Walter Ritchie was the son of a Coventry carpenter who trained with local stonemasons to become a fully -fledged sculptor by the age of 18. He said that they taught him how to hold a hammer and a chisel, – and a crowbar – in his words, “a very useful tool.” After WW2, he was one of the last apprentices of Eric Gill, in High Wycombe, and trained to work in a wide variety of media including traditional sculpture materials, and marble, silver, gold, aluminium and steel, but he preferred English brick. Brick allowed him to explore a new world of texture and colour, – a difficult medium. It was his firm belief that art should be on show in public places.
In 1959, Margaret Auldridge published an essay on Ritchie and his work in The Monumental Journal, entitled “The Street is his Gallery,“ but sadly, many of the streets have now vanished thanks to redevelopment, taking Ritchie’s prized works with them. However, two large Portland stone sculptures created for the Coventry precinct in the 1950s are now in the care of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, and his “Flight into Egypt” brick relief can still be found at St Joseph’s Church, Whitnash.
At the age of 18 Ritchie was commissioned by Warwickshire County Council to sculpt a mermaid riding a seahorse. Councillors were reportedly “horrified” at the result – the untraditional mermaid appeared to be riding with legs astride, rather than side-saddle as expected. Ritchie continue to upset councillors throughout his working life: one further local incident involved two huge panels produced for Coventry City Council in 1953, – a surrealist peep into a man’s brain in action, showing hands, arms, fish, serpents and birds. Councillor Francis Walsh declared “It’s like something out of a horror comic.“ A design for a wall for the Metropolitan Police in 1984 was also turned down, as was Ritchie’s design for a 10p piece showing Boudicca in her chariot brandishing a whip, and a design for a wall depicting the six virtues at Malmesbury Abbey, – this after 19 meetings by five committees over 2½ years!
However, some of Ritchie’s works have stood the test of time, and are cherished. When Leamington College for Girls opened in 1959, the long wall at the entrance in Cloister Way featured a specially commissioned aluminium sculpture. “Three Aspects of a Girl’s Education”, was manufactured in beaten, welded and rolled aluminium. It represented positive action, scientific research and humanitarian activity and was designed to inspire young women to look further and aim higher. At that time, girls rarely studied technology or engineering. The sculpture (left) was refurbished when the new North Leamington School opened in Sandy Lane in 2009, and relocated there, to continue to inspire future generations of North Leamington School pupils.
In 1979 the skills he learned as a teenager came to the fore and he undertook a commission to sculpt a 16-foot high panel, Queen Elizabeth and the Washerwomen for the NatWest Bank in Bristol. This panel was sculpted as a relief in intaglio by cutting into marble just a few inches thick – a highly skilled technique used in jewellery-making by the ancient Cretans. Ritchie used wood, metal, marble, steel, stone, ivory, silver and gold, alabaster, even aluminium, but his favourite medium was English brick. Ritchie completed many works locally, – including at the Coventry Belgrade Theatre, Binley Woods Primary School, and Bilton Primary School, but many consider his figure of Len Hutton in action, installed at The Oval cricket ground, to be his greatest masterpiece.
Ritchie never had assistants. His mistakes, he used to say, were his own. He never mixed in “social” circles and refused offers to help him set up in London. A very private person, he lived alone for 57 years in the house where his family was evacuated after the Coventry Blitz, rarely taking holidays. His obituary in The Independent in 1997 claimed that “The career of the sculptor Walter Ritchie provides the best 20th century example of the artist as his own worst enemy,“ – because he only ever had two exhibitions, one in the 1960s and one in the 1990s. In fairness, an exhibition would have presented a significant number of practical problems, given the siting of Ritchie’s work in brick relief, on banks, hospitals, schools, colleges, churches and other public buildings.
Margaret Rushton, with information and photographs from Derek Billings.