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Feeding Swans on the Lagan - Frank McKelvey
Feeding Swans on the Lagan – Frank McKelvey

Introduction to Frank McKelvey

Belfast-born Frank McKelvey is famous for his rural landscapes of the north of Ireland, in particular the Lagan Valley, the area around Bessbrook in County Armagh and County Donegal.

Frank McKelvey
Frank McKelvey

“Frank McKelvey is one of the best known Irish painters of his generation. During his lifetime he was regarded both for his portraits and his landscapes, but it is as a landscapist that he is now most remembered. His characteristic approach to landscape was to capture the essential visual effect of the scene….he succeeded brilliantly in capturing the character of the Irish landscape and it is perhaps due to this, rather than any other aspect of his work, that he is so admired today”

S B Kennedy – Frank McKelvey A Painter in his Time 1993

The McKelvey Family

Francis Baird McKelvey was born on 3rd June 1895. He was the second of seven children of William McKelvey and Mary Baird. William was a painter and decorator whose family came from Roseville, Craigavad in County Down. Mary was the daughter of Francis Baird, a grocer from Ballywee near Parkgate in County Antrim. The couple married on 7th April 1893 at St Luke’s Church of Ireland.

The first three children, John (1894), Francis (1895) and William (1897) were all born at 1 Glenvale Street in north Belfast. By 1899 the family had moved to 56 Woodvale Road. Here, daughters Kathleen (1899), Gertrude (1900) and twins Mary Eveline and Eileen Muriel (1902) were born. Little Eileen died in 1904 aged 2 and is buried in Belfast City Cemetery. At this time Woodvale Road was on the very edge of the town not far from the countryside.

William McKelvey in Belfast Street Directory 1900
William McKelvey in Belfast Street Directory 1900

Frank McKelvey Career at David Allen and Sons

Francis, or Frank as he was known, attended Mayo Street National School. By the age of 16 he was an apprentice lithographer with the firm of David Allen and Sons.  This was due to the encouragement of his father. William and Frank had a very close father-son bond.

This firm had been established in 1857 at William Street, Belfast. They produced posters, notices and postcards and were immensely successful. In 1884 they expanded to new offices at 18-24 Corporation Street. By 1910 they were able to claim

“David Allen and Sons Ltd employ the best designers procurable. They are the largest producers of placards in the world, and have made posters a speciality for nearly fifty years”

David Allen and Sons Publicity
David Allen in Belfast Street Directory 1911
David Allen in Belfast Street Directory 1911

By this time the company had opened branches in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Harrow, Liverpool, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Greenock. 

“So widespread is now the reputation of this house that managers from all parts of the world, Australia, America, the Cape, India and the European Continent, are in the habit of ordering special printing from Belfast”

Industries of the North 1888-91

  

Frank McKelvey – Artist

Art Education

However, in the autumn of 1911, Frank left his employment to become a full time student at the Belfast College of Art. He had previously attended on a part-time basis. Here the teenage Frank flourished and was awarded a number of prizes for his drawings and paintings including:

  • the Board of Education’s First Class Certificate
  • the Fitzpatrick Prize
  • the Taylor Art Competition and
  • the highly esteemed Sir Charles Brett Prize for figure drawing

While at Art College Frank was greatly influenced by his art master Alfred Rawlings Baker.  Baker, an Englishman, had come to Belfast in 1891 and was a well-known artist in his own right.

Sandhills near Gortahork County Donegal by Frank McKelvey
Sandhills near Gortahork County Donegal by Frank McKelvey

Frank McKelvey’s Studio & Art

In 1920 Frank opened a studio in Rea’s Building at 142 Royal Ave. F J Bigger had previously had his offices in this building in the heart of Belfast’s business centre. McKelvey worked here for over ten years until he moved in 1931 to premises at 19 Donegall Square South.

Frank McKelvey in Belfast Street Directory 1920
Frank McKelvey in Belfast Street Directory 1920

Most of McKevey’s paintings captured local countryside views such as On the River at Antrim, An Old Cottager and On the River Bann.

Herding Them Home by Frank McKelvey
Herding Them Home by Frank McKelvey
Near Crolly County Donegal by Frank McKelvey
Near Crolly County Donegal by Frank McKelvey

McKelvey had a deep love for nature which is reflected in his works. He particularly loved farmyard scenes as in the paintings Feeding the Chickens, Milking Time and Tending her Goats.

McKelvey is often regarded as a traditional painter whose aim was to capture the landscape in front of him, rather than to interpret it with artistic theory or impose his own feelings upon it.

Frank McKelvey - A Summer’s Day Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2
Frank McKelvey – A Summer’s Day Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2

McKevey began to exhibit his works at the annual Belfast Art Society, the Royal Hibernian Academy and the Ulster Arts Club. Sir Robert Baird, proprietor of the nearby Belfast Telegraph newspaper, encouraged the young artist.

Many of his works of this time, such as Children in the Park and Family Scene evoke a feeling of freshness and light that lifts the spirit and makes you want to step into the canvas.

