The story behind Derby's 'Boy and Ram' statue
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 January 2017
Peter Seddon casts his eye over Derby's much-loved but enigmatic 'Boy and Ram'
On an open greensward of the River Gardens close to the Council House is one of Derby’s most unusual public sculptures the ‘Boy and Ram’. Seemingly out of scale with its surroundings it presents a rather incongruous sight. Few passers-by break stride to look more closely – a sign of the times. Were a real boy to ride a ram through Derby it would be ‘viral’ on social media in no time.
The exposed position has an explanation. The ‘Boy and Ram’ was first unveiled in 1963 in the newly-opened Main Centre, a ‘sixties modernist’ shopping precinct far busier and more intimate than the wide-open River Gardens. The statue was moved in 2005 when construction of Westfield began. It may yet move again – perhaps inside the renamed Intu – time will tell.
Its creator Leicester-born Wilfred Edgar Dudeney (1911-1996) had no particular Derby link. Then resident in London, he was commissioned by reputation alone – from 1971 to 1975 he would serve as President of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. So Derby has custody of a genuine work of art.
Established wisdom suggests Dudeney was instructed to create something symbolic for Derby at its time of transition from old to modern. He must recognise the ancient but celebrate the ‘triumph of the new’.
Those who neglect to give the ensemble a second glance take it at face value – just a boy on a ram. Only those who linger awhile can begin to divine its spirit and iconography. Recorded observations suggest the following consensus.
The Derbyshire granite base is the prehistory on which all of Derby’s great antiquity was founded – strong, permanent, indestructible – a sound message for any community.
The ram is the traditional symbol of Derby indelibly linked with the ancient folk ballad ‘The Derby Ram’ in which a giant mythical ‘tup’ carries all before him. That the feisty beast was in time adopted by Derby County Football Club made it a safe choice of artwork for the proud townsfolk.
The ram represents the spirit and strength of the ‘old Derby’ and its people since time immemorial – but there lies a curious dichotomy. Dudeney’s ram is not a giant strutting beast commanding awe from all who set eyes on him. Rather the opposite – his ram is small and apparently cowed, held in total control by the slender figure upon his back.
So perhaps the boy also represents the people of Derby – but those of the future. The youngster’s mastery of the age-old creature evokes the renewal which the town’s authorities wanted to convey during the innovative era of 60s redevelopment. The message is clear: Derby being firmly steered to a civilized ‘modern’ future – still in harmony with its earthy past but subjugating its baser elements. The ensemble is a triumph of youth over age and new over old – a symbol of the optimism, change and progress of the Swinging Sixties.
The boy is not the tough figure of an archetypal Derby lad. He is all mastery and no mischief. With thin and graceful limbs, bare-footed, he wears tight three-quarter ‘shorts’ and a sleeveless singlet – a hint of the ‘continental’ in his style. Nothing suggests ‘roughness’ yet his sinewy torso hints at great strength, almost as if the sculptor – resident in London – had found his model in a ballet studio. Perhaps he had.
This wiry boy looks completely assured astride the ram. With one hand he guides its stern and with the other holds a horn as if to steer his mount. He might almost be manoeuvring his bike in the local park.
In turn the strong but oddly placid beast seems only mildly ruffled by his surprise jockey, accepting his young master with an air of resignation. So harmony reigns where chaos might easily have erupted. A good corporate message for a time of change – if not always representative of the harsher reality.
Such interpretations might be considered fanciful or even pretentious. Cynics may observe that those hurrying past haven’t the time to ponder symbolism or form – but in a world of haste a moment’s contemplation can be very therapeutic.
As such the ‘Boy and Ram’ have moved some to eloquence. One admirer wrote: ‘It reminds me of an American bucking bronco where the foolhardy rider clings on at the back and grips the horns at the front in a battle of man and beast. Yet this is no epic struggle or bravado. The barefoot boy, his hair hanging foppishly over his face, bears a rather bored expression and appears almost to lose interest in his sport. Slightly built, waif-like, somehow almost immortal, he could fly off effortlessly at any moment, like an angel or Peter Pan. This is a work you cannot stand still to admire, but must walk around to see every view, and the faster you encircle it the more you become involved in the swirling playful duo’s dance.’
Dudeney’s work doubtless divides opinion. For some the ‘Boy and Ram’ remains a mere lump of bronze on a rock – both figure and beast anonymous souls with little to impart. But for the romantic the work evokes the very spirit of Derby itself – or at least what we would like it to be.
Alas the sculptor is unable to enlighten us of any subliminal message he intended to impart. Wilfred Edgar Dudeney died in Blackpool aged 84 in 1996.
But his legacy to Derby is one to cherish. We must make our own interpretations – but there can be no moth-balling or scrap-yard for the ‘Boy and Ram’. Pay them a visit sometime...