Hector McDonnell (b.1947)

Prison Warden and Prisoner, Maze Prison, 1983

Oil on canvas

76cm x 51cm

Courtesy of the artist


Essentially a realist painter, McDonnell is one of the best known figurative Irish artists of his generation. Best known for his observations of daily life he captures the mundane and ordinary with an extraordinary quality. Born in Belfast in 1947, his mother was the sculptor Angela Sykes. He was educated first at Eton College and then at Oxford University, where he studied history. In 1965, he began training in painting in Munich and Vienna. McDonnell’s extensive travels in Europe and Asia have had a significant influence on his art. He lives and works in Northern Ireland and New York. McDonnell’s work is held in several public collections, including those of the National Trust, Ulster Museum, Northern Ireland Civil Service and the Royal Ulster Academy. He was the winner of Darmstädter Kunstpreis in 1979 and his work has been the subject of two important retrospective exhibitions, at Matildenhöhe Darmstadt in 1981 and at the Ulster Museum in 2003.

In the 1980s, McDonnell wanted to produce works that would relate to the trauma that the people of Northern Ireland were suffering. He produced a number of paintings and etchings which attempted to describe circumstances in the streets of Belfast. However, this left him frustrated as, living rurally, he felt that his works about Belfast were too much those of an unaffected outsider. Recalling how he felt at this time, McDonnell explains; "I decided that the best way I could say something effective would be if I could describe circumstances in one of the prisons where people from all sides of the social divides were either incarcerated or were employed as prison officers". Grey Gowrie, Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office facilitated McDonnell to visit the Maze prison every day for a fortnight. As he was not allowed to take any recording materials into the prison, he spent many hours each evening making notes and drawings of what he had seen that day. Afterwards he turned his memories into a series of paintings that were exhibited first in Fischer Fine Art in London and then elsewhere, including in Northern Ireland. The artist notes that he had several ideas which he was unable to paint as he did not have enough information and has therefore returned to this subject many times. Prison Warden and Prisoner, Maze Prison, is the last of this original series of paintings that is still in the artist’s possession.