Gladys Maccabe was born in Randallstown, County Antrim, in 1918 to artistic parents. Her mother, Elizabeth, was a designer in the linen business, and her Scottish father, George Chalmers, was a former army officer and artist specialising in calligraphy and illumination. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that she began drawing and painting at an early age, having a picture published in the Royal Drawing Society’s magazine when she was 16 years old, and going on to study at Belfast College of Art. In 1941 she married childhood friend, the artist and musician Max Maccabe. The couple held joint exhibitions, firstly in Belfast’s Robinson and Cleaver’s in 1942 and then in London’s Kensington Gallery in 1949; they exhibited regularly together thereafter. Alongside fellow artists such as Dan O’Neill, George Campbell, Gerard Dillon and William Conor, they were members of The Contemporary Ulster Group. Gladys’ portrait of Conor (1957) hangs in the Ulster Folk Museum.
The lack of recognition afforded to local female artists inspired her to form the Ulster Society of Women Artists in 1957. Beginning with just ten members, the Society's first major exhibition was in the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery in 1959 and has continued to thrive. Maccabe’s own work is varied, including flowers, still life and abstracts, with many depictions of events such as race meetings, fairs and markets. Witnessing the Belfast ‘Troubles’ of 1969, she depicted scenes such as Barricades, Blazing Warehouse, Petrol Bomb Sequel and Funeral of a Victim, which were included in the annual exhibition of The Royal Institute of Oil Painters in London in October of that year. During the 1960s she also worked as a fashion and arts correspondent for both newspapers and television.
In 1989, a retrospective exhibition of her work, entitled ‘Gladys Maccabe, A Lifetime of Art, The Retrospective’, was held at The George Gallery, Dublin. She has also exhibited at the Paris Salon, and examples of her work are in The Ulster Museum, The Royal Ulster Academy, The Arts Council of Ireland Collection, The Imperial War Museum and many other permanent collections.
In 1961, Gladys was elected a Member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, and in 1980, she was awarded an Honorary MA degree by Queen's University Belfast. She is also an Honorary Academician of the Royal Ulster Academy, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and has received many other accolades, including the 1984 World Culture Prize. Gladys was awarded an MBE for services to the arts on 21 November 2000.
Susan Stairs, Drawing from Memory: The Life of Irish Artist Gladys Maccabe, (Shortall-Stairs Publications 2004)