Anne Hailes on artist Bill Gatt & Clandeboye Festival

Belfast artist Bill Gatt. Picture by Mal McCann

HE’S a colourful character, the perfect luncheon companion, he can talk about anything you choose, he might launch into a Latin chant or a cowboy ballad, he’ll take out his guitar and give a short recital or, as happened one day recently, give a talk on being a cocktail waiter in the 1960s.

Apart from all these attributes and more, Bill Gatt is best known as an artist, a tutor in drawing, watercolour, oil and pastel. His large canvasses feature lions looking you in the eye, so realistic you stand well back.

Apparently another talent was appreciated recently at a wedding in Greece, where I’m told he wowed the ladies with his dancing.

"I like expressive dance," he admitted, "waltzing, the jive and I was pleased when the elderly ladies clapped and shouted 'bravo, bravo'!"

Bill Gatt is best known as an artist and art tutor. Picture by Mal McCann

Expression is all to Bill and entertaining is his delight, be it on canvas, in conversation or – years ago, now – mixing the perfect cocktail.

From Greece, he came back to the sadness of his brother's serious illness and death at the end of last month but he immerses himself in his art and getting his new studio sorted on Knock Road.

After leaving school at 14, Bill began his working life in a hire purchase firm, but when he was asked to do some bar work he proved so accomplished that he was soon employed full time.

As a teenager he worked in the late lamented Mooney's of Cornmarket: customers took a tiny elevator up to the first floor and into the bar with its curved marble counter, where many famous elbows rested over the years.

"I learned from the bar manager Tommy Cullen, who was a perfectionist," Bill told me.

"From there, I graduated to the Dunluce Room in the Stormont Inn, the first cocktail lounge in Belfast, a Billy Hastings complex on the Upper Newtownards Road.

"There was a huge photographic mural of Dunluce Castle behind the bar, so it was very theatrical, and I was playing a part dressed in a tuxedo and bow tie serving long drinks, Pimms and John Collins dressed with cucumber, mint, perhaps orange, then presented with style alongside colourful cocktails of all sorts."

Belfast artist Bill Gatt. Picture by Mal McCann

The ladies and gentlemen were very chic and stylish.

"I think the term in those days was 'hip', beautiful stunning ladies and their escorts often with fashionably long hair, cravats and driving MGs!

"And they expected perfect service: ash trays filled up very quickly in those days and had to be replaced swiftly and bottles were never served to the table and certainly no drinking by the neck."

All this time, Bill was building a reputation as an artist, attending Art College, designing sets for theatre and television – his backdrop for George Jones and Clubsound's Christmas Cavalcade show drew gasps when the curtain went up, as he had used ultraviolet paint to form a big frozen lake which sparkled in the UV lighting.

Since then, his clientele have included public figures and corporate organisations, and his portraits, still life and landscapes have hung in prestigious exhibitions around the world.

What a full life he enjoys from the days when his mother encouraged him to draw and a school that recognised his artistic talents and gave him the responsibility of designing posters for various events.

His love of music and his passion for cowboy films helped him overcome a schoolboy stutter: when he slipped into a role he found he was more fluent when adopting someone else’s voice.

Not only has he passed on his painting skills when he became a teacher but he has also passed on his philosophy of life and his ability to make good and lasting friendships, his joy of discovering Clydesdale horses and ploughing matches and committing them to canvas, the delight of sitting in a field to capture a sky or in a studio completing a life drawing or just sitting round a table delighting his friends.

Clandeboye music and fashion

How quickly the Clandeboye Festival comes round again. This year, from tomorrow until Saturday, classical pianist and conductor Barry Douglas and his orchestra Camerata Ireland will delight audiences with their music and their guest artists all dipping into in the theme 'Oh, Vienna'.

This romantic motif is taken up by Maureen Martin, director of Model Management, who produces her annual fashion show on Thursday 23.

Models at Clandeboye Fashion Show wearing gowns by Geraldine Connon. Picture by Darren Kidd

The Future is Bright

As usual, this evening is dedicated to young talent from the Art College and the Belfast Metropolitan College supported by our top designers and music featuring students at the Camerata Ireland Academy.

A stylish mix of youthful ideas and established portfolios in the setting of the courtyard of Clandeboye Estate near Bangor, Co Down.

It’s a springboard for these students to move onto a larger stage and many have taken up lucrative careers thanks to this local showcase – and this year I’m told that interested parties are due to attend from London, so it’s all to play for.

It’s a wonderful evening when Tayto and Denman International will once again be offering bursaries to the top young fashion students: what a brilliant way to meet the challenge of making a career in the competitive world of haute couture.

Two of our internationally respected designers Una Rodden and Geraldine Connon will have a number of spectacular gowns on show with poised models making it look so easy to balance in six-inch stilettos!

Geraldine will use silk and linen and there will be a taste of lemon, this year's colour; before the show starts at 8pm, there's a chance to visit the Ava Gallery to view an exhibition of costume designs and art.

:: For further details see or phone 028 9024 1919

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