Obituary: Walter Ritchie

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The Independent Online
The career of the sculptor Walter Ritchie provides the best 20th-century example of the artist as his own worst enemy.

In a time when recognition turns on regular showing of a man's work Ritchie only ever had two exhibitions, the second of them last year. The first was 20 years ago, at the London Building Centre, arranged by the Brick Development Association. The second was arranged by Kent County Council. He was not, you will gather, like other sculptors.

But then there were practical difficulties to showing his work, not least the partial demolition of banks, hospitals, colleges, churches, even part of the Oval cricket ground, for it was his belief that art should be on show in public places, a belief reflected in one of the first essays on his work, by the critic Margaret Aldred, published in the Monumental Journal in 1959, "The Street His Gallery". As he himself said ruefully, "I do seem to have made things difficult for myself."

At 18 he was commissioned by Warwickshire County Council to sculpt a mermaid riding a seahorse. They had assumed the mermaid would ride side- saddle, but Ritchie, a realist, showed her with legs, or rather tails, apart, which horrified the councillors.

He went on to horrify many councillors in the course of his professional life. In 1953 Coventry City Council commissioned two huge panels, and the result produced the remarkable headline "Brain Peeps Shock Peeping Tom City" in the old Daily Sketch:

Two surrealist peeps at a man's brain in action are causing a howl of protest . The hands and arms, serpents, fish, half-women and birds, have horrified Councillor Francis Walsh: "It's like something out of a horror comic . . . "

It was not that he set out to shock or horrify, it was just that Ritchie went his own way. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Police in 1984 to do a wall, he submitted a design showing a dark figure running through a fingerprint, and there was no commission. "Most things go wrong," said Ritchie. He did not get the decimal coinage commission either; his design for the 10-pence piece had Boadicea in a chariot with a whip. Or, the great disappointment of his career, which came when he departed from his brief to sculpt the great wall separating the surviving third of Malmesbury Abbey from its ruins. He wanted panels, wild with action, depicting the Six Virtues, and there were 19 meetings of five committees across two and a half years, and again no commission.

It did not help that he was interested in erotic sculpture. The magazine Men Only called in its lawyers when, in a 1978 issue, it decided to include a photograph of Ritchie's Yes!, a brick relief which was later bought by the directors of a London recording studio, who had been assured this study of copulation would do wonders for their acoustics.

Northampton Borough Council bought a series of brick panels but kept two of these in a walled garden locked most of the year. One which shows copulating lovers broke in two a few winters ago, but the council appears to be in no hurry to have them joined again. This would have delighted a man whose greeting on the phone was invariably "Grim as usual".

Ritchie was one of the last living apprentices of Eric Gill; he studied with him for just 18 months just after the Second World War, at Gill's workplace, Pigotts, in Buckinghamshire. He discounted the claims made about his old master's sexual exploits.

"The man I knew was near death, working flat out. He couldn't have fitted it all in," said Ritchie.

Ritchie's training had begun long before he met Gill. A car painter's son, he was already a fully competent sculptor at 18, having been trained by local masons. "They taught me how to hold a hammer and chisel, also the crowbar, a most useful tool." This left him fascinated by sheer craft, so that when he was commissioned to do the 16ft-high panel Queen Elizabeth and the Washerwomen for the National West Bank in Bristol in 1979 he chose to do this as a relief in intaglio. This is rarely attempted now, for it involves cutting into marble itself just inches thick, when a single blow of the chisel could shatter the whole thing. Ritchie had to re-learn techniques the ancient Cretans had used on semi-precious stones.

He carved in wood, marble, steel, stone, ivory, silver, gold, alabaster, in just about everything except fibre-glass. His particular love was the 1,500 varieties of brick still made in Britain, which allowed him to explore a new world of texture and colour in a medium of the streets. It was also very difficult, some bricks being shattered, others shattering Ritchie's carving tools. His masterpiece is the sculpture of Len Hutton in action at the Oval cricket ground, created between 1988 and 1993, rising out of a brick background.

Unlike modern sculptors like Henry Moore, Ritchie never had assistants. His mistakes and his limitations, as he put it, were thus entirely his own. He never mixed in metropolitan circles, though the critic Herbert Read, who took him up as a young man, often urged him to come to London to gain commissions.

Walter Ritchie lived for 57 years in the house to which his family had been evacuated after the bombing of Coventry. He took a holiday once, in 1955, when he went to the Lakes, but never took one again, having been alarmed by the financial insecurity he saw at first hand in his years with Gill.

Byron Rogers

Walter Ritchie, sculptor: born Coventry 27 April 1919; died Kenilworth, Warwickshire 12 February 1997.