NIWM Copper Frieze – James McKendry
The Northern Ireland War Memorial tells the story of Northern Ireland during the Second World War with a unique collection of objects and artworks. One of the largest artworks in the museum is a hammered copper frieze by local artist James McKendry (b.1935). The frieze measures 18 ft x 2 ft (548 cm x 59 cm).
There is an upper and lower part, and they are displayed together in a wooden frame, which is mounted high on a wall in the museum. Visitors see it as soon as they walk in as it tower above the part of the exhibition which is about the arrival of the Americans, the Ulster Home Guard, and the Women’s Voluntary Service. The frieze is made up of 11 panels in total and there are various people, places and symbols hammered onto it. The upper part captures elements of the war effort in Northern Ireland during the Second World War, depicting farming, ship building and heavy industry. The lower part shows American forces training in Northern Ireland from west to east, on their way to the conflict in Europe.
James McKendry was born near Bushmills in Co. Antrim. He went to Belfast School of Art in 1953, completed a short course at the Central School of Art in London and then specialised in Art Education at Liverpool University. Over the course of five years of education, McKendry obtained many accolades including a City & Guild Gold Medal, Diploma in Art, National diploma in Design (special honours) and an Art Teachers Diploma (Distinction). His internationally acclaimed work can be found in corporate and private collections around the world, including that of the Duke of Edinburgh.
The Northern Ireland War Memorial commissioned James to make the frieze for the original War Memorial Building on Waring Street, in time for its Royal Opening in 1963. McKendry was known to the architects of the building as he created large metal artworks before. This Belfast Newsletter photograph shows James working on the frieze. At that time, he was an art teacher at Dunlambert Boys’ Secondary Intermediate School in Belfast.
The footage below shows the Queen Mother opening the building on 29th October 1963.
The main entrance of the building opened from Waring Street into the Hall of Friendship. The walls of the Hall of Friendship were covered in large slabs of light coloured Cliffdale marble, which had been quarried from a cave overlooking the Mississippi River at St Genevieve in Missouri, USA. The frieze was set into the top of the marble walls, one length on each side of the room, so that the two parts were facing each other. Shown is an image of the frieze in the War Memorial exhibition in the late 1990s.
When we relocated to Talbot Street, the frieze was integrated to form an important part of the museum on Talbot Street, along with a stained-glass memorial window by Stanley Murray Scott (1912-1997), a marble memorial wall and a specially designed plinth of Ulster granite carved in a hexagonal shape to represent the six counties of Northern Ireland. The NIWM, the artists and those involved in the relocation were awarded the Royal Society of Ulster Architects Integrated Artwork Award in 2008.
McKendry is now retired and lives in Bushmills with his wife Norri. In 2018 the NIWM interviewed James about the artwork he created and how the commission came about in the 1960s. This was done as part of the NIWM’s ongoing The War and Me oral history project which aims to interview people with wartime memories. James’s interview has now been transcribed and is available to researchers. To this day the frieze in our museum remains as McKendry’s largest hammered copper work.
As an accredited museum, we have committed to the care and long-term preservation of our collection. Where possible, conservation work is carried out during museum opening hours to allow visitors to learn more about the museum’s conservation work. This summer we planned to have the frieze cleaned by a conservator. While that work has been delayed, over the next few weeks, we plan to share detailed pictures of the copper frieze, section by section, alongside extracts from our oral history interview with McKendry which was carried out in 2018.