Sean Rice was a highly accomplished Liverpool sculptor whose imaginative interpretation of traditional religious or mythic themes was highlighted by the recent installation at Liverpool's Roman Catholic Cathedral of Rice's 14 sculptures for the Stations of the Cross. Commissioned by Bishop Derek Worlock, this last work has a similar poignancy to Elisabeth Frink's figure of Christ, installed shortly before her death above the entrance to the Anglican Cathedral at the opposite end of Hope Street.
Unlike Arthur Dooley, another renowned Merseyside sculptor who produced sculpture for churches, Rice was a highly trained artisan from an academic background. That background gave him an astonishing technical virtuosity; the individuality of his style is based on a superb mastery of casting, welding and forging techniques. He often used multivarious metals in the same piece, fabricating them in a way that produced extraordinary figurative detail, replacing the hard and seemingly intractable nature of metal with a feeling of effortless malleability of materials.
Rice was born in London in 1931. He spent the war years in Brighton, where he later began art studies under the sculptor James Woodford RA. Like so many sculptors, Rice started off as a painter but Woodford - creator of the Robin Hood monument in Nottingham - encouraged his growing interest in mythic themes and symbolic forms.
This direction was further encouraged by the sculptor Maurice Lambert, who taught Rice between 1951 and 1953 at the Royal Academy Schools in London. Lambert's penchant for animals, birds and mythic figures undoubtedly influenced Rice's choice of similar subject matter. Their techniques may have differed but Lambert's celebrated Pegasus - which Rice encountered at the 1951 Festival of Britain - encouraged the baroque fantasy and overflowing symbolic detail that would also come to characterise Rice's mature work. His 17ft fountain (1972) for the Atlantic Tower Hotel near Liverpool's Albert Dock, for example - a totemic aviary of ascending birds - closely recalls Lambert's Aengus and the Birds. Rice's interest in the relationship of the animal and human worlds is witnessed in another large commission, Noah and the Four Winds, installed at Chester Zoo in 1977.
Another major influence on Rice's development was Italy, which he discovered on a motorcycle soon after graduating from the Academy Schools. In awe of classical architecture and Italian mannerist sculpture, he subsequently visited Italy annually, enjoying the landscape as much as the churches, and producing sensitive watercolours. He also met leading Italian artists like the realist painter Renato Guttuso and the Vatican sculptor Manzu, both of whom - along with Picasso - tempered the visionary quality of Rice's work by introducing a more earthy note.
This other side of Rice's sensibility caused him to render harrowing or menacing images of motorcycle riders - the elaborate welded structures of scraps and metal offcuts clearly identifying with the engineering of the real thing - or of paramilitary riot police, complete with helmets, shields and batons. An interest in the theme of civil disturbance introduced a secular as well as local note, since the 1981 Toxteth riots had occurred near Rice's home in the north Liverpool suburb of Walton.
It was in the unlikely context of his terraced house in the shadow of Goodison Park football ground that Rice installed a bronze foundry and metal workshop, enabling him to undertake large-scale commissions. After a distinguished teaching career in the sculpture department of Liverpool College of Art, Rice decided in 1980 to devote all his energies to making sculpture, a brave move made possible by the commercial success he achieved through regular exhibitions at the Alwin Gallery, London.
Rice's sculptures of Old Testament or mythic figures were larger than life in more ways than one. He had a keen, even humorous, poetic sense as well as an unrivalled feeling for the expressive potential of metals. One associates welded sculpture with the abstract structures and "sculpitecture" of Anthony Caro - a student with Rice at the Royal Academy - but in Sean Rice's capable hands such a medium was put to more symbolic ends.
Brian Sean Rice, sculptor: born Heston, Middlesex 5 November 1931; Senior Lecturer, Liverpool College of Art 1967-80; married (two sons, one daughter); died Liverpool 4 January 1997.
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