Alongside William Scott, F.E. McWilliam was the most internationally distinguished artist to have been born in Ulster in the twentieth century. The son of a doctor, he was educated at Campbell College, Belfast. In 1926 he entered the Belfast School of Art, and in 1928 went on to the Slade School in London, where he studied under Henry Tonks and Randolph Schwabe, and for a time shared a studio with John Luke. He won a scholarship to Paris in 1931, and after that lived in London.
Though always averse to groups and manifestos, McWilliam exhibited with the British Surrealist Group in 1938. During World War II he served as an Intelligence Officer with the RAF in the Far East. From 1946 to 1968 he taught sculpture at the Slade School and was elected ARA in 1959, but later resigned. Many of his sculptures were commissioned for public places, as for example the bronze Princess Macha (1959) at Altnagelvin Hospital, Londonderry.