Ivor Roberts-Jones

Author and exhibition co-curator, Dr. Jonathan Black, has written this article for PMSA to mark the publication of Abstraction and Reality: The Sculpture of Ivor Roberts-Jones and the exhibition, The Double Edge: The Portrait Sculpture of Ivor Roberts-Jones at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff earlier this year.

I strongly suspect that Ivor Roberts-Jones is the most talented twentieth-century British public sculptor of whom many have never heard. I had long admired his imposing Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, London (1971-73), his haunting gaunt, striding figure of Augustus John in Fordingbridge, Hampshire (1964-67) and the stalwartly determined Field Marshal Viscount Slim on Whitehall (1987-90), without knowing much about the man and his career. Thankfully that changed when, in 2008, I met sculptor Nigel Boonham, who was then President of the Society of Portrait Sculptors. He had supervised the making of a second cast of Ivor’s Churchill in Parliament Square in 1999 for installation in Winston Churchill Square in Prague. Later, in 2002-03, he oversaw the clearing of Ivor’s studio, at the request of the sculptor’s widow, Monica, and was responsible for preserving a wealth of archival material which was purchased in 2005 from the artist’s estate by the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. Boonham suggested to me that Ivor really deserved a good ‘write up’. 

Thanks in large measure to the material Nigel Boonham had gathered, I could only agree that Ivor certainly did not deserve his obscurity and should actually be perceived as a major British twentieth-century sculptor of public memorials and portrait heads. Indeed, after his death, in December 1996, he was widely hailed by many admiring commentators as one of the last great British ‘icon-makers’, who had produced distinguished examples of public sculpture shaped by his admiration for some of the leading recent exponents of public sculpture such as: Auguste Rodin; Aimé-Jules Dalou; Charles Wheeler; Jacob Epstein, Charles Sargeant Jagger and Elizabeth Frink.

After a number of visits to Ivor’s papers at the Henry Moore Institute, I was able to construct a fairly detailed outline of his life and work which served as the basis for an application to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for an Early Career Research Fellowship. I was successful and was awarded a Research Fellowship in September 2010, the goal being to publish a monograph on Ivor, incorporating a catalogue raisonné of his sculpture, and to hold a number of exhibitions and displays exploring aspects of his richly creative output. The award also allowed me to engage a research assistant, Dr. Sara Ayres, who pursued further research in situ regarding the other statues of Churchill which Ivor made for: Oslo; New Orleans and Prague. She also interviewed a host of individuals who either had been students and friends of Ivor at Goldsmiths College, University of London, or, who had sat for him for a portrait sculpture.

The monograph, Abstraction and Reality: The Sculpture of Ivor Roberts-Jones was published towards the end of January 2014 and the exhibition The Double Edge: The Portrait Sculpture of Ivor Roberts-Jones opened at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff on 7 December 2013. It features 32 of Ivor’s best portrait heads in bronze as well as a selection of his drawings from a number of Welsh public art collections such as the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.

There is considerable interest in Ivor’s life and work at the Henry Moore Institute since its Archive holds the main body of the sculptor’s papers, plus an impressive collection of his extant drawings. Items from the archive will provide the basis for a display on Ivor’s memorial to Field Marshal Viscount Slim, which will be held at the Institute’s library between April and June 2014. Ivor’s maquette for the figure, in the collection of Leeds Art Galleries and Museums, will also be seen for the first time alongside some of his preparatory sketches and photographs for the project. Further funds have been set aside for a display focussing on Ivor’s statue of Prime Minister Clement Attlee in the Members’ Lobby of the House of Commons to take place in Portcullis House, London between September and December 2014.

It has been my goal that the book, coupled with the exhibition and these displays will lead to a fundamental reassessment of this unjustly overlooked and under-appreciated sculptor, who possessed many real gifts.

Ivor Roberts-Jones was son of a Welsh, and welsh-speaking, solicitor and English mother. Ivor was born in Oswestry in November 1913 and studied at local Grammar School and then at a minor public school, St. Cuthbert’s (now Worksop College), from 1924-1932. His father reluctantly agreed to fund his studies as a painter at Goldsmiths College of Art in London(1932-34), but after 18 months Ivor decided he really wanted to be a sculptor to work in clay and cast works in plaster, terracotta and bronze. His tutor at Goldsmiths, Clive Gardiner (also the principal), was reluctant to let Ivor move on as he thought he had all the makings of a talented poster designer and graphic artist. However, Ivor could not be persuaded to stay and in 1934 won a scholarship to study sculpture at the traditional Royal Academy Schools. There his work attracted the approval of one of his tutors, William Reid Dick. Ivor won a further two scholarships, for his skill in modelling and drawing, which funded the continuation of his studies at the RA. He completed his studies in 1939 and on the outbreak of war he volunteered for the British Army.

