McWilliam, Frederick Edward (‘F. E.’) (1909–92), sculptor, was born 30 April 1909 at Newry St., Banbridge, Co. Down, son of Dr W. N. McWilliam, general practitioner; no details of his mother are known. He was educated at Campbell College, Belfast, and began his artistic education at the Belfast School of Art before going to the Slade School of Art in London in 1928. At the Slade, where John Luke (qv) was a fellow student, he studied for his diploma under Henry Tonks and Randolph Schwabe. He also met the sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986), who was to be an important influence and friend. On graduating he was awarded the Robert Ross leaving scholarship, which enabled him to realise his ambition of going to Paris and seeing for himself the work of avant-garde artists such as Picasso and Cézanne. It was there he first encountered Ulysses by James Joyce (qv), which was to be an important influence on his work, as were the writings of George Bernard Shaw (qv). He was also exposed to the work of the surrealists, with which he became loosely affiliated over the next decade, and the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi. In 1932, with the collapse of sterling, he was forced to return to England. Settling in London, where his circle included Moore, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Herbert Read, and Roland Penrose, he set about realising his ambitions to become a sculptor. During the 1930s he concentrated on carving in wood and stone; later he expanded his media to include bronze and cement. While the key subject of his art was the human figure, it was his characteristic throughout his career to work in series, at the end of which he could change style quite radically. This reflected his independent temperament: ultimately he always refused to submit to the dogma of any specific modernist grouping, be it surrealist or abstract. This attitude also lay behind his resignation in 1963 from the Royal Academy, to which he had been elected as an associate member in 1959 despite never having exhibited there.
In 1940 he joined the RAF, where he was mainly involved in the interpretation of aerial photography until being posted to India in 1944. He taught informally at an art school in New Delhi and later in Bengal. He also saw the Hindu temples at Orissa; their sculpture was to have an important impact on his later work. On returning to London in 1946 he taught briefly at the Chelsea School of Art before being appointed to teach sculpture at the Slade, a post he held until 1968. ‘The four seasons’ for the Country Pavilion at the Festival of Britain was an early public commission. In 1953 the Tate Gallery acquired the first of a number of his works, the maquette for ‘Cain and Abel’, which he had submitted for the competition for a ‘monument to the unknown prisoner’. Despite the versatility of his style, an area where he could be compared to Colin Middleton (qv), there is a common theme in his work of abstracting and fragmenting the human figure. This can be seen in ‘Man and wife’ (1948; Ulster Museum), his bronze figures of the 1960s, his series of disembodied ‘Legs’ of the later 1970s, or even in his late series of figures carved from mulberry wood (c.1988). Also evident in much of this work, and particularly in his series of bronzes of the 1960s inspired by the form of the coco de mer, is the irreverent wit which he often combined with the erotic elements in his work. In 1989 a retrospective exhibition of his work was shown at the Tate Gallery.
Despite the fact that he never returned to live in the country of his birth, he maintained his family links and a keen awareness of the political situation. Though he came from a protestant unionist background, he repudiated any particular political affiliation. He also utterly rejected intolerance and bigotry, and it was the violence he witnessed in Ulster as a teenager that prompted him to leave Ireland initially. He gave vent to the exasperation he felt with what he saw as the sheer stupidity of the violence of the troubles, particularly against civilians, in a series of bronzes entitled ‘Women of Belfast’ (1972), an example of which is in the collection of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. Periodically, Irish themes surfaced in his work. ‘Princess Macha’ (1953), a monumental public sculpture commissioned for Altnagelvin Hospital, Derry, is Celtic in inspiration, while ‘Irish head’ (1949; Allied Irish Bank collection) also recalls ancient Irish forms. He exhibited at times in Dublin, at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, at the Taylor gallery, and at the Oireachtas exhibition in 1971, where he was awarded a gold medal. However, his work remained relatively unknown in the Republic until a major retrospective exhibition was organised (1981) at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, TCD. Another exhibition was held at the Solomon Gallery, Dublin (1995).
Known as ‘Mac’ to his friends, he had the distinction of being universally liked and respected in a world notorious for its competitiveness. He died 13 May 1992 in London. He married (1932) Beth Crowther (d. 1988), a fellow art student at the Slade; they had two daughters. In 1992 his family donated to Banbridge district council the contents of his studio; it is intended (2006) that they will be displayed in a new arts centre at Gilford mill near the town.