Ian Walters

Figurative sculptor whose portraits celebrate the heroes of the left


Ian Walters, sculptor: born Solihull, Warwickshire 9 April 1930; three times married (one son, one daughter); died London 3 August 2006.

Sculpture and socialism were the twin driving forces of Ian Walters. After 30 years of teaching, mostly at Guildford School of Art, he devoted his energy and talents to the promotion of socialist politics and the celebration of the heroes of the left. His work includes portrait sculptures of Nelson Mandela, Harold Wilson, Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and James Callaghan.

Born in Solihull and educated at Yardley Grammar School, Walters studied at the Birmingham College of Art from 1946, where he came under the influence of the much-underrated sculptor William Bloye (1890-1975). From an early enthusiasm for woodcarving, Walters turned to modelling and was influenced by Jacob Epstein, Charles Sargeant Jagger, to whom Bloye owed much, and the figurative works of Ossip Zadkine.

Birmingham provided him with a solid grounding in the figurative tradition and, returning to the West Midlands after National Service (1952-54), he took up a lecturer post at the then Stourbridge College of Art, in the sculpture department. From there he moved in 1957 to the Guildford School of Art as a lecturer in sculpture.

Walters's political activity extended back to the 1945 general election when, as a 15 year old, he participated in the school mock election and became a convinced socialist. Intellectual substance was provided by, inter alia, the copy of Herbert Read's Art and Society (1937) that he received as a school art prize.

In the early 1960s he travelled to Yugoslavia to participate in one of Tito's public sculpture programmes, but it was the 1968 outbreak of student protests which brought together Walters's political and artistic activities. He, while siding with the students, rejected the fashionable abstract art espoused by intellectuals, and instead set about developing a powerful style of figurative sculpture intended to speak to a much broader public. Epstein, Jagger and Bloye provided important points of departure, but his personal synthesis owes considerably more to Baroque sculpture than has been generally recognised.

For the creative artist it is virtually impossible to teach well and pursue an independent artistic career concurrently, but the attractions of a secure if modest income are difficult to resist when a young family is to be supported. Walters parted company with Guildford in 1981, and he attributed this to his political activism.

He offered his services to the London office of the African National Congress and produced for them a giant bust of Nelson Mandela which, cast in thin resin, was taken to ANC rallies around the time of the 70th anniversary of its foundation in 1912. Subsequently cast in bronze (1985) this has come to rest on the South Bank, London, close to the Royal Festival Hall.

The publicity that this sculpture engendered led to a commission for a life-size, full-length figure of the firebrand socialist politician Fenner Brockway (1888-1988), of which the resin bronze cast was exhibited at the Society of Portrait Sculptors annual exhibition in 1982. Boasting a wonderfully grandiloquent rhetorical gesture, this Baroque portrait was cast in bronze and set up in Red Lion Square, Holborn, in 1985. Walters was briefly a Member of the Society of Portrait Sculptors - 1983-84 - but, never comfortable within organised bodies, he allowed this to lapse.

For the last 20 years of his life, Walters was rarely short of left-wing subjects. His impressive International Brigade Monument in Jubilee Gardens, on the South Bank, was unveiled in October 1985. He rapidly became the preferred sculptor of the socialist elite and his perceptive half-length bust of Tony Benn (1987) was exhibited by the revitalised Society of Portrait Sculptors in its "FACE2000" annual exhibition, the year before Walters rejoined.

It was Tony Benn who encouraged Walter to enter the competition for an over-life-size, full-length figure of Harold Wilson for his home town of Huddersfield. Again exploiting a decidedly Baroque composition inspired by press photographs taken at the time of the 1964 general election, the former Prime Minister is depicted hurrying away from the main railway station. The sculpture was unveiled by Tony Blair in July 1999.

In the meantime, Walters had executed a number of distinguished portrait busts, of Lord Soper - which won the Tussaud's Studios Millennium Prize at "FACE 2000" - Sylvia Pankhurst, and Bishop Trevor Huddleston (casts in Bedford and at South Africa House in London). When Nelson Mandela unveiled the Huddleston bust in Bedford in April 2000, Walters noted the way in which the former South African president addressed the crowds with his arms outstretched to embrace them and the world.

This provided the immediate inspiration for his full-length portrait of Mandela, the plaster maquette for which he exhibited at "FACE2001". That year Walters travelled to South Africa and modelled from life a half-length bust portrait of Mandela at his home. The whole project for the 9ft standing figure of Mandela wearing his distinctive printed "madiba" shirt has been fraught with controversy, and, orginally intended for Trafalgar Square, the sculpture's final location has still not been decided.

The posthumous half-length portraits of Sir Hugh Casson (2002) and the fiery Baroness Castle of Blackburn (2003) reveal in the vigorous painterly modelling and twisted poses the Baroque qualities noted earlier, while those of Lord Callaghan of Cardiff (2003), Arthur Scargill and Michael McGahey are much more sober. This treatment is appropriate for Scargill and McGahey, executed to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1984/85 Miners' Strike. No longer swashbuckling warriors of the left, the fire has gone out of them.

There is an unfamiliar tenderness in the more generalised modelling of the matronly bust of Fay Weldon, sent by Walters to "FACE2005", which suggests that he was becoming increasingly concerned with his own mortality. Apart from putting the finishing touches to his figure of Nelson Mandela, at the time of his death Walters was working on a portrait of Stephen Hawking and planning one of his old political friend Tony Banks.

In May 2006 the Society of Portrait Sculptors presented Ian Walters with its highest award, the Jean Masson-Davidson Silver Medal, in recognition of his lifetime achievements.

Peter Cannon-Brookes

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