William Conor (1881-1968)

Return from Work (c.1931)

Oil on canvas

105.4cm x 80cm

National Museums NI. Donated by Dr. Michael Smurfit in memory of his mother, Mrs. Anne Magee Smurfit and on behalf of the Jefferson Smurfit Foundation

William Conor was a portrait and figure painter, born in Fortingale Street, Belfast in 1881. He attended the Government School of Design in Belfast before becoming an apprentice poster designer for David Allen & Son Ltd. During the First World War, he was appointed by the government to make official records of soldiers and munition workers. In 1921, he painted the official opening of the newly formed Northern Ireland parliament and by the mid-1920s he was in New York where he painted portraits and exhibited at the Babcock Galleries.

Conor was the first Irish member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, exhibiting at the Royal Academy, as well as the Royal Portrait Society and the Society of Portrait Painters. In 1941, his work recording the Second World War was exhibited at the National Gallery, London.

In 1952, Conor received the OBE and in 1957 he was elected President of the Royal Ulster Academy, a position he maintained until 1964. Following his death in 1968, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland held an exhibition of his work which toured Northern Ireland.

Conor is celebrated today for his vibrant, insightful and sensitive portrayal of working-class life in Ulster. This can be clearly seen in Return from Work where a group of men and women are shown in conversation as they walk along a grassy bank, presumably on their way home. The giant cranes of Belfast’s industries, looming in the background, juxtapose with the colour and life of the people.