Falcarragh Landscape County Donegal by Frank McKelvey
Falcarragh Landscape County Donegal by Frank McKelvey

Recognition for McKelvey’s Work

In 1920 McKelvey found a patron in the businessman Thomas McGowan. He was commissioned to paint a series of scenes of old Belfast.  McKelvey’s works in the project, Bank Street, Smithfield Market, Ann Street and William Street South, together with that of other artists is now held by the Ulster Museum.

McGowan's Exhibition - Views of Old Belfast
McGowan’s Exhibition – Views of Old Belfast

In 1923 Frank McKelvey was well recognised by the artistic world. He was elected an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy and in 1930 a full member. He belonged to the Belfast Art Society, which later became the Ulster Academy of Arts.

McKelvey article Irish Times 6th April 1925
McKelvey article Irish Times 6th April 1925
Frank McKelvey Irish Times 7th April 1925
Frank McKelvey Irish Times 7th April 1925

McKelvey was associated with other artists of the day such as James Humbert Craig, Paul Henry, Theo Gracey and Stanley Prosser. Together they were informally classed as the ‘Belfast School’ of painting.

McKelvy’s works were regularly exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy and at the Oireachtas exhibition in Dublin. In 1930 his paintings were included in displays of Irish art in Brussels and at the Hackett Gallery in New York.

An Irish Fair by Frank McKelvey Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2 Generic
An Irish Fair by Frank McKelvey Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2 Generic

McKelvey had also worked on portraiture throughout his career. His first portrait to be exhibited was that of Miss Angela Warnock in 1921. By the 1940’s he was renowned as Belfast’s foremost portrait artist. Some of his sitters were Sir William Morton Blair, Lord Justice Babington, James McQuitty and Sir Thomas Houston.

McKelvey’s Family Life

On 6th February 1924 Frank McKelvey married Elizabeth Caldwell Murphy at Holy Trinity Church, Glencraig. Elizabeth was a pal of Frank’s younger sister Gertrude. Elizabeth’s father was a farmer and carpenter at Mullaglas, near Bessbrook in County Armagh. Elizabeth’s mother was Annie Caldwell, a farmer’s daughter.

McKelvey is also described in the census as a “Relieving Officer“, that is, a person who works with the Poor Board to designate those in need in his district.

Frank and Elizabeth lived at the Maze near Hillsborough in County Down, an area of outstanding natural beauty. The Lagan Valley was to feature in many of Frank’s paintings.

Frank McKelvey at Knocklofty Park in Belfast Street Directory 1940
Frank McKelvey at Knocklofty Park in Belfast Street Directory 1940

The couple had two sons, Francis born in May 1925 and Robert in October 1928. In 1926 the McKelvey family moved closer to Belfast due to Frank’s work commitments. They resided at 11 Knocklofty Park in the Knock area of the city. By 1943 the McKelvey’s had moved to My Lady’s Mile in Holywood where he had his own studio at his house.

Appreciation of Frank McKelvey’s Art

McKelvey continued to work well into his 70’s, producing paintings such as Port Salon and Children on a Beach. In 1963 the Belfast Harbour Commissioners employed him to paint a view of the Queen’s Bridge over the Lagan.

Frank McKelvey died on the 30th June 1974. He had been suffering from cancer for some time. His funeral took place at Holywood Parish Church and his ashes buried at Roselawn cemetery near Belfast.

Newsletter Obituary 2nd July 1974
Newsletter Obituary 2nd July 1974
McKelvey funeral arrangements Belfast Telegraph 01 July 1974
McKelvey funeral arrangements Belfast Telegraph 01 July 1974

Frank McKelvey has been described as a quiet, reticent man. He was also a perfectionist and very professional when it came to his work. His paintings display great technical ability but even more so an empathy for his subject, whether it be a portrait or a rural scene. Perhaps this is why McKelvey’s work has such an enduring popularity.   

Shops in Cromac Street by Frank McKelvey
Shops in Cromac Street by Frank McKelvey
Homestead, West of Ireland by Frank McKelvey
Homestead, West of Ireland by Frank McKelvey
White Linen Hall Belfast by Frank McKelvey
White Linen Hall Belfast by Frank McKelvey
A large curragh of the Aran Island type, West of Ireland - Frank McKelvey (Wikipedia)
A large curragh of the Aran Island type, West of Ireland – Frank McKelvey (Wikipedia)

External links to Frank McKelvey paintings

Frank McKelvey produced a substantial number of beautiful paintings. We have reproduced only a few that appear to be shareable with the public. Further images, not available for reproduction on a separate website, can be viewed at the following external sites (each opens in a new window). A visit to each link is recommended to see the full range of his work.

Frank McKelvey article in Northern Whig 8th October 1934
Frank McKelvey article in Northern Whig 8th October 1934

See Also

Francis Joseph Bigger, His Life and Times

Francis Joseph Bigger Blue Plaque
Francis Joseph Bigger Blue Plaque on the Crown and Shamrock, Antrim Road, Newtownabbey

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2 Comments

Lolly Spence · 1 December 2021 at 8:05 am

This is a great article – thanks for sharing.

    P&P · 1 December 2021 at 11:13 am

    Thank you Lolly. We like to try to find a variety of interesting stories and share them on the website. Nice of you to add a comment. Thanks

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