Friers, Rowel Boyd (1920–98), cartoonist and painter, was born 13 April 1920 in Ravenhill Road, Belfast, youngest among six children of William Friers (d. 1926), a cashier in Irish Distillery, and Nellie Friers (née Stevenson). Rowel was educated at Park Parade intermediate school. All the family were gifted at art, and aged 16, Rowel followed his elder brother Ian into S. C. Allen & Co., a renowned printing house which counted Guinness among its clients. As an apprentice designer and lithographer, he also attended Belfast College of Art. When Allen's went into liquidation in 1939 he was awarded a full-time scholarship to the college.
His first cartoon was published in the Portsmouth Evening News in 1940; he then started a commercial studio and began getting comic and satirical drawings published in magazines such as Punch, London Opinion, and Radio Times. He continued painting and showed one work in the RHA in 1942, exhibiting thereafter at most of the annual RHA shows until 1953. He was more familiar with Dublin than many northern protestants, since work for Dublin Opinion, and later the Irish Times, Irish Press and Irish Independent, brought him there frequently. The Dublin Opinion editors wrote later that he drew ‘with great fluency and speed and skill, contributed drawings of every kind, from pirates with a sense of humour to lovelorn and guitar-strumming Mexicans’ (Collins & Kelly, 6).
During the 1950s and 1960s most of Friers's cartoons were universal rather than provincial in setting, and generally apolitical. However, the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 strongly affected his themes and treatment. Since the 1950s the Belfast Telegraph had provided the most regular forum for his work, and his initial single-column top cartoon had developed into a large feature cartoon every Saturday. In the 1970s these cartoons became political. Friers took a liberal, reformist, and non-sectarian stance in keeping with the Belfast Telegraph. He claimed: ‘The only side I'm on is sanity. I just make fun of all the madness’ (Irish Times, 23 Sept. 1998). Most politicians were depicted affectionately; anger was reserved for paramilitaries on both sides. Events could sharpen his pen into rare personal attacks: after the collapse of the power-sharing executive, brought about by the Ulster Workers Council's strike in 1974, he depicted the secretary of state, Merlyn Rees (qv) (1920–2006), as a puppet on the knee of a general. However, his art was not usually savage; he preferred presenting decent Ulster folk trying to get on with their lives in the midst of carnage. John Darby, in a study on cartoonists and the north, called him one of the ‘few to catch successfully the character and accent of his countrymen . . . his interest in their vernacular is unique’ (Darby, 70–71).
His work went beyond newspaper cartoons: he had his first one-man show at the CEMA gallery, 55a Donegall Place, Belfast, from 19 to 31 October 1953. It was allegedly visited by one visitor per minute. That year he was elected a full academician at the Ulster academy. His murals appeared at the American Officers' Club, Union Hotel, at his old school, Park Parade (which painted over the bottom of the mural), and in restaurants. After ‘Bloody Friday’ (21 July 1972) he was approached by the father of one of the victims, the Rev. Joseph Parker, to produce ten posters illustrating biblical quotations. These were put up outside the city hall in March 1974. He began designing sets for the Fisherwick dramatic society, and in the 1950s was set designer for the Lyric theatre, run by Pearse (d. 2004) and Mary O'Malley (qv) (1918–2006). In all he designed over 100 sets, his commissions including the grand opera in Belfast in 1971. Work for television included designs for The Irish RM and for a series of Percy French (qv) songs, narrated by Milo O'Shea (qv), both for the BBC. Among the books he illustrated were Jeanne Cooper Foster, Ulster folklore (1951), W. B. Yeats (qv), Irish folk tales (1973) and Cyril Cusack (qv), The humour is on me (1980). However, Friers was always best known as a cartoonist; his reputation was helped by his frequent books of drawings. The first, Wholly Friers (1948), was introduced by John Hewitt (qv), and Blackstaff Press was launched by his Revolting Irish (1974). In 1990 he switched regular cartooning from the Belfast Telegraph to the News Letter.
Friers's affection for Belfast is clear in all his work and explicit in his autobiography, Drawn from life (1994), in which he warmly reminisces on the people and events, including the festive ‘Twelfth’, of his youth. However, his affable public profile covered private malaise; he had three nervous breakdowns, in the early 1940s, in the mid 1950s, and again in the mid 1970s, after the deaths in quick succession of his two brothers. He proved responsive to treatment, including electroconvulsive therapy.
Awarded the MBE in 1977, he was appointed (1993) president of the Royal Ulster Academy and served four years before his death at home, 33 Victoria Road, Holywood, Co. Down, on 21 September 1998. He married (27 August 1954) Yvonne Henderson and had three children; his two sons also had art-related careers, Jeremy as a photographer in Co. Down and Timothy as a graphic artist in London. His nephew Julian Friers is among the most noted wildlife painters in the UK.
The Ulster Museum owns two large pencil drawings of Friers, while the National Portrait Gallery in London has caricatures by him of Enoch Powell (1912–98), Gerry Fitt (qv), and Ian Paisley (qv). In February 2002 the Northern Ireland assembly commission acquired at auction a collection of forty-six drawings of the members of the Northern Ireland parliament, prorogued in 1972, for display in Stormont's Long Room.