Joseph McWilliams, as President of the Royal Ulster Academy with Dr. S.B.Kennedy, Keeper of Art, Ulster Museum, showing Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne, around the Academy’s exhibition in the Ulster Museum.
It is with great sadness that we have to record the death of the renowned Belfast artist Joe McWilliams, which occurred on Wednesday the 7th October. Educated at St. Malachy’s College, Joe progressed to the Belfast College of Art to study painting where he met his future wife Catherine May, a fellow art student. Joe continued his studies, taking a degree in Art History and Education in the late 1970s from the Open University while teaching full–time in St. Gabriel’s Secondary School and then at the Schools for the Deaf and Blind. His accumulated knowledge and skill reached prominence when he was appointed Lecturer in Art Education at the Ulster Polytechnic, inspiring his student art teachers with a love of their subject and enabling them to build a foundation towards a successful art career.
On his retirement from lecturing in 1986, he and his wife Catherine, they opened the Cavehill Gallery in their large, stylish Victorian home, encouraging local artists whilst building up a clientele of art lovers. Simultaneously continuing their own painting careers, their gallery was a lighthouse amidst ‘The Troubles” with so many of us enjoying their hospitality, their conversations and their humour in the company of their two children, Jane, a television Producer and Simon, a celebrated artist in his own right.
Joe McWilliams was awarded the Silver Medal at the Royal Ulster Academy in 1988, the Belfast News Letter Prize for Painting in 1994 in the same year he was elected an Academician. He exhibited annually with the Royal Ulster Academy and served as its distinguished President from 2000 until 2004. He elevated the Academy’s exhibitions by engaging notable adjudicators such as the painter Dr. Ian McKenzie Smith, former Director of Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums and the painter Anthony Green, RA who was also an invited artist in 2004. He has written many scripts for BBC radio and has presented, his own script “The Way that I Went” which was seen on BBC world services as well as locally and in Britain. His own work has been exhibited at a variety of venues in Ireland, Britain, Europe and the USA. He is perhaps best known for his paintings of ‘The Troubles’ evidenced in exhibitions such as ‘Art for Society’ 1978 Whitechapel Gallery, London; ‘Documenta 6’ Kassel 1977, W.Germany; ‘A Troubled Journey 1966–1989’ and ‘Colour on the March’ both at the Cavehill Gallery, Belfast.
Joe was a bon viveur, raconteur, educator, an informed and eloquent speaker and above all a great painter of the political scene. He wrote knowledgeably on the visual arts for art journals and the Irish News. He will be sadly missed by all, in particular by the artistic community of his native Belfast and we in the Royal Ulster Academy owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for the effort he expended in developing the Academy, culminating in the vibrant exhibition which opens in the Ulster Museum on 16th October. Joe’s work “Christian Flautists outside St. Patrick’s” will be silent testimony to the man and his craft.