13 July 2023

Public sculpture is
part of the living
townscape in Coventry

Sir Jacob Epstein’s Saint Michael and the Devil on the façade of Coventry cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Coventry’s best-known works of public art are part of Coventry Cathedral. They include Sir Jacob Epstein’s Saint Michael and the Devil on the façade of Basil Spence’s new cathedral, his Ecce Homo in the old cathedral.

Other well-known works in the old cathedral include ‘Reconciliation’ by Josefina de Vasconcellos, the ‘Statue of Christ’ by Alain John and the ‘Choir of Survivors’ by Helmut Heinze.

But Coventry has over 50 pieces of public art, including painted murals, statues, wall art such as the Gordon Cullen mural I was discussing earlier this week, and sculptures.

‘Self Sacrifice’ or ‘Lady Godiva’ by Sir William Reid Dick on Broadgate, Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Outside the cathedrals and churches, one of the best-known statues in Coventry is ‘Self Sacrifice’ or ‘Lady Godiva’ by Sir William Reid Dick.

Lady Godiva and her horse stand on Broadgate, facing the Precinct, and the work was unveiled in 1949. Lady Godiva was known as a generous benefactor to abbeys and churches. With her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia, she paid for churches and religious houses in Leominster, Much Wenlock, Worcester, Evesham, Burton-on-Trent, Hereford, Stowe and Chester.

Although Leofric was regarded as a wise and religious figure, he was involved in the brutal pillage and destruction of Worcester in 1041 after the town defied a royal tax collector. It is said that Godiva made her famous naked horse ride as a bargain with her husband to free the people of Coventry from the heavy taxes he had forced on them.

Leofric and Godiva founded and endowed a Benedictine monastery at Coventry in 1043 on the site of a nunnery destroyed by the Danes in 1016. She had her jewellery turned into religious images and crosses, and it is said that on her deathbed she left her necklaces to the church.

The story of her naked ride through Coventry was first told in the 12th century, 150 years after her death. Peeping Tom is a later addition to the story, first appearing in the tale in the 17th century.

The statue of Lady Godiva in Broadgate is one of the few statues of horses outside London to be listed (Grade II).

‘Bucephalus’ by Simon Evans depicts the horse of Alexander the Great, but is known affectionately to most people in Coventry as ‘Trigger’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

There is a second public sculpture of a horse in Coventry on Greyfriar’s Green, near Coventry Railway Station.

‘Bucephalus’ takes his name from the horse of Alexander the Great, but is known affectionately to most people in Coventry as ‘Trigger.’ This sculpture of a black painted metal horse sculpture was created by Simon Evans who was a student at the Coventry Art College (now part of Coventry University) in 1985-1986.

Bucephalus a beautiful, legendary black horse who stood taller than normal steeds but was considered too wild and unmanageable, rearing up against anyone who came near him. Alexander the Great was the only one able to ride him.

The sculpture by Simon Evans was made from bits of steel plate, off cuts and scrap pieces. Using their unusual shapes, he welded them together to create a rearing horse that has been compared to the prancing horse in the Ferrari prancing horse. It stands at 4 metres high and 4 metres wide and is painted black.

While Simon Evans was working on the sculpture, his tutor, Dr Tim Threelfall, heard the City Council was organising a competition for students to make a work of art to mark ‘Industry Year 1986.’

‘Bucephalus’ was displayed on a brick plinth on the roundabout on the Ring Road opposite the railway station. Within two years it needed restoration as people had been climbing on it. It was then painted in anti-vandal paint and had a ‘Do Not Climb’ plaque attached.

Coventry’s citizens have always affectionately call the horse ‘Trigger’ after the horse in the Roy Rogers films and television shows. Simon Evans died in 2010. Bucephalus continues to symbolises strength and hope.

Our Lady of Coventry by Sister Concordia Scott in the ruins of Saint Mary’s Priory, Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Our Lady of Coventry was installed in the ruins of Saint Mary’s Priory in 2001. It is the work of Sister Concordia Scott (1924-2014), born Caroline Scott, a Scottish sculptor and Benedictine nun of the Minster Abbey community in Minster-in-Thanet, Kent. Her works include statues in Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral and Coventry Cathedral.

Caroline Scott was born in Glasgow and gained a scholarship to the Edinburgh College of Art at the age of 17. Her studies were interrupted by World War II, when she joined the 93rd Searchlight Regiment, the only regiment in the world entirely staffed by women. At the end of the war, she completed returned to study in Edinburgh and became a commercial artist.

She entered the Benedictine community in Minster Abbey in 1953 and was professed as Sister Concordia in 1955. She continued to sculpt, and her entry in the Manchester Vocations Exhibition in 1959 led to numerous commissions in the 40 years that followed. She was Prioress of the Minster Abbey community in 1984-1999, and died in 2014.

‘Minstrels’ by Michael Disley in Saint Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

‘Minstrels’ by Michael Disley in Saint Mary’s Guildhall looks like a mediaeval work, but is a modern work commissioned as part of a public art project.

This sandstone group is inspired by the mediaeval history of Saint Mary’s Guildhall. It depicts two entwined minstrels, drawn into a trancelike state by their music.

‘The Phoenix’ (1962) by George Wagstaffe is now located at the entry to Hertford Street. It symbolises the post-war rebuilding of the city like the mythical Phoenix rising out of the ashes of a fire.

‘The Phoenix’ was first displayed in the City Centre Precinct in Market Way, between the then British Home Stores and the Woolworth shop. Originally it was going to be a relief sculpture mounted on a building, but this was changed during the planning stage in the early 1960s to a free-standing sculpture.

George Wagstaffe, a local artist, changed the Phoenix from a bird to a young person to symbolise the new city and its people rising from the flames of the bombed and burnt city. It was first made in resin and metal and unveiled in 1962 by Princess Margaret. It was displayed on a brick wall attached to a small information display building that also symbolised the rebuilding of the city.

The statue was removed when the precinct area was being redesigned in 1987. By then, it had started to show damage by weather. A bronze cast was made and it is this new bronze sculpture that stands on a brick plinth see at the bottom of Hertford Street.

‘The Phoenix’ by George Wagstaffe, now located at the entry to Hertford Street, Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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