the dark greens of the Black Mountain and plummet immediately into housing estates lit up by evening sunlight.
Looking the other way in ‘Cave Hill Road and Misty Hill’ our eyes are suddenly lifted from the mundane traffic lights in the foreground to the soaring mystery of a partially clouded Cave Hill. Another characteristic is very evident here in the extraordinary proximity of city and wild space.
McWilliams makes use of it again in ‘Across the Houses to Wolf Hill’ (above), a view from the Cave Hill, and in ‘Our Lady’s Acre Neneath Cave Hill’. It is true that her houses are no more than perfunctory pop-up boxes, but that, after all, is what they are! Then there are the spectacular views of the port from the Cave Hill in ‘Belfast Port’ and ‘Across the Lough’.
Key to all this is the ever changing light. As McWilliams writes in her artist statement, ‘The weather changes everything’. In a matter of moments ‘you can look at the hill all over again'. Few if any of these paintings feature views in straight forward sunlight. Fleeting moments of sunshine caught between passing clouds or mist offer richer rewards.
‘Waterworks Walk, Cavehill’ (below) commands attention not because of the rather sketchy Waterworks foreground but because of one of those gleams of sunshine on Cave Hill in the background. Elsewhere ‘Sunlight on the Black Mountain’ and ‘Light on the Cave Hill’ offer more of those enticing glimpses.
Mist enables some of McWilliams' most atmospheric pieces. In ‘Snowy Cave Hill’ it seems still to be snowing and a roughening of the surface adds to the mysterious opaqueness of the scene. In ‘Blue Misty Hill’, the Cave Hill almost vanishes altogether in a purple twilight.
After a bitter winter it is apt enough that we have other snow scenes including the ‘Snowy Hatchet Field’ on the Black Mountain, and ‘Sleigh Tracks’ and ‘Evening on the Hill’ most probably on the Cave Hill.
McWilliams does not neglect some of the less romantic aspects of the hills. Her dramatic profile of ‘Black Mountain; Lenadoon’ doesn’t evade the quarrying equipment on the skyline, and two views ‘Inside the Black Mountain’ catch the stark reality and the enormous scale of the Black Mountain Quarry.
She also offers two versions of ‘Burnt Hill with Whins’, of which the most effective is in mixed media on canvas where the burnt twigs project blackly from the surface. It is a technique used to good effect for the trees in one of the earliest pictures here, ‘Celtic Goddess and Cave Hill’, though beyond a slightly surreal flash of colour I can not discern the Goddess. For a fine portrayal of an individual albeit distressed tree try ‘Ivied Coat, Cave Hill’.
While McWilliams cannot hide her Cave Hill favouritism, she offers a fair spread of subjects across the hills. Her presentation of two triptychs – one of the Cave Hill and the other of the Black Mountain – suggests a balance between the two, and in the event I prefer the subtlety of the colours in the Black Mountain piece.
Numerous artists, many of them amateur, have tried to realise the Belfast Hills, and in particular the Cave Hill in the past, and with no better than modest success. With this major body of work, McWilliams sets new standards.
Lovers of the Belfast hills should provide a captive audience for this exhibition, but it deserves a much wider audience. All 27 paintings are on sale at prices ranging from £4,000 to £500 with the exception of a screenprint priced at £250.
Belfast Hills runs in the Gerard Dillon Gallery at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich, Belfast until September 12.