As he later recalled May 1940 was a ‘gala’ month as: the ‘Phony War’ suddenly became very serious indeed. Ivor married dance student, Monica Jones, and confirmed his surname as ‘Roberts-Jones’ (he had actually be born plain Jones but his father had added his middle name in his teens to make ‘Roberts-Jones’ on the grounds there were enough Jones in the world at it was). Ivor was then commissioned as a Second Lieutenant into the Royal Artillery. After service in Northern Ireland, he was in the same Territorial Division as writer Anthony Powell whom he met and befriended. In 1943 he was posted to command a battery of 25-pounder guns of the RFA in Burma. Taking command early in 1944 in the unforgiving Arakan region of south-west Burma, he participated in three pitched battles before the Japanese were routed and driven out of the country by July 1945. While in Burma, Ivor conceived a huge admiration for the commander of the 14th Army in which he was serving: General Sir William later Field Marshal Viscount Slim – known affectionately by his troops as ‘Uncle Bill.’ Very much a General for the ordinary fighting man, he led from the front, was charismatic and physically brave and matched this with a keen intelligence which refused to carelessly throw away the lives of his men. Furthermore, his soldiers grasped ‘Uncle Bill’ had found the formula, combining airpower, trained infantry, overwhelming artillery firepower and tanks, to defeat the Japanese; a truly formidable enemy, in one of the harshest terrains and challenging climates to be found on the planet. Slim today is widely regarded as one of the finest British generals of the War.

Ivor was demobbed from the Army in late 1945 and a year later was fortunate to find work as a part-time tutor in modelling at Goldsmiths. In 1964 he was promoted to become Head of Sculpture in Goldsmiths’ Faculty of Fine Art. He held the post until he retired in July 1978 and made no secret of his bewilderment with the direction contemporary sculpture was taking – land art, conceptual art, installations.

While teaching in the 1950s and 1960s, he focused mainly on portraiture and small figures (no more than three feet high) for Anglican Churches such as the St. Francis and Mother and Child for Ardleigh in Essex and a figure of the polar explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard for St. Helena’s in Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire. He also modelled some compelling portrait heads during this period; his friend the painter, Kyffin Williams (1957-59), the French poet Paul Claudel (1955-57) and the elderly writer, William Somerset Maugham (1962-63), which was a commission from the newspaper tycoon, Lord Beaverbrook.

Ivor had his ‘big break’ as a public sculptor in the spring of 1964, when he was commissioned to produce a memorial work for the late Augustus John, whom he had met in the mid-1950s when he gave the veteran painter some instruction in sculpture. John had been so impressed with Ivor’s work that, in his capacity as President of the Welsh Contemporary Art Society, he recommended to the Welsh Arts Council in 1960 to commission him to make a sculpture of David Lloyd George for Parliament Square in London. Nothing came of this idea but Augustus John’s widow, Dorelia, was instrumental in ensuring that Ivor was given the commission for her husband’s memorial. Initially it was to consist of two life-sized figures – a seated John painting a standing Dorelia. Cost implications compelled this to be reduced to one figure of a standing John – a haggard, rather tormented-looking individual, reminiscent of Rodin’s John the Baptist(1876-77). The full-sized bronze was unveiled by Lord Louis Mountbatten in October 1967 in Fordingbridge, Hampshire. The work was much admired by many in the audience including Sir Charles Wheeler, Anthony Powell and Cecil Beaton as uncompromisingly true to life, representing John in his later years, haunted by feelings of unfulfilled potential, talent corroded by alcohol.

The Augustus John statue gained Ivor official respectability; he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and was considered for some prominent public commissions. In 1970 he was shortlisted for the prestigious memorial to Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. Against stiff opposition from Oscar Nemon, he secured the commission in March 1971 with an iconic figure that now seems perfectly suited for the site. The nine foot high bronze was unveiled in November 1973, just avoiding the industrial turbulence of 1974 and the defeat of Heath’s government in the General Election of February that year. His Parliament Square Churchill was deemed such a success across the globe that he was commissioned to make two more life-sized figures of the statesman: for Solli Square in Oslo (1974-76) and for central New Orleans (1974-77). He also received several high profile portrait commissions such as The Marquis Of Anglesey and Lord Tyrrell-Kenyon for the National Museum of Wales; Lord Chandos for the National Theatre and Prince Philip to honour his patronage of of the Royal Society of General Practitioners. In 1978, with the support of the Welsh Arts Council , Ivor held a solo exhibition in Cardiff, and the following year the WAC asked him to produce a major work of sculpture in bronze to stand outside Harlech Castle. This eventually evolved into the poignant and moving Two Kings which was finally unveiled in July 1984.

As his career as a public sculptor developed, he was also considered in 1977, for the shortlist to make a bronze figure of reforming Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. This was to stand in the Members’ Lobby of the House of Commons facing a statue of past Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Ivor was awarded the commission in February 1978 and his 2.7m high figure of Attlee presented in an unusually avuncular and suave manner was unveiled in November 1979. Further diverse public commissions followed over the next decade: a 1.7m high bronze of the First World War Poet and Neo-Pagan Rupert Brooke for Rugby (1986-88); a 1.8m high bronze of Borderland Farmer and Ram for the main square of Oswestry (1986-92) and an impressive duo of 3m high British Second World War senior military figures for Whitehall: Field Marshal Viscount Slim (1987-90) and the fearsomely demanding Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke(1991-93), surreptitiously known as ‘Old Shrapnel’ by his suitably awed and intimidated subordinates.

Ivor died in 1996 in harness in his studio at Shimpling in Norfolk, as he would doubtless have wished, working on a 3m high bronze group Policeman Mourning a Dead Colleague for the planned National Police Memorial on Horse Guards in London and on a new statue of Winston Churchill for Prague’s Third District.

Main image: Ivor Roberts-Jones, Detail, Sir Winston Churchill, bronze, 1971-73, Parliament Square, London (photo: Dr. Jonathan Black)

Aurora Corio