William Conor was a portrait and figure painter, born on 9 May 1881 in Fortingale street, Belfast. He was the son of a sheet-metal worker, and is still celebrated for his vivid, perceptive and sympathetic portrayal of working class life in Ulster. Following his early education at Cliftonville Central National School, he went on to attend the Government school of Design after his artistic skill was noticed by a music teacher, Louis Mantell, who found the ten year old Conor sketching on the wall and consequently arranged for him to attend the art school.
Conor began his career as an apprentice poster designer for David Allen and Sons Ltd., where he remained from 1904 to 1909. He first exhibited at the Belfast Art Society in 1910. He spent time on the Blasket Islands, Dingle Bay, CO. Kerry and in Paris where he would later exhibit at the Paris Salon, before moving to London in 1920 where he intended to settle. There he became acquainted with such figures as Augustus John (1878-1961), Belfast-born Sir John Lavery (1856-1941), and the Cafe Royal circle. He first exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1921, while at the same time he was becoming established in Dublin; his works having been exhibiting at the Royal Hibernian Academy since 1918. 'The Darlin'; 'Balloon Man' and a portrait of Lieut- Col. James Craig, M.P. were amongst his first contributions to the academy, and he went on to exhibit some 200 works there until 1967.
In 1925, in an article in London's The Studio magazine, Holbrook Johnson wrote:
'Belfast has... produced a painter. This event is of twofold importance. In the first place that Conor is a painter of genius and in the second place he is a painter of Belfast. There are notes in his work which suggest he could not have painted anywhere else. If a modern manufacturing town could have folk songs and if those folk songs could be translated into pictures, or if the feelings which inspired them could be pictorially represented, they would take the form of the art of William Conor.'
Conor was commissioned by the government in both WWI and II to record aspects of Northern Ireland's participation in the war effort. He spent the First World War producing official records of soldiers and munitions workers, and in 1916 at the end of the war, his drawings were sold at auction in aid of the Ulster Volunteer Force Patriotic Fund. In The Second World War, he produced works such as 'Building an Air Raid Shelter', 'The Warden' and twenty-seven sketches which were purchased by The Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. His work during this period was also exhibited in an exhibition of war artists at The National Gallery, London in 1941.
He was elected one of the first academicians of the Ulster Academy of Arts (formerly the Belfast Art Society) in 1930, and was appointed a foundation member of the National Society of Painters, Sculptors and Gravers in the same year. He became an Associate of the RHA in 1938, going on to become a full member in 1946.
In 1952, Conor received the OBE and in 1957, he was elected President of the RUA where he held office up until 1964. During the year of his election, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts organised a retrospective which included more than 160 works, the largest individual exhibition ever to have been shown in Northern Ireland. In that same year, Conor received an honorary Master of Arts degree from Queen's University, Belfast.
William Conor died at his home on Salisbury Avenue, Belfast on 5 February 1968.