Ronald Pope - The creative journey of a sculptor

PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 March 2020

Ronald Pope with one of his smaller sculptures

Ronald Pope with one of his smaller sculptures

as supplied

As Derby Museums and Art Gallery stages an exhibition including work by the acclaimed modernist sculptor, Anthony Hubbard reflects on the man and his work.

The Family, Derby CathedralThe Family, Derby Cathedral

Derby and Derbyshire have an exceptional history of manufacturing - an obvious statement that conjures up thoughts of industries such as Rolls-Royce, Crown Derby or Arkwright's mills. However, as manufacturing is another way of saying that things are 'made', our rich history of art and sculpture should also be included. In a new exhibition running until 10th May, Derby Museums is using the work of sculptor Ronald Pope to show how he has enhanced our cultural history of 'making' by his skilful use of engineering techniques.

Pope began as an engineer apprentice with Rolls-Royce, Derby in 1938. He became a very competent engineer but art was in his soul and in 1945 he abandoned engineering to enter the Slade School of Fine Art in London. 
On achieving his Diploma in 
Fine Art, Pope began his ultimately successful profession 
as a sculptor, living at the time near Ticknall, with his wife 
Joan, in a rather basic cottage known as Knowle Hill.

Pope's sculptures have been described as outstanding, and without doubt he had a versatile imagination, producing such fine work as his Crowd series (inspired by observing shoppers in a Derby shopping centre), the Musician series, and single figures. These sculptures project a clear visual image of the rhythm of movement, of clothes moving in the wind, of the soloist with his/her instrument. His sculptures are artistically outstanding but the artistic quality often conceals the exceptional skill required to make them. Although true of his work in stone and wood, this is particularly the case with his work in metals. The precision of his cutting, beating, welding and brazing is hidden beneath the impact of the sculpture as a whole. Pope would have made a fine engineer indeed.

During the 1950s, while living at Knowle Hill, he created several works in stone, including Duo for Lady Paget of King's Newton Hall, which is now on display at the University of Derby. The stone he used for Duo is known as Hadene and was from a quarry near Wirksworth (also used by Henry Moore for one of his first public commissions, the Family Group at Harlow in Essex). The exhibition includes a film of the quarrying process and carving of the sculpture. Filmed in 1957/8, it vividly illustrates the hard work behind making a sculpture, particularly without the help of power tools, and the skill in getting it just right - how many of us would have started with a design and then amended it continuously as we took one chip too many off the stone block? As for the quarrying process, if you are keen on 'Health and Safety at Work' then take your rose-tinted spectacles with you.

Ronald Pope at Kings Lynn Arts FestivalRonald Pope at Kings Lynn Arts Festival

The Duo sculpture generates the impression of a bond between two people and inspires reflection on the nature of the family relationship. A similar sculpture in wood (elm), entitled The Family, is sited on the lower floor of Derby's Cathedral Café and has the same effect. It portrays two parents and a child embracing each other. This was without doubt the real core of Pope's life - his belief in the oneness of the family, and indeed, humanity. His murals at St Simon and St Jude Primary School and Wigston Academy in Leicestershire are also typical of this ideal, using both figurative and abstract representations of the adult/child relationship - the essence of love.

By the end of the 1950s, following a considerable number of commissions and exhibitions, Pope was able to build his own home, Blue Orchard, near Melbourne. He had his own purpose-built studio and began the most prolific period of his sculpting career, diversifying into sculpting in metals. In the next 10 years or so he produced around 500 unique sculptures. The inspirations for many of these were the rock formations of Derbyshire, whose countryside he loved. He made hundreds of sketches which were then developed into drawings for sculptures.

Many of these sculptures in steel, bronze, copper and aluminium were small, table-top size, commissioned for private collectors, churches, schools and hospitals, while others were major works, such as the crucifix on the Church of St Catherine of Siena in Sheffield, which was commissioned by the architect Sir Basil Spence. This is a large sculpture sited on the bell tower, and is made from bronze. It risked looking utilitarian, but a combination of Pope's artistic interpretation, engineering skills and dexterous use of the 'direct' method of building a sculpture rather than cutting away to reveal the work, created a beautiful wall sculpture. This sculpture also features in the exhibition.

The cross created for the chapel at the Derby Royal InfirmaryThe cross created for the chapel at the Derby Royal Infirmary

The Five Bishops - made in 1973 to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the founding of the English Church at Hertford - is another prime example of Pope's blend of artistic and engineering skills. The exhibition features other sculptures created for churches and chapels, for example those for Derby Cathedral, Sinfin Moor, St Michael with St Mary's in Melbourne, and the Derby Royal Infirmary Chapel. Many of his sculptures are loved and given pride of place. Derby Moor Academy has placed its Pope sculpture at the school entrance.

Fortunately recognition by the Henry Moore Institute, the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA), Art UK and local Museums such as Derby (and Watford, which has a large collection) have raised Pope's sculpture to the mainstream of Modern Art, which hopefully will help to protect his work in the future. Sadly, though, several of his sculptures have been destroyed, mainly because the often new owners had no idea of their artistic value. This is not a problem unique to Pope's work. It is estimated that many of the 170,000 publicly owned and/or displayed sculptures in the UK are at risk. If privately owned, heed is not often paid to the importance of a sculpture to a local community and owners rarely accept that publicly displayed sculpture is arguably held in trust, and perhaps should not be regarded as absolute property to be disposed of at will. The destruction of sculpture has prompted the PMSA and Art UK to begin a nationwide programme of cataloguing all public works of art, including Pope's sculptures.

However, had greater recognition come to Pope during his lifetime, he would doubtless have been uncomfortable with it. The more the quality of his work became recognised, the more he retreated from the public gaze, and the more he became increasingly frustrated with the commercialism he would need to adopt to deal with it. He had several large exhibitions during this time but was uneasy with the concurrent demands and intrusion into his private life. His rejection of public acclaim was not a product of introversion though. Far from it. Pope was a man with a clear mind and determined nature but at heart he was a philosopher, a 'truth-seeker', who believed deeply that 'True art is a loving art' (Martin Buber), and that everything he created was 'sufficient to itself' (Emily Dickinson). He wanted his art to speak for itself.

Duo at the University of Derby's Kedleston Road siteDuo at the University of Derby's Kedleston Road site

Process and Progress: The Creative Journeys of Ronald Pope and the artists of the Jonathan Vickers Fine Art Award is on show at Derby Museums & Art Gallery to 10th May. The artists were all based in Derbyshire and their exploration of the landscape and people gives the work on display a sense of place. Pope's sculptures can be viewed on the family website at www.ronaldpopesculptor.co.uk. For details of the Jonathan Vickers Fine Art Award, managed by Foundation Derbyshire and in its 19th year, see vickersartaward.co.uk

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