Carr, Thomas James (‘Tom’) (1909–99), landscape and figure painter, was born 21 September 1909 in Belfast, second son among three sons and a daughter of Thomas James Carr, stockbroker, and Mary Carr (née Workman), whose family also had stockbroking connections. An early interest in art was encouraged by Tom Carr's grandfather, John Workman (1834–1922), a watercolourist. Oundle School (founded 1556), Northamptonshire, England, was where he received his first serious instruction in art, from E. M. O'Rorke Dickey (1894–1977), son of a Belfast solicitor. As Carr once said, he himself was neither strong enough to be a farmer nor clever enough to be a doctor. In 1927 he enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, leaving after two years for a six-month stay in Italy. That demon for drawing of the highest standard, Henry Tonks (1862–1937) of the Slade, had arranged accommodation at Settignano near Florence. During his Italian stay, the quiet Belfastman had a period of study at the British School in Rome.
Carr never claimed that he had met personally in London the cosmopolitan W. R. Sickert (1860–1942), but he was able to say that the Munich-born artist was an occasional swimmer at the Whitfield St. baths, which Carr patronised. He watched Sickert's beard float up and down as he swam on his back. However, he must have known Ivon Hitchens (1893–1979), Victor Pasmore (1908–98), and the Welshman Ceri Richards (1903–71), all of whom were associated with the ‘Objective abstractions’ exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery (1933), Carr's only excursion into non–figurative art; no work of his apparently survives. Carr was also involved with the Euston Road School, described as of sober figurative tradition, established in 1937 by William Coldstream (1908–87), Claude Rogers (1907–79), and Pasmore. In the same year he combined with Pasmore and Rogers in a Storran Gallery exhibition, so his name was by no means unknown in metropolitan art circles.
On the outbreak of the second world war he settled with his family at Newcastle, Co. Down. When painting, Carr said, he had just the intention of enjoying himself, and one suspects he took just as much pleasure in depicting one or two sitting at the tea table, or a dark thorn bush, or a farmer and postman, as his monumental portrayal of families down at the Newcastle beach with the occasional pram and paddlers too. The London connection was retained and his first solo show in the city was at the Wildenstein Gallery in 1940, the year he first exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy. In Dublin too Contemporary Pictures hosted a 1941 exhibition. Residing in Northern Ireland, he received a few commissions from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. In London the Leicester Galleries were keen supporters of his work, which often included figures, a gallery connection that survived into the 1960s. The Studio found him noticeable for his choice of unusual subjects and his unconventional treatment of design. The Royal Academy accepted his work in 1945 and he also showed in London with the New English Art Club.
In Belfast the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts arranged exhibitions (1948, 1953, 1960), but in this period there had also been one-person shows in Bournemouth, Exeter, and Worthing. The family left the Mountains of Mourne for Belfast in 1955. He had a spell teaching part-time, in his quiet way, at the Belfast College of Art. Full membership of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours came in 1959.
When he held an exhibition at the David Hendriks Gallery in Dublin (1970) the medium was watercolour, although his work in oils was by no means negligible. Most of his portraits were commissioned. A joint exhibition with George Campbell (qv) at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland gallery in Belfast (1969) had moved on to the Brooke Park gallery in Londonderry. Four years later that building, known as Gwyn's Institute, was destroyed by bombs and fire, courtesy of the Provisional IRA, with a loss of some 80,000 books.
In connection with the Ulster ‘71 festival a Carr painting was reproduced for a special postage stamp, and that year he returned to exhibiting at the RHA after a long absence; also in 1971 he was represented at the Oireachtas exhibition, Dublin, where in 1976 he won their award with a watercolour ‘Nettle bed snow’.
Tom Carr, MBE (1974), resisted publicity. The major retrospective of 1983 may have been something of a trial for him. Just over 160 works were hung, with the oldest oil ‘Dead dogs’ pond, Belfast’ (1926). The show was presented by both arts councils, north and south, as part of their continuing programme to honour distinguished Irish artists. After the Ulster Museum, the Douglas Hyde Gallery at TCD followed in 1984.
In 1991 he was awarded a doctorate of literature by QUB; in 1993 his work was exhibited at the European Parliament, Strasbourg, and he was made an honorary member of the RHA and an OBE. In 1995 he left Belfast to reside in Norfolk with one of his three daughters, Ann (author, incidentally, as ‘Ann Carr’, of ten cookery books, nine of which were illustrated by her Belfast-born artist husband Martin MacKeown (1931–2003)). A BBC film on Carr, ‘Sunshine in a room’, was transmitted in 1996. He died at West Norfolk Hospital, Norwich, 17 February 1999; his body was cremated.
He married (1934) Stella Francesca (second of three daughters of Harold Robbins, of an Anglo-Italian background), who studied law at Oxford University and practised as a solicitor at Richmond, Surrey. The Robbins’ money came from the grandfather, also an Oxford graduate, who was associated with the invention of peroxide. Carr is widely represented in public collections, including the Ulster Museum, Belfast, and the Arts Council of Great Britain, Tate Gallery, and Victoria and Albert Museum, all in London. The Phillips collection, Washington DC, also holds works by him.