Conor, William (1881–1968), figure and portrait painter, was born 9 May 1881 in Fortingale Street, Belfast, the third son and fourth child of William Connor, a tinsmith and sheet-metal worker, who later became a gas fitter, and Mary Connor (née Wallace). Educated at the Clifton Park central national school, where his artistic abilities were noticed by his music teacher, in 1894 he was enrolled at the Belfast government school of design. He was a very successful student, and by 1903 he had become an assistant teacher; he completed his studies in 1904, and began an apprenticeship with the Belfast firm of lithographers David Allen and Son. Through his work in the poster design department he developed an enthusiasm for using crayons on a textured surface. This would become a characteristic feature of his later drawings. In these early years he first started recording images of Belfast life, often sketched from behind a folded newspaper in the street. Influenced by the Gaelic revival, in the years 1907–9 he signed his name in several different ways such as Liam and Liam Conor; in later years he signed himself simply Conor.
Having abandoned his career as a lithographer about 1910, he concentrated his efforts on painting professionally. He began exhibiting with the Belfast Art Society in 1910, and in the period that followed he spent time in Craigavad, Co. Down, the Blasket Islands in Co. Kerry, Dublin, and Donegal. During a visit to Paris, which he later recalled as being ‘in 1912 and 1913’, he met the painter André Lhote. After his return to Belfast he was elected to the committee of the Belfast Art Society in 1913. On the outbreak of the first world war he was commissioned by the British government to record the everyday activities of munitions workers and soldiers in Ulster. His pictures mostly showed soldiers in training and various scenes from the home front, including the work of women in munitions factories and hospitals. Described as ‘vigorous and personable, if rather folksy . . . effectively uniformed versions of the tinkers and shipyard workers for which he subsequently became known’ (Jeffrey, 44), these paintings were exhibited and subsequently, in 1916, auctioned for the Ulster Volunteer Patriotic Fund. His long association with the RHA began in 1918: he showed up to 200 works at the academy over the next forty-nine years.
In 1921 Conor moved to London, where he became acquainted with, among others, Sir William Orpen (qv), Sir John Lavery (qv), and Augustus John. He became a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, and contributed four paintings to the National Portrait Society as part of its spring exhibition in 1921. His friendship with Lavery was significant; through him Conor received a commission to paint the opening of the first Northern Ireland parliament in June 1921. He went on to exhibit with a variety of influential bodies, including the Royal Academy, the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris, and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. In 1922 ‘The twelfth’, executed c.1918, was shown in the Galerie Barbazanges in Paris, under the title ‘Le cortège Orangiste à Belfast’, as part of the World Congress of the Irish Race. Conor was represented at the Paris salon in 1923 and the following year he had a successful exhibition at the St Stephen's Green Gallery, Dublin.
In 1926 Conor travelled to Philadelphia and New York, where, during his nine-month stay, he received numerous commissions for portraits and had work shown in the Babcock Galleries, the Brooklyn Art Gallery, and the American Irish Historical Society. In 1932 he designed the costumes for the principals in the Pageant of St Patrick, which marked the 1,500th anniversary of the saint's coming to Ireland. That year also saw the unveiling of his mural ‘Ulster past and present’ at the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery; measuring 2.8 by 7.4 metres, it was at the time the largest mural in the country. During the second world war he was again appointed an official war artist and his work was represented at the exhibition of war artists at the National Gallery, London, in 1941. His book The Irish scene was published in 1944, and though it sold well, the subsequent bankruptcy of his publishers meant that Conor received no royalties. He also provided the illustrations for books by Lynn Doyle, the pseudonym of his friend Leslie Montgomery (qv).
Although he is best known for his depictions of the everyday life of people in his native Belfast, in which he attempted to capture the ‘flash of humour which lightens their daily toil’ (Wilson, 101), Conor also produced landscapes and portraits. His sitters included Douglas Hyde (qv), St John Ervine (qv), Dr Charles F. Darcy (qv), and the 7th marquess of Londonderry (qv). The Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts organised several successful Conor exhibitions; their one-man show of 1945 became the first to tour the province, while their exhibition of his work in 1954 had an attendance in excess of 2,800. Conor closed his long-established studio on Stranmillis Road in 1960 but continued to exhibit, notably with the Bell Gallery in 1964, 1966, and 1967.
The first Irishman to become a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, he was a founder member of the Ulster Academy (later the Royal Ulster Academy), and from 1957 to 1964 served as its president. In 1938 he became an associate member of the RHA, and in 1947 he received full membership. He was awarded the OBE in 1952, an honorary MA from QUB in 1957, and a civil-list pension in 1959. He died 6 February 1968 at his home in Salisbury Avenue, Belfast, and was buried in Carnmoney churchyard. He never married. His work is represented in galleries and institutions throughout Ireland and Great Britain, including the Ulster Museum, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, the Imperial War Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.