Frederick Edward McWilliam CBE RA, Northern Irish surrealist sculptor, is born in Banbridge, County Down, on April 30, 1909. He works chiefly in stone, wood and bronze. His style of work consists of sculptures of the human form contorted into strange positions, often described as modern and surreal.
McWilliam is the son of Dr. William McWilliam, a local general practitioner. Growing up in Banbridge has a great influence on his work. He makes references to furniture makers such as Carson the Cooper and Proctors in his letters to his friend, Marjorie Burnett.
McWilliam attends Campbell College in Belfast and later attends Belfast College of Art from 1926. After 1928, he continues to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. He originally intends to become a painter, but influenced by Alfred Horace Gerrard, head of the sculpture department at the Slade, and by Henry Moore whom he meets there, he turns to sculpture. He receives the Robert Ross Leaving Scholarship which enables him and his wife, Beth (née Crowther), to travel to Paris where he visits the studio of Constantin Brâncuși.
During the first year of World War II, he joins the Royal Air Force and is stationed in England for four years where he is engaged in interpreting aerial reconnaissance photographs. He is then posted to India. While there he teaches art in the Hindu Art School in New Delhi.
After his return from India, McWilliam teaches for a year at the Chelsea School of Art. He is then invited by A. H. Gerrard to teach sculpture at the Slade. He continues in this post until 1968.
The 1950s see McWilliam receive many commissions including the Four Seasons Group for the Festival of Britain exhibition in 1951. A major commission in 1957 is Princess Macha for Altnagelvin Area Hospital in Waterside, Derry.
During the Northern Ireland Troubles McWilliam produces a series of bronzes in 1972 and 1973 known as Women of Belfast in response to the bombing at the Abercorn Tea-Rooms.
In 1964 McWilliam is awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Queen’s University Belfast. In 1966 he is appointed CBE and in 1971 he wins the Oireachtas Gold Medal. He is represented in many public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and Tate Britain in London. In 1984 the National Self-Portrait Gallery purchases a McWilliam self-portrait amongst acquisitions from fellow Northerners Brian Ballard, Brian Ferran and T. P. Flanagan.
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland organises a retrospective of his work in 1981 and a second retrospective is shown at the Tate Gallery in 1989 for his 80th birthday.
McWilliam continues carving up to his death. He dies of cancer in London on May 13, 1992.
In September 2009 Banbridge District Council opens a gallery and studio dedicated to the work of and named after McWilliam.