Figure, a wood sculpture by Frederick Edward McWilliam, is an important example of the style of work he produced in the 1930s, a period in which his work reveals the influence of non-Western cultural objects, especially traditional African sculpture.


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F.E. McWilliam made Figure, a sculpture carved from sycamore wood, in 1937. He was influenced by the African fetish and idol figures that he had seen at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, where he lived and worked from 1931 to 1932. An additional influence was the semi-abstract sculpture of Romanian artist, Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957), whose work he encountered also in Paris. McWilliam’s interest in African cultural artefacts was shared by many of the avant-garde based in Paris since the early 1900s, notably Matisse and Picasso. In the 1930s, the Surrealists also placed great significance on the aesthetic and ‘psychic’ power of African, Oceanic and meso-American objects.

Figure suggests McWilliam’s concern with the relationship between solid form and space, and with human relationships. In this sense, the style of this work is comparable to the abstract sculpture of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. In their monograph of the artist’s work [The Sculpture of F.E. McWilliam, 2011] Denise Ferran and Valerie Holman describe Figure as a ‘… life-size, abstract sculpture that could easily be read in terms of a standing figure, possibly cradling a baby.’

In 1932 McWilliam returned to England but regularly visited Paris. Living in Hampstead, north London, McWilliam’s neighbours included artists, writers and critics such as Roland Penrose, Paul Nash, Herbert Read, Ben Nicholson, Hepworth and Moore, all of who were members of the British Surrealist Group. In 1936, the International Surrealist Exhibition in London had a major impact on his work – Figure was a pivotal work that eventually led to his invitation to join the Group in 1938. He had submitted the sculpture to the 1935 Artists International Association (A.I.A.) exhibition, at Grosvenor Square, London, under the auspices of the Unity of Artists for Peace, Democracy and Cultural Development in aid of the Spanish Republic. Although McWilliam described himself as a ‘… fellow traveller rather than a zealot’ in reference to the Surrealists, the presence of his work at the A.I.A. exhibition caught the attention of Paul Nash and Roland Penrose, who invited him to join the Group.

Frederick Edward McWilliam was born in Banbridge, Northern Ireland. He studied at Belfast College of Art and at the Slade School of Art in London. His first solo exhibition was held in London in 1939. During the Second World War, McWilliam served with the Royal Air Force in England in a role involving the interpretation of aerial reconnaissance photographs. After the War, he took up teaching posts at the Chelsea School of Art and the Slade; and in 1953, he was awarded for his work shown at the international competition, Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, exhibited in London.

McWilliam received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Queen’s University in Belfast in 1964 and a CBE in 1966. From the early 1970s, much of his work reflected situations of horror and atrocity in the city – he was awarded the Oireachtas Gold Medal for Sculpture in 1971 from Trinity College Dublin.

A retrospective exhibition of McWilliam’s work was held in 1989 at the Tate Gallery, the same year that he was elected a Senior Royal Academician.