Sam Hanna Bell Samuel Beckett John Hewitt Bernard (Barney) Hughes James Joseph Magennis VC Frances Elizabeth Clarke Stewart Parker William Carleton Rosamond Praegar

Rowel Friers (1920 - 1998):
Artist; painter, lithographer, set designer, political cartoonist

Rowel Friers

If it is true that cartoons can say more than the printed word can, Rowel Friers must have counted amongst the more prolific and acute commentators on Ulster politics, especially during the years of the Troubles, when his political commentaries in the form of his satirical cartoonist's output - very much of it in the newspapers whose merely verbal eloquence was by no means to be gainsaid - summed up for so many in one image what column inches sometimes did not. Although it is for this work that he was best known, it was certainly not his only expertise and accomplishment, for his artistic talents were wide ranging.

Rowel Boyd Friers was from the Lagan Village area near the centre of Belfast. His father worked in the distillery business and Rowel was the youngest child by 11 years. Already at the age of four he was drawing cartoons, hiding behind furniture to create depictions of relatives. He attended the local Park Parade School, then studied at the Belfast College of Art, firstly from 1935 when he was an apprentice designer and lithographer at the prominent firm of printers, S C Allen & Co, where his elder brother already worked and where the outstanding Ulster artist William Conor had also worked in the same rôle. The firm folded in 1939, but Friers was awarded a full-time scholarship to the College. 

In 1940, his brother sent some of Friers' work to a newspaper in England, the Portsmouth Evening News, which became the first newspaper or magazine to publish his work. He soon set up his own studio and began contributing cartoons, both comic and satirical to a range of publications including Punch, London Opinion, the Daily Express and the Radio Times. Of southern Irish publications he contributed to Dublin Opinion, and later the Irish Times, Irish Press and Irish Independent. Another Dublin connection was his contributing, from 1942, paintings (he was especially fond of painting in oils) to the Royal Hibernian Academy. In his own city he published in the Northern Whig, the News Letter, and most prominently, the Belfast Telegraph.

He was keenly interested in the theatre, not least as a set designer. His first work was with the Fisherwick dramatic society, and in the 1950s was a set designer for the Lyric Theatre, which originally was located in the home of two theatre enthusiasts, Dr Pearse O'Malley and his wife Mary, but which in time grew into one of the most prominent theatres in the British Isles. In all he designed over 100 sets, including for the Grand Opera House in Belfast in 1971. As well as his work on set design he was President of the Ulster Association of Drama Festivals, and presented a trophy for décor at the Ulster Drama Festival, to whose programmes he regularly contributed. For the 1973 programme, he designed a card featuring his drawn representations of important figures associated with the Festival - including, inconspicuous in the back row, himself. His television work included providing illustrations for readings from Somerville and Ross's popular Irish RM stories, for a series of songs by Ulster composer Percy French and narrated by the great Irish actor Milo O'Shea, as well as output for schools. He also appeared on chat shows, where his gifts of mimicry were much admired.

However, it is for his satirical cartoons, especially about the political situation in Northern Ireland, that Friers is best remembered. Essentially his humour, however satirical, was gentle rather than biting or even bitter, but his output in this genre was highly prolific, and if it had its political point of view, it was a broad one, certainly not parti pris. As he himself put it, "the only side I'm on is sanity. I just make fun of all the madness." His wife stated that he felt a moral obligation to be impartial as Northern Ireland's first serious political cartoonist. Many people in Northern Ireland admire or respect such a stance, though in a highly polarised society, some do not, and Friers did receive some threatening letters, phone calls and such sinister communications.

His work can be seen in numerous books, whether collections of his cartoons, such as Wholly Friers (1948, introduced by poet John Hewitt), Our Flying Foes (1950), Mainly Spanish (1951), Riotous Living (1971), Pig in the Parlour (1972), The Book of Friers (1973), The Revolting Irish (1974), On the Borderline (1982), Trouble Free (1988). There is also a long list of books for which he was illustrator, an output which covered nearly half a century. Perhaps the most representative "Ulster" titles were the work of humorist John Pepper, an acute observer of idiosyncrasies (or perhaps from an Ulster point of view, normalcies) of language: A Quare Geg (1979); John Pepper's Ulster-English Dictionary (1981); Catch Yerself On (1988) and Ulster Haunbook (1999).

In 1977 Rowel Friers was appointed MBE. In 1981 he was awarded an Honorary MA by the Open University and in 1994 was elected President of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts, the artist-led charitable organisation (his nephew Julian Friers, was elected President in 2009). He gave his energy to many charities and was a leading campaigner against cystic fibrosis. He died at his home in Holywood, County Down.

Born: 13 April 1920
Died: 21 September 1998
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


Obituary, The Independent, 15.10.98; Dictionary of Irish Biography;; Lyn Gallagher, The Grand Opera House Belfast (Blackstaff 1995)