Obituary: Deborah Brown, painter and sculptor (1927-2023)

12th April, 2023

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland has learned with sadness of the death of the renowned Belfast-born painter and sculptor, Deborah Brown, who died peacefully at Donegal Hospice on Saturday 8th April, aged 95.

Life-sized bronze sheep and shepherd outside the Waterfront Hall, Belfast
Deborah Brown, ‘Sheep on the Road’

Deborah Brown was born in Belfast in 1927 and educated at Belfast Royal Academy and Richmond Lodge School. She began to study painting at the Belfast College of Art in 1946, before enrolling at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. Returning to Belfast at the age of 24, she began her long acquaintance with the Arts Council, then known as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, with her first solo exhibition at the CEMA Gallery in 1951. She would go on to have at least 11 further exhibitions with the Arts Council.

In the early 1960s Deborah became a member of the Women’s International Art Club and was appointed a trustee of Belfast’s Lyric Players Theatre, alongside the painter TP Flanagan and poet John Hewitt. Through her involvement with stage design at the theatre she developed an increasing interest in sculpture, and it is for her sculpture that she would become best known.

The following decade, she was invited by the Arts Council to select a committee to oversee a bursary to help younger artists to travel and buy art materials, established in memory of her friend, the painter Alice Berger Hammerschlag, who died in 1969. Subsequently, throughout the 1970s, she served as Chairperson of the Visual Arts Committee at the Arts Council.

In 1982 the Arts Council held a major retrospective of Deborah Brown’s work at the Ulster Museum in Belfast and the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Two years later Deborah was invited to participate at the 1984 ROSC exhibition in Dublin, part of a highly influential series of contemporary art exhibitions held in Ireland. The 1984 ROSC exhibition featured 164 exhibits from international artists such as Gilbert and George, Joseph Beuys and Ellsworth Kelly, alongside seven Irish artists, including Felim Egan, Anne Madden, Barrie Cooke, Eilis O’Connell and Seán Scully. The ROSC exhibition led the following year to an exhibition featuring these artists from Ireland at the Armstrong Gallery in New York.

In the 1980s Deborah set up her studio in Cushendun in the Glens of Antrim, where she had spent many of her childhood years. Here she cast her first life-sized bronze animal sculpture, ‘Johann the Goat’, which has since 2002 been a popular landmark in the town.

Deborah Browne’s best-known piece of public art, the life-sized bronze, ‘Sheep on the Road’, was commissioned by the Arts Council in 1991. It was relocated in 1999 from the Arts Council’s sculpture garden at their old premises at Riddell Hall, to where it currently resides at the entrance to the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.

For the next two decades, Deborah continued to exhibit work nationally and internationally and, in 2016 was awarded of the Mullan Gallery Prize for the best sculpture at the Annual Royal Ulster Academy exhibition at the Ulster Museum. Her work is included in major national collections, including that of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

Noirin McKinney, Director of Arts Development at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, paid tribute: 

“Deborah Brown was a very fine and accomplished artist whose talent, like that of so many women artists, has probably yet to be fully recognised. The Arts Council is proud to have championed her work over her long and distinguished career. To leave behind a body of work which includes ‘Sheep on the Road’, easily one of the most popular and admired pieces of public art in Northern Ireland, is a truly special legacy that we can all enjoy.”

Deborah Brown spent her last years in Ramelton, Co. Donegal. The Funeral Service is at St Paul's Church of Ireland, Ramelton on Saturday 15th April at 2pm.