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Gladys Maccabe (1918 - 2018):

Gladys Maccabe was one of the outstanding artists to flourish in Ulster in the twentieth century. She also sought to publicise and promote especially, women artists.

Gladys Moore Chalmers was born at RandalstownCounty Antrim, daughter of Elizabeth, a designer in the linen business, and George Chalmers, a Scot, a former army officer and artist specialising in calligraphy and illumination. One of her ancestors was the 18th-century Scottish painter, Sir George Chalmers. She attended Brookvale Collegiate School in Belfast, a private school.

Her lifelong interest in both fine art and fashion design probably comes from the fact that her mother, Elizabeth created designs for the linen industry in Lisburn, Belfast and Derry, and to her father, George who practised book/scroll illumination and calligraphy. It was unusual for a young provincial female teenager to have a drawing selected and printed in a prestigious national publication such as the Royal Drawing Society, but Gladys achieved this aged 13 and before her 16th birthday her folio of work was accepted for entry to the then School of Art of the Belfast Municipal Technical Institute. The precision of her folio work was singled out and commended by the Headmaster, Ivor Beaumont.

In the 1930s the three-year course was broad-based across nine subjects and students only began to specialise in the third year. The records show that she excelled in each of the subjects but under the aegis of the all-round artist/architect/sculptor Newton Penprase, she specialised more in sculpture than in painting, and did commercial art knowing that there were job opportunities in design. She is warmly described in his memoir of student life by her fellow student Rowel Friers.

She was recommended for postgraduate admission to the Royal College of Art but declined, following the death of her father. Remaining in Ulster she began mixing with more and more Irish and Northern Irish painters, which led her increasingly towards the use of various paint media and subjects

From an early age she was also active in the growing trend for artists and designers to band together as “groups” to promote, not only artistic development and cohesion, but also to voice social and political concerns.

In Max Maccabe, whom she married in 1941, she found a kindred spirit in terms of experimentation with media and a shared love of music. It is remarkable were exhibiting regularly, sometimes together, sometimes with other young artists such as the Campbell brothers, George and Arthur; the Henry sisters (of whom, Olive was a co-founder with Gladys of the Ulster Society of Women Artists in 1957) and many others while still only in her 20s.

The list of such exhibitions is extensive, and geographically interesting, covering everywhere from Robinson and Cleaver’s department store which had gallery space and was highly sought after as a venue as early as 1942, to the prestigious Dawson Gallery in Dublin and to the equally well-known Kensington Gallery in London.

Perhaps more important is that the various artists led groups here, whether it was the Contemporary Ulster Group or the Ulster branch of the wider Artists’ International Association, began to be recognised and part or whole funded and sponsored by the Province’s fledgling all arts official body CEMA (forerunner of today’s Arts Council of Northern Ireland) and the Belfast Museum and Gallery. In the latter Gladys found the support of the then Keeper of Art, John Hewitt. Hewitt was to become a lifetime friend of the Maccabes, even if at times their views on The Meaning of Art clashed. On one thing they were firmly united. Hewitt deplored the fact that some works in the collection were displayed under the female artist’s married name (for example, Mrs RA Dawson rather than Emelia Fox). And while Gladys, Mercy Hunter and others were full and very active members of many art societies, in others they were represented only as Honorary or even Guest members, with no say in the running or vision of the body.

From 1951, with the publication of The Arts in Ulster, Hewitt argued for the setting up of a society which fully represented the talents of women artists and craft workers such as stained glass designers and ceramicists. He and Gladys, Mercy, Olive and Alice Berger Hammerschlag had championed such a body since 1945, but were up a more conservative societal opposition that wanted to call such a body The Ulster Society of Lady Artists. One of the last acts he performed before leaving Belfast in 1957 to become Director of the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry was to assist Gladys and Olive in the drafting of a proper constitution and rule book for what became, that year, The Ulster Society of Women Artists. The first President was Gladys Maccabe and in later years, she was succeeded by Mercy Hunter. At one point, Gladys had a studio on Botanic Avenue. Mercy and her husband, artist and lecturer George McCann  had a flat on Botanic and Mercy recounted to this writer that Gladys and Max were frequent and open-minded visitors who loved to debate anything and everything about Art, Music, Literature and many others.

The Society in its early years exhibited annually in what was Gladys’ studio on the top floor of what is now 17 Stranmillis Road. However, by the early 1960s the original core of ten artists and designers had more than doubled, and doubled again by the end of the decade as younger practitioners, some in genres and media  not thought of earlier joined. Gladys’ studio continued for a while to host the small scale exhibitions of individual artists, but the main annual exhibition moved to larger venues.

Even before the need to move to bigger venues, there was an exhibition of new work and retrospective works by the original ten artists which was held at the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery in 1959. Curated in part by Gladys it was a major success with the critics, the press and by the public, and demonstrated the range of female talents, some of which were more modernist than the long- established annual RUA show.

In later years Gladys continued to exhibit across this island, in mainland Great Britain and in Europe. Her list of awards is remarkable. Of these the most significant are: elected a full Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in recognition of her work across media including stained glass design, sculpture and illustration; the 1984 World Culture Prize and of course her appointment as MBE in 2000 “for services to the Arts”. Note that unlike Mercy Hunter’s MBE in 1970 the citation did not read “for services to the arts in Northern Ireland”.

The present writer came to Northern Ireland in 1968 and Gladys (often with Max, who died in 2000) was at every opening or preview from small ones in the Bell Gallery to the “biggies” at the Ulster Museum. She was very helpful to younger artists, but as time went by, she struggled to empathise with changing trends in the art world here and beyond. Nevertheless her work as a feature writer and critic for newspapers and for both UTV and BBC NI continued to be both perceptive and young at heart.

And of course, probably long inherited from her mother, Gladys wrote and broadcast wittily and perceptively on fashion for the News Letter and BBC Radio Ulster, plus many years of having a monthly fashion page in the Ulster Tatler for which she continued to produce sketches as well as text.

Gladys Maccabe spent her final years in River House in Newcastle and Wood Lodge in Castlewellan. She died on 22 February 2018, just a few months short of her one-hundredth birthday. She was survived by her son Christopher, her daughter-in-law Jenny, three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Her husband Max predeceased her by eighteen years, and her son Hugh died in 2017.

Examples of her work are in The Ulster Museum, The Royal Ulster Academy, The Arts Council of Ireland Collection, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, The Imperial War MuseumThe National Self-Portrait Collection of IrelandNational Gallery of Ireland, and many other permanent collections.


Born: 5 June 1918
Died: 22 February 2018
Mike Catto

Additional research: Richard Froggatt