Obituary: Rowel Friers

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"THE ONLY side I'm on," said Rowel Friers, "is sanity. I just make fun of all the madness." He was describing his work as a caricaturist, the best-known cartoonist of the Troubles in Ulster.

He experienced the madness as first hand. He was born in the year of Partition, when the Northern Ireland Parliament was set up. He spent his entire life in the Province and died in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, which created the Northern Ireland Assembly. He grew up in East Belfast, in the Lagan Village, a short walk from the City Hall and the shipyards. His friend the journalist Billy Simpson, wrote: "He understands the Ulsterman as no sociologist ever will. And he has the gift of portraying that understanding in art and words that enable us to laugh at ourselves."

He studied at Belfast College of Art and began to publish drawings in the 1940s. He had instant success and was already famous by the time he was 25. In later life he was known everywhere by his Christian name - there was nobody in Ulster who had not heard of "Rowel". He worked for many editors, on both sides of the Irish Sea. He appeared regularly in Punch, London Opinion, the Daily Express, the Sunday Independent, Dublin Opinion, the Northern Whig, the Belfast News-Letter, the Irish Times, and the Belfast Telegraph.

In 1948, a selection of his work - Wholly Friers - was introduced by the poet John Hewitt. "His world," said Hewitt, "is a broad world and a friendly world. There is no bitterness or cruelty in it, and no mere cleverness which disregards the consequences."

He was influenced strongly by American draftsmen. "America," he said, "has never really been recognised as a leader in the more `long-haired' side of art, but if she has not led in painting she most certainly has led for a very long time in the cartoon world."

From the late 1960s, when the troubles began, Rowel Friers concentrated on political cartoons, some of which were collected and published as books - Riotous Living (1971), Pig in the Parlour (1972), The Book of Friers (1973), The Revolting Irish (1974). He was highly prolific and his work is a graphic history of the last 30 years.

His original drawings were much sought after by Irish politicians, British ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, and successive Secretaries of State. "His message," wrote Billy Simpson, "is sometimes a joke, sometimes a rebuke - but always carries an essential truth that transcends both art and humour." His victims might be rueful but they recognised themselves. "He is not so much a clown," said Conor O'Brien, "as a pin-pricker of inflated egos. He is almost wicked in his sense of direction when he selects a target, and yet he is gentle in the way he makes fun of it."

It was his cartoons which made him famous. But he was a versatile artist and worked in many fields. He was a superb portrait-painter and an accomplished lithographer. He illustrated more than 30 books, including an American edition of Yeats. He was a leading figure in the Ulster Watercolour Society, and his oil-paintings hang in numerous collections, including the gallery of the Ulster Museum.

He had a many-sided career in broadcasting. He drew scores of illustrations for the Radio Times, where he appeared beside Eric Gill, Bob Sherriffs, Ronald Searle and Val Biro. He produced hundreds of "stills" for television narratives, like Ulster Television's version of The Reminiscences of an Irish R.M. He contributed to many publications for schools, which accompanied the BBC's educational programmes, He was also an engaging television "performer", who appeared in innumerable films and chat-shows.

He excelled as a set-designer, mimic and actor, and did much to promote live theatre in Ulster. He was President of the Ulster Association of Drama Festivals. He gave his energy to many charities and was a leading campaigner against cystic fibrosis.

His autobiography, Drawn from Life, was published in 1994. It is a unique account of 20th-century Ulster. The writer, after all, knew practically everybody - from Princess Alexandra to the welder at the gantry, from William Whitelaw to the squaddie on the beat.

In 1977 Rowel Friers was appointed MBE. In 1981 he was awarded an Honorary MA by the Open University. In 1994 he was elected President of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts.

His funeral was a major public occasion and a huge crowd assembled in North Down, at Holywood. Among the mourners were the Nationalist Leader, Lord Fitt, and the Democratic Unionist Leader, Ian Paisley. Even in death he could reconcile rivals.

"In Rowel Friers," says the poet Michael Longley, "we have lost more than an artist. We have lost an embodiment of the kind of future we need."

Douglas Carson

Rowel Boyd Friers, artist and cartoonist: born Belfast 13 April 1920; MBE 1977; President of the Royal Ulster Academy 1994-98; married 1954 Yvonne Henderson (two sons); died Holywood, Co Down 21 September 1998.