McKelvey, Francis Baird (‘Frank’) (1895–1974), painter, was born 3 June 1895 at 31 Woodvale Road, Belfast, second among six children and second of three sons of William McKelvey, painter and decorator, originally from Roseville, Craigavad, Co. Down, and his wife Mary, daughter of Frank Baird, farmer, from Ballywee, Co. Antrim. He was educated at Mayo St. national school, Belfast, and was then apprenticed to the firm of David Allen & Sons, lithographers. Shortly afterwards he began to attend part-time at the Belfast College of Art, and in 1911 he became a full-time student. He enjoyed a highly successful student career and was awarded a number of prizes, including the prestigious Sir Charles Brett prize for figure drawing from life. An important influence on him was his painting teacher Alfred Rawlings Baker, whose landscapes were painted in an impressionist manner with homely details. Though he returned for a short time to Allen & Sons in 1917, he soon began to concentrate on painting and opened a studio (1920) in Rea's Buildings, Royal Avenue, Belfast, in which he received great support from his father, with whom he was very close. He still supplemented his income with occasional design work and projects such as the series of scenes of old Belfast (Ulster Museum, Belfast) commissioned by the Belfast businessman Thomas McGowan. Early works such as ‘On the River Bann’ (c.1923; Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork) and ‘Evening, Ballycastle’ (c.1924; Ulster Museum, Belfast) with their loose brushwork show him to be working in a plein air style similar to that of Walter Osborne (qv) and Dermod O'Brien (qv). He also admired the work of Corot and the Pre-Raphaelites. These paintings also demonstrate his extraordinary technical ability, which was a hallmark of his work right to the end of his career.
In 1924, when he acquired a car, he began to paint further afield, principally in Donegal and often with his friend James Humbert Craig (qv). Even then comparisons were drawn between their work and that of Paul Henry (qv) and Charles Lamb (qv), and they have often been seen as the nucleus of an Irish school of landscape painters. They shared a desire to capture the appearance of the natural landscape in simple and direct terms. This is particularly true of McKelvey, who was never concerned with evoking mood as was Craig, or with socio-political interpretations as was his contemporary in the south, Seán Keating (qv). In fact his concern was always with purely visual effects, inspired by his deep personal love of nature, rather than any sort of artistic theory. Perhaps for this reason, once he matured as an artist in the mid 1920s he did not develop in any new directions, though the variety of his subject matter maintains a freshness in his oeuvre. An essentially academic painter, he was never drawn to modernism and was later overtaken to some extent in the public eye by the next generation of artists, such as John Luke (qv) and Colin Middleton (qv). Though he is best remembered as a landscape painter, he was also the leading portrait painter of his day in Belfast. His portraits of the 1940s, with their forceful vitality, such as that of Sir William Blair Morton (qv) (1945; QUB), show him at the height of his powers in the genre. Again his approach was a traditional one, emerging out of the Edwardian era, but his imagination and versatility is evident in the variety of pose and setting in these paintings.
Always thoroughly organised and professional in his approach to his work, he was known as a perfectionist, and achieved high standing within the Irish artistic establishment. In 1923 he was elected an associate member of the RHA and in 1930 a full member, and he exhibited there annually from 1918 until the end of his career. He was also a member of the Belfast Art Society, and in 1928 he was chosen to oversee its reconstitution as the Ulster Academy of Arts, of which he became an academician (1930). His work was included in the exhibitions of Irish art in Brussels (1930) and in North America (1950), and he was a regular exhibitor at the Oireachtas exhibitions in Dublin from their revival in 1941. Despite such widespread recognition he was a reticent individual though a good conversationalist. He died 30 June 1974 in Belfast. He married (1924) Elizabeth Caldwell Murphy, daughter of Archibald Murphy, farmer, of Bessbrook, Co. Armagh; they had two sons. The elder, Frank (1925–79), was also active as an artist, though he signed his work ‘Frank Murphy’ to avoid confusion with his father.