McGuinness, Norah (1901–80), painter, was born 7 November 1901 in Derry city, eldest daughter of Joseph Allison McGuinness, coal merchant and shipowner, of Lawrence Hill, Derry, and Jessie McGuinness (maiden name unknown). She was educated at Victoria High School, known for its progressive education under the Misses McKillip. Showing early artistic ability, she began to take life-drawing classes at Derry Technical School (1917) despite initial parental opposition. In 1921 she went to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where she won a three-year scholarship and studied under Patrick Touhy (qv), Oswald Reeves (1870–1967) and Harry Clarke (qv). The influence of Clarke on her book illustrations of the mid 1920s, though brief, was intense as can be seen in her illustrations for Laurence Sterne's (qv) A sentimental journey through France and Italy, a commission she received through Clarke in 1925. She enjoyed further success as a student, winning an RDS medal in 1923 and a medal for drawing at the Tailteann competition in 1924. In that year she studied at the Chelsea School of Art, where she was exposed for the first time to impressionism and cubism.
She married (1925) the poet Geoffrey Phibbs, later known as Geoffrey Taylor (qv), and through him became involved in Dublin theatrical circles. She began to design stage sets and costumes for such plays as ‘The only jealousy of Emer’ and ‘Deirdre’ by W. B. Yeats (qv) and ‘From morn til midnight’ by George Kaiser, which opened the Peacock theatre in 1927. She also illustrated Yeats's Stories of Red Hanrahan and the secret rose (1927), much to the satisfaction of the poet, who dedicated to her the opening poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. In 1929 her marriage broke down and in the aftermath her friend Mainie Jellett (qv) advised her to go to Paris and study, as she had done herself, with the cubist painter André Lhote. Her two years in Paris proved to be a watershed artistically. She never adopted the theoretical approach to cubism that Jellett had; hers was more lyrical, but the style did recur in her work throughout her career. Influenced by artists such as Vlaminck, Dufy, and Lurçat, her palette lightened and she found a new assurance in her brushwork. George Braque's subtleties of composition also attracted her enormously.
In 1931 she travelled to India, where she stayed a few months with her sister before settling in London; she lived in Hammersmith till 1937. As she was running short of money and enduring the news of her divorce breaking in the press, her first few months there were most unhappy. Determined not to teach as a means of support, she turned again to illustration, making fashion drawings for the Bystander and Vogue. In her painting she concentrated on landscape and associated herself with the London avant garde, exhibiting at the Wertheim gallery alongside artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Victor Pasmore. She also became friends with her neighbour, the artist John Piper. During this time she continued to exhibit in Dublin and spent each summer at her cottage at Rathmullan, Co. Donegal.
Late in 1937 she went to New York, where she was included in an exhibition of Irish art at the gallery of Mrs Cornelius J. Sullivan, along with Jack Yeats (qv) and Nano Reid (qv). The following year she had an exhibition at the Paul Reinhardt gallery. It was in New York that she first began to design shop-window displays, and she continued this after her return to Dublin in 1939 at the Brown Thomas department store under E. A. McGuire (qv). A painter himself, he had originally met her through the Dublin Painters Group, which also included Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone (qv), and Jack Hanlon (qv). He later recalled how other Irish artists were highly critical of McGuinness's taking on such (in their view) unartistic work. However, she had first been inspired by the window displays of the surrealist Salvador Dali in New York, and her experience – coupled with her keen sense of design – brought a new level of sophistication and demonstrated how aesthetic ideas could permeate life beyond the confines of the art world. She also resumed designing for the stage and was responsible for the set of the first production at the Abbey Theatre of ‘Waiting for Godot’ by Samuel Beckett (qv). The 1940s saw a more decorative, romantic style emerge in her painting, which gave way to a renewed investigation of cubism in the 1950s and ‘60s with an even greater vibrance of colour, visible in ‘Garden green’ (1962; Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin). Though works such as this, with their simplification of form and flattening of space, show a strongly abstracting tendency, she never felt the desire to make fully abstract paintings.
In 1944, with the death of Mainie Jellett, she was elected chairman of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, a post she held till 1972 and to which she brought her characteristic qualities of hard work and enthusiasm. Her efforts in this capacity were honoured with a Litt.D. (Dubl.) in 1973. Younger artists such as Edward McGuire (qv) were warm in their appreciation of her encouragement. In 1950 she represented Ireland with Nano Reid at the Venice Biennale, and in 1959 the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts held an exhibition of her work at its gallery in Belfast. There was a major retrospective of her work at TCD in 1968. The first exhibition of her work in her native Derry was held at the Keys Gallery (1976). She died at Monkstown, Co. Dublin, on 22 November 1980.