Angela MacDonnell (1911 - 1984):
Born in Yorkshire, the daughter of diplomat Sir Mark Sykes, and studied in England before travelling to Brussels and studying under the sculptor Marnix d'Haveloose 1927-32. In 1929, at the age of nineteen, she had a sculpture, Mother and child, accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. On her return to London, after a further six months of study at the British School at Rome, she established a studio where she carved works such as Samson in limestone, and received commissions to sculpt European dignitaries such as the Countess Beatrice de Liedekerke. She then married Randal McDonnell, the eighth earl of Antrim, in 1934 and moved to Glenarm in Northern Ireland. She held a solo show in the Beaux Arts Gallery in London, where her studio was based before her marriage, in 1937 and an exhibition in the White Chapel Gallery in 1939. The Beaux Arts exhibition was on a relatively small scale, including eighteen of the artist’s sculptures, predominantly portraits, along with a number of cartoons done in collaboration with the artist’s brother, the author Christopher Sykes.
Lady Antrim first exhibited with the Ulster Academy of Arts in 1937 and in the subsequent years her sculpture challenged the decorative tendency of the annual exhibitions. Her Descent from the cross, a large scale depiction of the crucified Christ in bronze, astounded audiences when it was exhibited at the Academy in 1949, with the Belfast Newsletter describing it as ‘one of the most compelling pieces of sculpture displayed locally for many years’. Lady Antrim often exhibited sculptures inspired by family members, but a number of other works are coloured by a notable religious theme. As a practicing Roman Catholic, Antrim thought that it was ‘very natural’ for religious works to form an important part of her oeuvre. She undertook a number of commissions for the Roman Catholic Church during her career, including a painting on the ceiling of the Holy Trinity church in Kent and a sculpture of St. Patrick for St. Mary’s Church, Feystown in County Antrim. She was also chair of the organising committee of ‘Art in worship today’ - an exhibition of post-war church building and works of art, shown in Belfast in 1968 - and was on the Church Art Advisory Committee for the diocese of Down and Connor. In addition to serving with the Church’s volunteers during and after the Second World War, Lady Antrim was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice in 1947 for her services in Northern Ireland during the Second World War. The Papal Cross was conferred onto her and three other members of the Catholic Women’s League in recognition of their work establishing huts and canteens in Northern Ireland. Apart from raising money for the provision and equipping of a unit for service on the Continent, Antrim was also responsible for the organisation of canteens for the whole of Northern Ireland and opened a large hostel for Service women.
Prior to taking up sculpture, Angela Antrim worked as a dietician and it was in this capacity that she travelled to the German concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Her humanitarian work and what she experienced in Germany formed the inspiration for a small bronze sculpture, Belsen Mother and Child – exhibited in Belfast in 1950 - depicting human frailty and devastation in the aftermath of war.
In 1950 Antrim was the first female sculptor to hold a solo exhibition in Northern Ireland. The exhibition was arranged by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts and was dominated by sculptures in bronze, stone and terracotta. The exhibition was attended by well-known artists such as William Conor and drew a record number of over two thousand visitors to CEMA’s small Belfast gallery. Antrim was an important figure in the Belfast art world, and she regularly sat on committees and opened exhibitions, such as the Ballymena Art Exhibition held for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and annual exhibitions of the Ulster Academy of Arts. In addition Lady Antrim exhibited with the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) and the Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts in the south of Ireland, and was a member of the Institute of the Sculptors of Ireland.
Carmel Doyle, entry entitled “MacDonnell, Angela Christina (nee Sykes) (Angela Antrim) Countess of Antrim”, Dictionary of Irish Biography; Belfast Newsletter, 19th October, 1949; Irish News, 26th September, 1950; Northern Whig, 19th May, 1951; The Catholic Herald, 14th February, 1947
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