F. E. McWilliam – Father Courage
At the busy start of the academic year it is easy to overlook the familiar features of campus. Perhaps it is worth pausing now to have a closer look at one of the most significant sculptural works in Canterbury – Father Courage by Frederick Edward McWilliam (1909-92) – particularly as there is currently a major exhibition of his contemporary Henry Moore in town.
McWilliam was born in Banbridge in County Down in Northern Ireland, where there is now a gallery dedicated to him. He trained at the Slade School, worked for a time in Paris, and was associated with the Surrealists in the 1930s. According to the critic Bryan Robertson, writing in 1965, McWilliam’s style is characterized by eclecticism ‘in the sense that he has explored style with insight and extreme intelligence’ and also by ‘a consistent lightness of touch’. Admiration for Brancusi and Arp prompted him to explore abstraction, but a concern with archetypal themes of human struggle kept him returning to the figural (Bryan Robertson, John Russell and Lord Snowdon, Private View: The Lively World of British Art, 1965, pp. 96-97). Father Courage dates from 1960 and, as Stephen Bann has pointed out, is a work that ‘still draws upon McWilliam’s sense that the sculptor was bound to create symbols which affirmed human values in a divided Europe’ as part of the post-war cultural task of moral reconstruction. Its title refers to Bertold Brecht’s play Mother Courage, itself ‘a passionate denunciation of the horrors of war’ (Stephen Bann et al, Sculpture on the Campus, Canterbury: Modern Cultural Studies, 1992, pp. 3-4). The sculpture’s purchase was funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation, and it was installed near the Gulbenkian Theatre in 1969, and re-erected in its current position following the partial collapse of the nearby Cornwallis Building in 1974 (due to the nineteenth-century railway tunnel running beneath it).
The attenuated body of Father Courage with its lacerated surface recalls Giacometti, and the hunkered-in sitting pose suggests a determined endurance. Meanwhile the magnificent head seems to embody resolute will as it watches over its surroundings. A still and fixed point as crowds of new faces to the campus flow around it…
Henry Moore at the Beaney:
For more on F. E. McWilliam see:
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