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Noreen Rice: Tributes to artist who brought her passion and flair to the home of the Duchess of Abercorn

By Ivan Little

A prominent Belfast-born artist, who was mentored by one of Ireland's most renowned painters, Gerard Dillon, has died.

Noreen Rice, who was 79 and was suffering from cancer, was a prolific artist whose work was exhibited across the world.

Her flair for art was first spotted at Methodist College in Belfast where she won a number of top prizes.

But it was her piano teacher, Tom Davidson, who introduced her to Gerard Dillon in 1951 and she maintained a close association with him and another leading artist - George Campbell - until they died several decades later.

Speaking recently about her times with Dillon, Noreen said: "They were times of magic, discoveries shared and a great deal of laughter."

At the age of 20, Noreen had her first solo show, in Hong Kong.

She had gone to live in the former British colony with her family after her father was posted there as an engineer.

But she returned to London where she got a job with the BBC, working at night in the news room and with the current affairs department. The late shifts allowed Noreen to use the day-time hours to paint and, along with her brother Hal, she rented a flat in a house owned by Gerard Dillon in fashionable Abbey Road, an area later made famous by The Beatles.

The house was a meeting place for Irish expatriate writers and artists including Arthur Armstrong, Gerard Keenan and Aidan Higgins.

Friends said that, encouraged by them and the artistic environment, Noreen experimented with different media including wood, leather, tin and wire.

She became a regular exhibitor in London and Dublin before moving in 1967 to Paris where she married sculptor Haim Kern and took up lithography.

The marriage lasted just two years and Noreen went to Geneva with her young son, Tristram, after receiving a bursary from the Swiss Government to study etching.

In 1973, Noreen moved home to Ireland and settled in Fermanagh where she married for a second time and had her daughter, Trasna.

The constraints of raising a family impacted on Noreen's output but she did have solo exhibitions in Belfast in 1988 and 1990 before collaborating with well-known Spanish painter, Felix Anaut, on large pictures of Adam and Eve for an arts festival near Zaragosa in 1997.

After two years in London, Noreen came back to Ireland to settle in Newbliss, Co Monaghan, where she held a number of residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie centre at Annaghmakerrig.

In 2005, the Duchess of Abercorn commissioned Noreen to paint the shutters of the massive windows at Pushkin House set up in the Baronscourt estate near Newtownstewart, Omagh, to keep alive the spirit of the Russian writer considered by many to be the finest poet from his country.

The Duchess is descended through her maternal line from Pushkin's youngest daughter and the house named after him is used by artists and their teachers for recreational and creative activities.

Noreen Rice suffered a stroke in 2013 and her health continued to deteriorate before she finally lost a brief battle with cancer.

She is survived by her two children and five grandchildren.

Her lifelong friend from their earliest schooldays in Belfast, Joan Hill said: "She was always drawing, that's all she ever wanted to do.

"She gave out more light than she took in."

Dublin artist Ciaran Lennon, who was a close friend, wrote to her after she suffered her stroke.

He said: "I'm a little lost without you.

"My signpost and landmark of all that is fine and wonderful in life and in art - that's what you are and so much more."

Noreen Rice's funeral will be held at Aghabog near Newbliss on Wednesday.

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