George Galway McCann (1909 - 1967):
George Galway MacCann, known as Galway, was born in Belfast on 14th February to David, a monumental sculptor and his wife Elizabeth. He studied at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution from 1920-26 and at the Belfast school of Art under Seamus Stoupe 1926-29, where he met his fellow art student and future wife Mercy Hunter. On completion of his studies MacCann was awarded a Ministry of Education scholarship, tenable for three years, to study in any school in London. He then moved to London to attend the Royal College of Art, where he studied sculpture alongside Elisabeth Clements. Here he received a scholarship in 1929, and was awarded a prize for sculpture in 1932, on the recommendation of his teacher, Henry Moore.
In addition to studying under Moore at RCA, George MacCann attended evening classes in Lettering at Chelsea Polytechnic and an additional evening class in stone carving at the Central London School of Arts and Crafts in 1932 (According to an application form for the position of assistant art master at the Belfast College of art dating from 1933). During this time teachers in the school of ‘Painted and Sculptured Architectural Decoration’ included Alfred Turner, Thomas Humphrey Paget, Alfred Henry Wilson and John Skeaping.
On his return to Belfast MacCann exhibited at a show of sculpture and painting with William Conor, Margaret Yeames and Joy McKean in November 1933. The show - consisting of oil painting, water colours and sculpture - was opened by Lady Mabel Annesley and was reported to have had a large attendance. The following year MacCann and Yeames joined with members of the recently formed Northern Ireland Guild of Artists, including Elisabeth Clements, Colin Middleton, John Luke and Romeo Toogood, and established the Ulster Unit. At the Unit’s only exhibition, in November 1934, MacCann showed abstracted paintings and two stone sculptures that illustrated the influence of his teacher Henry Moore. Speaking to Theo Snoddy, MacCann described Moore as ‘a very fine teacher and an inspiring one’ and that ‘anyone who studied with him in those days was aware he was a great sculptor’.
MacCann received his first public commission, a carved panel for above the entrance of Avoniel Primary School, in 1935. He married Mercy Hunter in the same year and was given a crayon portrait of himself by William Conor, created while Conor was staying with the couple in their house in Armagh. In 1939/40 MacCann also submitted a design for a carved panel above the entrance of the William Whitla Hall at Queen’s University in Belfast, but was unsuccessful and the commission eventually went to the English sculptor Gilbert Bayes.
MacCann and Hunter were greatly involved with art education in the region. Both were members of the Art Teacher’s Association (N.I.) from its foundation in 1936, and the two artists worked as teachers after they returned to Belfast. While living in County Armagh MacCann worked as an art teacher at the Royal School Armagh and Portadown College, and from 1938-39 he was head of sculpture at the Belfast School of Art.
During the Second World War he gave up his position at the Belfast School of Art and served in Burma as a captain in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. During the 1940s, presumably when he returned after the war, MacCann was depicted in his Inniskilling uniform by the muralist painter Sydney Smith – this painting is in the collection of the Armagh County Museum. After his return from the war MacCann taught at Sullivan Upper School, Holywood.
His Reclining figure in stone was displayed as part of an exhibition of contemporary Ulster architecture held in a blitzed building in Belfast as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations in 1951. MacCann was also commissioned by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) and the Corporation of Derry to create two carved stone panels for the Guildhall to mark the Festival of Britain. His sculpture was later represented alongside works by Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick, Barbara Hepworth, Jacob Epstein and Uli Nimptsch at an exhibition of contemporary sculpture held by CEMA in Belfast in 1953.
MacCann and Mercy Hunter were well known and highly regarded in Belfast’s art and literary circles. They often entertained at their home on Botanic Avenue and some of their many friends included Stanley Spencer, Louis MacNeice, the businessman and art dealer Zoltan Lewinter Frankl, Dylan Thomas, and he has been credited with introducing F.E. McWilliam to Henry Moore. MacCann had a wide interest in literature, and admired a range of modern artists such as Stanley Spencer, Victor Pasmore, Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp and Alberti Giacometti, in addition to an interest in antiquity, mythology and ancient Greece and a passion for rugby. He was also a prolific writer and broadcaster in Belfast, and published a book of illustrations and short stories, Sparrows round my brow, in 1942. He is recalled fondly by figures such as Rowel Friers, was referred to in MacNeice’s Autumn Sequel as ‘Maguire’ and has been painted by other artists such as Crawford Mitchell and Ursula Scott.
MacCann worked in numerous mediums besides sculpture but kept his stone carving tools, such as his mallet, throughout his life, even in later years when he was unable to carve. The mallet itself was likely handed down to MacCann from his grandfather, who worked with MacCann’s father and uncle at the family stone-yard, G. & D. McCann, located on the Falls Road, Belfast. In later years MacCann worked as a painter, theatre designer and broadcaster. He was elected an associate member of the Royal Ulster Academy in 1966 and examples of his works were owned by figures such as Max Clendinning, Paddy Falloon and Henry Lynch Robinson. He held a one man exhibition in Belfast in 1965 and his was sculpture and painting was celebrated in a posthumous exhibition of sixty works at Queen's University Belfast in 1968.
Catalogue of an ‘Exhibition of drawings, painting and sculpture by George Galway MacCann’, 1968; Ferran, D., F. E. McWilliam at Banbridge, Banbridge, 2008; Festival of Britain Committee for Northern Ireland, Local Authority, Londonderry files, PRONI COM4A/41; Irish Times, 17th May, 1937; Wilson, J. C., Conor, 1881-1968: the life and work of an Ulster artist, Belfast, 1981.
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