William Conor RHA RUA

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William Conor RHA RUA

William Conor was a portrait and figure painter celebrated for his empathetic representations of working-class life in Ulster. Born on 9 May 1881 in Fortingale street, Belfast, Conor was the son of a sheet-metal worker. Following his early education at Cliftonville Central National School, he went on to attend the Government School of Design after his artistic talent was noticed by a music teacher, Louis Mantell, who found the ten-year-old Conor sketching on the wall and consequently arranged for him to attend the art school.

Conor began his career as an apprentice poster designer for David Allen and Sons, where he remained from 1904 to 1909. He first exhibited at the Belfast Art Society in 1910. He spent time on the Blasket Islands, Dingle Bay and in Paris, later exhibiting at the Paris Salon before moving to London in 1920. He became acquainted with figures such as Augustus John (1878-1961), Belfast-born Sir John Lavery (1856-1941), and the Cafe Royal circle. In 1921, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, while simultaneously becoming established in Dublin. His works having been exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) since 1918, he went on to exhibit some 200 works there until 1967.

Describing Conor in London's The Studio magazine in 1925, Holbrook Johnson wrote:

'Belfast has...produced a painter. This event is of twofold importance. In the first place that Conor is a painter of genius and in the second place he is a painter of Belfast. There are notes in his work which suggest he could not have painted anywhere else. If a modern manufacturing town could have folk songs and if those folk songs could be translated into pictures, or if the feelings which inspired them could be pictorially represented, they would take the form of the art of William Conor.'

Conor was commissioned by the government in WWI and II to record portraits of soldiers and munitions workers. During the Second World War, he produced works such as Building an Air Raid Shelter, The Warden and twenty-seven sketches which were purchased by The Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. His work during this period was also included in an exhibition of war artists at The National Gallery, London in 1941.

He was elected as one of the first academicians of the Ulster Academy of Arts (formerly the Belfast Art Society) in 1930. He became an Associate of the RHA in 1938, going on to become a full member in 1946. In 1952, Conor received an OBE and in 1957, he was elected President of the RUA where he held office up until 1964. During the year of his election, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts organised a retrospective which included more than 160 works, the largest individual exhibition ever to have been shown in Northern Ireland. In that same year, Conor received an honorary Master of Arts degree from Queen's University, Belfast.

William Conor died at his home on Salisbury Avenue, Belfast on 5 February 1968.

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