McGuinness, Norah (1901–1980)

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McGuinness, Norah (1901–1980)

Irish artist who was a major proponent of the modern movement in Ireland . Born Norah Allison McGuinness in Derry, Northern Ireland, on November 7, 1901; died in Monkstown, Co. Dublin, on November 22, 1980; daughter of Joseph Allison McGuinness and Jessie McCleery McGuinness; educated at Victoria High School; Dublin Metropolitan School of Art; Chelsea Polytechnic; married Geoffrey Taylor also known as Geoffrey Phipps (a poet), in 1925 (marriage dissolved 1929, partially because of his affair with Laura Riding ).


Royal Dublin Society medal (1923); Tailteann Competition medal (1924); honorary doctorate, Trinity College, Dublin (1973).

Norah McGuinness was born in 1901 in Derry, Northern Ireland. Though her financially comfortable family was opposed to her ambition to be an artist, she was able to support herself when she won a three-year scholarship to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in 1921. There, she studied under Patrick Tuohy, Oswald Reeves, and Harry Clarke. Clarke influenced her career as an illustrator, which remained an important source of income throughout her life. In 1923–24, the Dublin Magazine published some of her illustrations. In 1925, just after she had gone to London to study at the Chelsea Polytechnic, she received a commission to illustrate a deluxe edition of Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.

McGuinness returned to Dublin frequently in the late 1920s to work at the Abbey Theater, designing the sets and costumes for W.B. Yeats' Deirdre and The Only Jealousy of Emer in 1926. She also conceived the garden scene for Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. For the opening of the Abbey's studio theater, the Peacock, in 1927 she designed the sets for Georg Born's From Morn to Midnight. Yeats, a great admirer of her work, asked her to illustrate his Stories of Red Hanrahan and the Secret Rose and dedicated the introductory poem to her. In 1929, Mainie Jellett advised McGuinness to go to Paris to study under André Lhote, who had taught Jellett and Evie Hone a decade earlier. McGuinness worked with Lhote for nearly two years and was influenced by the work of Braque, Lurçat, Dufy and Vlaminck. She did not embrace Cubism completely and commented later that pure abstraction "would be an empty field for me."

In 1931, she returned to London to live, remaining there until 1937, though she continued to spend summers in Ireland at her cottage in Donegal. Landscapes became a favorite form in the 1930s, and in the opinion of S.B. Kennedy her landscapes were "a breath of fresh air to Irish painting at this time." She also illustrated for books and periodicals such as The Bystander and Vogue. There were exhibitions of her paintings in London, Paris and Dublin and she also continued to design for the stage, most notably for Denis Johnston's A Bride for the Unicorn at the Westminster Theater in London. In 1939, McGuinness had her first exhibition in New York, at the Reinhardt Gallery, and received commissions from Harper's Bazaar and to design window displays for Altman's department store.

After her return to Dublin, she was hired by Brown Thomas, one of Dublin's leading department stores, to do their window displays, and she did this regularly for the next 30 years. McGuinness had regular exhibitions of her paintings in Dublin and also became a considerable portrait artist, painting many of the leading cultural figures in Ireland. Her career took a major turn in 1943–44, when she became a founder member of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art and, after Mainie Jellett's death in 1944, president. McGuinness held this position until 1972, and as such became the speaker for the modern movement in Ireland and its champion against the forces of reaction symbolized by the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). She was also known for generous support of younger artists. The critic and art historian Brian Fallon described her as "a formidable personality and organizer in the Hone-Jellett and Sarah Purser tradition, with an acute social sense and firm opinions about virtually everything. In short, another masterful woman in the Irish Protestant mould, and a useful person to lead the official opposition to [Sean] Keating and the RHA." McGuinness had known Jellett for some time but was closer to Evie Hone with whom she went on painting holidays in Ireland and abroad.

After the war McGuinness painted in Italy, and in 1947 had the first in a series of solo shows at the Leicester Galleries in London. She also continued to design for the stage in Dublin at the Abbey and at the Gaiety Theater. In 1950, she and Nano Reid were chosen to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale, and her work was also included in the exhibition of Contemporary Irish Painting which toured North America during the same year. In 1957 she was elected an honorary member of the RHA and in 1959 the first exhibition of her work in her native Northern Ireland was held in Belfast. That same year, her painting The Yellow Table was one of five pictures by Irish artists selected to compete in the International Guggenheim Award.

A retrospective of McGuinness' work, including paintings, drawings, prints, theatrical designs and illustrations, was held at Trinity College in 1968 and was subsequently shown at the Crawford Gallery in Cork and at the Brooke Park Gallery in her native Derry. In 1973, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature from Trinity College, and the following year one of her works was featured on an Irish postage stamp. Norah McGuinness had a solo show at the Taylor Galleries in Dublin in 1979 and continued to work until shortly before her death in 1980.


Fallon, Brian. Irish Art 1830–1990. Belfast: Appletree Press, 1994.

Kennedy, S.B. Irish Art and Modernism 1880–1950. Belfast & Dublin: Institute of Irish Studies and Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, 1991.

Snoddy, Theo. Dictionary of Irish Artists: 20th Century. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1996.

Walker, Dorothy. Modern Art in Ireland. Dublin: Lilliput, 1997.

Deirdre McMahon , Lecturer in History, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick

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McGuinness, Norah (1901–1980)

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