Conor’s background

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2014), Volume 22

William Conor was born into a working-class North Belfast Protestant family in 1881. His father was a sheet-metal worker and later a gas fitter. At national school his artistic ability was noticed and he won a place at the government school of design in Belfast, where he trained as a commercial artist, later being employed by the Belfast poster-printers David Allen and Son. By 1910 he had had enough success as an artist to give up his day job as a lithographer and devote himself full-time to painting. In the pre-war years Conor’s cultural (if not political) attitudes were hardly typical of his class and community background. In artistic terms he was a radical and attracted to modernism. In 1912 or ’13 he travelled to Paris, then the place to be for cutting-edge art. Culturally he was attracted by the Gaelic revival. He painted in the west of Ireland and signed some early paintings as ‘Liam Conor’. Like his fellow Belfast Protestant working-class nationalist St John Ervine (whom Conor painted in 1946), however, the radicalisation of Irish separatism through the war (as for William Orpen too) appears to have alienated him.

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