Artist biography

Irish sculptor. He studied painting at Belfast School of Art and at the Slade School of Fine Art in London (1928–31) before turning to sculpture in the early 1930s. His earliest wood carvings were influenced by archaic and primitive art, especially by African sculpture. After 1936 his work became increasingly Surrealist in spirit, and he was loosely associated with the British Surrealist group; Eye, Nose and Cheek (h. 889 mm, 1939; London, Tate) and other stone carvings of 1938–9 constitute an important contribution to Surrealist sculpture. In these works he developed Auguste Rodin's idea of the fragment with a disconcerting wit, distorting and displacing aspects of the human head in biomorphic configurations.

After spending most of World War II in service in India, McWilliam returned to London to teach at Chelsea School of Art and at the Slade, and he resumed working in a great variety of media, including terracotta, stone, wood and bronze. During the 1950s his work progressed from an attenuated, broken-surfaced figuration towards more hieratic symbolic forms, while retaining a characteristically fantastic or ironic aspect. His mechanomorphic bronze Figures of the early 1960s dynamically parody the reclining figures of his friend Henry Moore, while the Bean sculptures of 1965–6, with their swelling organic forms, at once celebrate and satirise sexuality. McWilliam's output is typified by a capricious and fanciful imagination, combined with a predisposition to work in series, exhaustively exploring a theme and then making a radical change in subject and style.

R. Penrose: McWilliam (London, 1964)
F. E. McWilliam (exh. cat. by M. Gooding, London, Tate, 1989)


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