Walter Ritchie - Man's Struggle
On the side of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, almost facing the Ellen Terry building, in Earl Street are two carved stone murals by Walter Richie. They are called 'Man's Struggle" but they have not always been located here. They were originally located in the middle of Coventry's Upper Precinct. The sculptures were unveiled in 1959 and faced each other over a pool of water with fountains under a pedestrian bridge.
Coventry Society's Vice Chairman, Paul Maddocks, recalls "As a lad I grow up admiring them. Looking through the railings up at the sight of the man trying to hold on to a large horse, it was a powerful image. It reminded me of a cowboy! The other picture was more frightening. It had a large head and a ramp with men and animals being lead to what looked like Hell, with great big gnashing teeth."
"As I grew up I started to notice more of the detail and grew to love it, along with the new precinct. Being a teenager in Coventry in the 1960's, it felt like living in the centre of a new world. Everything was new and modern; everyone worked in some of the best paid jobs in the land; new pedestrian traffic free shopping areas; new works of public art; new housing estates and the great, new Cathedral. People from around the world were coming to see this new utopia, and the Coventry born artist Walter Richie reliefs were a major part of this New World."
The two works of art are both represent "man's struggle". The first is the struggle with the outside world: to control the physical things like nature and the environment such as taming and controlling a wild horse. There are representations of a man working, a coal-miner drilling, a man climbing a ladder, a man carrying a container on his back, surgeons performing an operation, while all around are magnified blood cells and plants, together with a rocket and shock waves.
The second artwork is man's struggle within himself; man's mind is opened to reveal his thoughts and the past is shown moving through his mind and on into the future. Other images show death with Hamlet looking down on to the scull contemplating death and it symbolises man's search for philosophy. A man playing a violin representing music, the Good Samaritan bandaging a man's head. As long as Good win's over Evil Man has a future.
An interesting anecdote was reported to the Society by former City Engineer, the late Brian Rednap. He told us that it was a council worker, a polish painter, who was decorating the precinct when he took it upon himself to paint the background of the sculpture the red colour it is today. Brian had to have a site meeting with the artist Walter Ritchie to see what he wanted to happen; did he want it removing or painting over? It was left and nothing happened to the council painter; he was just told not to go off painting with out orders.
In the early 1990's when the Precinct was having a refurbishment, the two works of art were moved and put on display outside the Herbert Gallery in 1994. This was the first time you could see them side by side. It is well worth getting up close to them and you get a better idea of how big they are and how the stone relief works.
Walter Ritchie was born in Coventry on 27th April 1919. The son of a car painter, 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." At 18 he was commissioned by Warwickshire County Council to sculpt a mermaid riding a seahorse. Walter was an apprentice with Eric Gill after the Second World War. In 1953 Coventry City Council commissioned him to do the two large Portland stone reliefs of 'Man's Struggle' in Coventry Precinct (created between 1954 and 1959). He did many other works including the 'The Creation' a series of large carved brick relief panels at Bristol Eye Hospital (created between 1981 and 1986).
The five massive carved-brick reliefs each measure 5’7” by 12’. The material was Ibstock Red Marl brick. When installed, these panels were the largest non-reinforced brick reliefs ever carved.
Walter also did a wooden sculpture the 'Dove' for the Belgrade Theatre which was first display beside the stage but moved because it was distracting the audience. It was used for a mould to make a bronze sculpture for Richard Lee school with a hand behind it as a symbol of Noah casting off the Dove to find land. The original wooden Dove is on the stairwell in the Belgrade Theatre. Its interesting that on the Man's Struggle to control the world inside himself on the bottom right hand corner is the hand of God creating Adam, beginning with the pelvis and hip joint and the bones and flesh are shown growing into the complete man, a very difficult thing to do in stone.
The wooden Dove in the Belgrade Theatre, The Dove at Richard Lee School and the birth of Adam by the hand of God on the Man's Struggle mural.
Walter Ritchie lived for 57 years in the house in Kenilworth to which his family had been evacuated because of the bombing in Coventry. He took a holiday once, in 1955, when he went to the Lake District, but never took one again, having been alarmed by the financial insecurity he saw at first hand when he worked with Eric Gill.
He did many other works of art around the area including Alice in Wonderland - Binley Woods Primary School, Boy with Horse - Bilton Primary School, Hurdlers and Climbers - Water Orton Road, Park Hill School and many more. He died in Kenilworth, on 12th February 1997 aged 78.
Walter Richie, with his hammer and chisel, working in his rolled up shirt sleeves, on one of his many brick reliefs.
'Hurdles and Climbers' relief sculpture at Park Hill School.
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