Anne Callanan talks to Deirdre Quail, acting Curator, FE McWilliam Studio and Gallery.
Tucked away between Newry and Belfast, it can be easy to drive past the FE McWilliam Gallery without even being aware it is there. Though easily missed, once visited, it is never forgotten. As well as the striking architectural layout, the permanent and temporary collection are sure to lure you back. The Gallery and Studio is dedicated to the memory of the renowned sculptor, Frederick Edward McWilliam, born in Banbridge in 1909. After his death in 1992 the sculptor’s studio and its contents was gifted to the town of his birth. The gallery and studio houses this collection in a superb exhibition facility of gallery, sculpture garden and reconstructed studio. It also provides a tourist information centre, café and craft shop. I spoke to the acting curator, Ms. Deirdre Quail, who very kindly answered my questions, but added many little anecdotes from her talks with the McWilliam family.
What was the aim of the building/business/community/ art display/gallery?
The purpose of the building was to house the McWilliam bequest. He died in 1992 and in lieu of death duties his family gifted his workshop and its contents to the state with the proviso that it would come to the town of his birth. The Council’s transporters went with the trucks and equipment and packed it all up at his home in Holland Park, London and brought it to Banbridge. There it rested, while there were deliberations as to where it would be housed. Sufficient funding and support was provided by Peace 11 funding and it was decided to locate the gallery on the site of the then Tourist Office just off the main Dublin-Belfast road at Banbridge. The gallery opened on the 26th September 2008.
How do you involve the community at large?
We try to arrange a programme that suits everyone. Some of the exhibitions will be challenging, while others are more accessible. For example, many members of the local community seemed to be more comfortable with the recent exhibition of the landscapes and art of TP Flanagan, as opposed to previous displays of very contemporary sculpture. Both exhibitions, in general, were very well received. We want to build interest and to challenge, and to develop the whole idea of this as an exciting exhibition space. So we have members of the local community on the programme committee, and involved in the educational programmes.
Who was responsible for the building and layout of the gallery?
Building design commenced in 1995, by the Belfast architects Kennedy & Fitzgerald. They worked very closely with Denise and Brian Ferran, artists and art historian friends of FE, who were engaged as consultants by the Council. Denise curated the first exhibition.
Banbridge Council members accompanied Denise and Brian to St. Ives, Cornwall to look at the Barbara Hepworth studio, as she was a contemporary of FE. Another contemporary of McWilliam was Henry Moore. The difference between these artists with regard to their legacy is that Moore was instrumental in setting up his own foundation and part financed his Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, and Barbara Hepworth created the St. Ives garden and studio in situ. McWilliam’s studio and contents was gifted by his heirs.
The Sculpture Garden was designed in such a way in order to replicate the spirit of the garden in which his studio was situated at his home in London’s Holland Park. Efforts to recreate his studio at the bottom of the garden, as in London, were curtailed by the existing layout and planning issues. In an innovative twist, the footprint of the original London structure is there but was turned around and reinvented. The studio is a facsimile of London. When the actual studio was transferred to Ireland and examined, asbestos was revealed, so a replica had to be made. Rather than occupy the studio with his tools etc. they moved all the material into the carport next door and glass partitions allow one to see how he would have worked. The studio itself houses a large collection of maquettes which are the preparatory works for the sculpted bronzes. The works can be seen from the earliest stages of construction, from wire armature to sculpted plaster.
There was a concern about soundproofing the space allocated to the garden as it is sandwiched between two busy roads. This was successfully carried out. The main gallery exhibition space takes up most of the building and stores at the rear allow easy access to trolleys carrying large structures.
The gallery area includes four large glass permanent structures resembling cabinets, known as the Armour cases. These provide excellent visibility to view works in the round. The cabinets can be covered by panelling to form walls which allow extra hanging space, depending on the needs of the exhibition. In addition, there are hanging areas on which to display two-dimensional works and an extensive open floor space to accommodate large pieces.
Can you tell us more about FE McWilliam and his family origins?
FE McWilliam was born in Newry Street Banbridge, the son of a local doctor. Frederick was the youngest of the family and went to school in Campbell College Belfast. From there he went to Art College in Belfast, then the Slade School of Art in London. (My particular interest is that his grandfather built the house in which I live. His uncle Frederick, a local solicitor, inherited it and he in turn left it to FE McWilliam. So he owned my house and played in it as a child. I met him and he told me stories about his childhood there. It came up for sale in the 1930s and as he was living in France and then London, and didn’t want to return to Northern Ireland at that time, it was sold. Perhaps we both slid down the same banister. He was a lovely man a real David Niven character.
How do you decide on exhibition and arrangement of space?
When the programme committee was set up we stipulated the type of exhibitions we were going to have in relation to FE. So for example in the course of the year we always have one exhibition which is directly related to his work or may have a looser connection such as one of his contemporary like TP Flanagan or William Scott. Direct relationship may be in terms of themes or materials as McWilliam was quite innovative in his use of materials. The current exhibition in the garden is presented by the Sculptors’ Association of Mourne and many of the works pay homage to McWilliam.
We are very keen to exhibit as much as possible. An interesting exhibition coming in January called ‘Another Dimension’ by Seacourt Print Workshop will relate print to 3D forms which should be interesting. Also the exhibition entitled “Forest” will see young people from schools, colleges and the university responding to the theme of the forest in sculpture.
How the about the day-to-day running of the gallery?
Tourist information and gallery guides assist in the day-to-day running of the gallery and exhibition space and deal with the public in a most helpful manner. Information about the current exhibition is limited in the viewing space to allow for full immersion and appreciation of what is being exhibited. There is a large information board at the entrance introducing the exhibition and small information card is placed close to the artwork.
Is the gallery funded privately or publicly?
Banbridge District Council sought out a suitable site for many years, eventually settling on the site of the Banbridge Tourist Information Centre, adjacent to the main A1 Dual Carriageway. The project became a joint venture with Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda in the Republic of Ireland, who were developing a gallery space to house the Drogheda Corporation art collection. A Cross-Border Arts Partnership was formed which successfully drew down substantial funds from the EU Interreg III to develop both galleries. Both galleries have been completed to a high standard thanks to a total funding package of €3.388m from the European Union’s Interreg IIIA Programme, which was administered by the East Border Region Interreg IIIA Partnership. A sum of €2.18m was awarded to Banbridge District Council while the balance (€1.208m) was awarded to Drogheda Borough Council.
Gallery Opening Hours: September to Easter; Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm; Closed Sundays
FE McWilliam Gallery & Studio, 200 Newry Road, Banbridge, Co. Down BT32 3NB: +44(28) 4062 3322 E: firstname.lastname@example.org W: www.femcwilliam.com