Art Unwrapped showcases Margaret Clarke and Catherine McWilliams in Belfast

Belfast's Art Unwrapped exhibition is back and bigger than ever. We found out more about the latest instalment of this annual opportunity to view rarely seen works from the Ulster Musuem's collection and elsewhere, and to learn more about the artists who created them....

Cian Smyth, arts and culture manager at Ulster University, with Margaret Clarke's painting The Wife/ The Haircut. Picture by Mal McCann
Cian Smyth, arts and culture manager at Ulster University, with Margaret Clarke's painting The Wife/ The Haircut. Picture by Mal McCann

THE annual Art Unwrapped exhibition returns to Belfast this week with more rarely seen art sourced from the Ulster Museum's collection and private ownership put on public display, including one piece which is on loan from The Irish News collection.

Presented by Belfast City Council, Ulster University and National Museums Northern Ireland, the fifth instalment of this yearly exhibition opens tomorrow and will be the first Art Unwrapped to be held at The Gallery on the university's recently completed Belfast Campus at York Street.

It will also mark the first time Art Unwrapped has featured work by two different artists: Margaret Clarke from Newry and Belfast's Catherine McWilliams were born almost half a century apart and their paintings have never been shown together before.

Margaret Clarke's Strindbergian, from 1927
Margaret Clarke's Strindbergian, from 1927

Art Unwrapped 2022's 'signature' artwork for 2022 is Margaret Clarke's Strindbergian (1927, on loan from the Ulster Museum), which will be shown alongside The Wife/The Haircut (circa 1926-27, on loan from The Irish News collection), Portrait of the Artist's Son, David (1940, on loan from Newry and Mourne Museums) and Catherine McWilliams's Girls and Motorbikes (1973, on loan from a private collection).

Girls and Motorbikes by Catherine McWilliams
Girls and Motorbikes by Catherine McWilliams

According to the organisers, the exhibition aims to "underline the importance of both of these artists within the context of Northern Irish painting by bringing them together in order to create a visual and thematic narrative through which the works can 'speak' to one another."

Kathryn Thomson, chief executive of National Museums NI, said: "I am delighted National Museums NI is collaborating once again with Ulster University and Belfast City Council to 'gift' the City of Belfast with Strindbergian by Margaret Clarke for the fifth consecutive year of Art Unwrapped.

"Every year, Art Unwrapped allows us to surprise the public with a unique opportunity to see an artwork from the Ulster Museum's collection, where they would least expect it. This year is particularly special as the painting will be on display at Ulster University's new Belfast Campus which ensures the national collection is accessible to wide and varying audiences."

Margaret Clarke (née Crilley) was born in Newry on August 1 1884. Having trained at Newry technical school with the intention of becoming a teacher, in 1905 she won a scholarship to attend the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and studied under William Orpen. Upon attaining an Art Teacher's Certificate in 1911, she began working as Orpen's assistant.

Clarke exhibited over 60 artworks with the Royal Hibernian Academy between 1913 and 1953, the majority being portraits – including commissions for Dermod O'Brien, Éamon de Valera, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and Lennox Robinson.

Margaret Clarke - Portrait of the Artist's Son, David (1940)
Margaret Clarke - Portrait of the Artist's Son, David (1940)

The Co Down artist won many awards including the Tailteann gold, silver and bronze medals in 1924, and another Tailteann bronze in both 1928 and 1932. She was elected an Associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1926 and a full RHA member in 1927. When the Irish Exhibition of Living Art was founded in 1943, Clarke was appointed a member of its executive committee.

Clarke died in Dublin on October 31 1961 and was buried in Co Wicklow. She is commemorated with a blue plaque at her birthplace in Newry. Her work can be found in the collections of the National Gallery of Ireland, The Hugh Lane, the Crawford Art Gallery, the Ulster Museum, Limerick City Gallery of Art, The National Self Portrait Collection and the Irish College in Rome.

Born in Belfast in 1940, Catherine McWilliams is a visual artist known particularly for her landscapes and studies of the female form. She studied at Ulster University's Belfast School of Art and began exhibiting her work in 1961.

McWilliams taught art for many years and was head of Foundation Studies in Art at Rupert Stanley College in Belfast until 1990. Together with her husband and fellow artist, Joseph McWilliams, she opened the Cavehill Gallery in 1986.

Paintings by Catherine McWilliams are part of the public collections in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and The National Self Portrait Collection at the University of Limerick.

Art Unwrapped 2022 will run until January 6. As ever, the event offers the public a chance to avail of free guided interpretive tours of the signature artwork with Fine Art Students from Ulster University. These tours are available daily from December 8 until January 5 and must be booked in advance via eventbrite.co.uk/e/art-unwrapped-tickets-256076611037

:: Art Unwrapped, December 8 to January 6, The Gallery, Block BC, Belfast Campus, Ulster University, York Street. For more information on the exhibition see ulster.ac.uk/artunwrapped.