19 July 2023

‘The Formation of Poetry’
is Peter Walker’s tribute
to Samuel Johnson in
the City of Sculpture

‘The Formation of Poetry’ is Peter Walker’s tribute to Samuel Johnson in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The sculptor and artist Peter Walker’s work can be seen in towns, cities and cathedrals throughout England and around the world. His art includes large-scale sculpture, commissioned and bespoke sculptural works, as well as paintings, drawings, film, sound and light installations.

He has had a major impact in recent decades on Lichfield and Lichfield Cathedral, and is singularly responsible for transforming Lichfield into the City of Sculpture.

Each time I go back to Lichfield, I take the opportunity to appreciate another aspect of his sculpture and work.

Earlier this month, I spent time with ‘The Formation of Poetry’ (2010), his sculpture at Greenhill Mews in Lichfield, at the entrance to the Tesco car park. This work was unveiled in 2010. My only excuse for not seeing this work is I don’t drive and I only found myself in the Tesco car park as I was walking from Saint Michael’s Churchyard on Greenhill to Stowe Pool.

‘The Formation of Poetry’ was created by Peter Walker to celebrate the tercentenary of the birth of Dr Samuel Johnson, who was born in Lichfield on 18 September 1709. It is a 3 metre long bronze artwork, designed as a tribute to Samuel Johnson who compiled the first English dictionary.

The sculpture was designed with the help of students of the Friary School, who worked with the artist through a design project in 2008 to develop their own ideas on art on the city’s streets.

This was Lichfield’s first new public sculpture for over 50 years and it was unveiled on 18 September 2010 by the Mayor of Lichfield, Christopher Spruce, and Peter Barrett, chair of the Samuel Johnson Society. The sculpture was made at Chasewater Innovation Centre and was funded by Tesco as part of a major investment in local arts.

The project related to four famous figures in the cultural life of Lichfield – Samuel Johnson, Erasmus Darwin, Anna Seward and David Garrick – and involved 104 workshops in all.

The sculpture was inspired by the way Samuel Johnson used poetry in his dictionary to establish the true nature of the English language. This bronze sculpture, with its clever engineering and unique design, allows the artwork to appear fragile and gentle, as though the pages fold, curve and curl up in the breeze. And yet it stands firm and solid to last the test of time, just as words might in a piece of poetry.

The sculpture imagines pages of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language being blown about in the breeze, each with a poignant word and its poetic definition, depicting creativity both through abstraction and through text.

The words chosen and the writers quoted include: Art (Pope), Beauty (Byron), Cloud (Wordsworth), Dictionary (Johnson), Distant (Tennyson), Forever (Brooke), Fruit (Milton), Heart (Dryden), Modern (Wilde), Moon (Housman), Mortal (Coleridge), Poppies (McCrae), Power (Seward), Rose (Shakespeare), Secret (Brontë), Sleep (Shelley), Time (Erasmus Darwin), Tread (Yeats), and Walk (Blake).

Peter Walker’s exhibition ‘A City as Sculpture’ was at Lichfield Cathedral in 2015 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Peter Walker has undertaken, developed and commissioned artistic projects in Lichfield since 2006, the majority in the public sphere, and many were completed in collaboration with Lichfield Cathedral since 2015.

He made Lichfield City an artwork in its own right in 2014, turning the streets into an art gallery and establishing Lichfield as ‘The City of Sculpture’. This involved creating and developing a City Sculpture Trail, 52 weeks of art working with schools and community groups, creating three modern bronze statues, and creating and establishing sustainability for the arts in the area.

The exhibition ‘A City as Sculpture’ was at Lichfield Cathedral from August to October 2015. It featured eight artworks by Peter Walker in the Cathedral Close, and over 50 other artworks inside the cathedral.

‘E Conchis Omnia’ … Peter Walker’s statue of Erasmus Darwin (2012) in the Beacon Park Museum Gardens, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘E Conchis Omnia’, his statue of Erasmus Darwin in the Beacon Park Museum Gardens, Lichfield, was unveiled on 12 December 2012.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), who is seen perched on the edge of his seat, was a founding member of the Lunar society, a physician, philosopher, poet and inventor and the grandfather of Charles Darwin. The 7 ft Bronze shows Erasmus holding a shell in his left hand in recognition of his theoretical discovery – E Conchis Omnia, ‘Everything from shells’ – and under his right arm he grasps his Commonplace book, full of inventions, scientific knowledge and ideas. This marked the beginning of the theory of evolution which he was developed by his grandson Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s pose in this sculpture is similar to the pose of Michelangelo’s Moses, who similarly holds under his right arm and the tablets of the Ten Commandments as proof of belief. However, in Lichfield, Darwin holds new evidence of ideas and thoughts and change.

Walker depicts Darwin with his flaws and his large personality. The ripples of his jacket seem like waves upon the ocean, and the vines around his legs acknowledge Darwin’s poetic works and links to nature. ‘It is as though he is part of nature as well as showing humanities independence and desire to move forward,’ Peter Walker explains.

Through Darwin and the members of the Lunar Society, Britain’s Renaissance gave way to industrialisation. The plinth reflects this and is an acknowledgement of industry.

Yarn Front, an installation at the ‘Consequence of War’ exhibition by Lichfield Cathedral’s artist in residence Peter Walker (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘The Pity of War’ is an artwork created to give recognition and invoke contemplation over the many lives lost due to war. It has been seen by thousands at locations such as the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth and the cathedrals in Chester, Salisbury, Coventry, Oxford, Lichfield, and St Albans.

The Peace Woodland is a living artwork created by Peter Walker in Lichfield in 2018. To commemorate 100 years since the Armistice in 1918, he created the Peace Woodland, planting 1918 trees as a symbol of hope and peace for future generations. The living artwork is the only Peace Woodland outside Jerusalem. He worked closely with Lichfield District Council Historic Parks Team and Lichfield Cathedral to source 1,918 trees around Lichfield and District that would otherwise have been culled.

Lichfield Cathedral hosted ‘The Great Exhibition 2018: Imagine Peace’ in August 2018. During the large-scale event, Peter Walker created a labyrinth as an installation at the west front of Lichfield Cathedral. It was made up of the 1,918 trees in pots. Over 11 nights, the trees were lit and accompanied by a sound piece composed by David Harper as part of the Luxmuralis artistic collaboration producing the exhibition.

The trees were then planted in Beacon Park with many volunteers and community groups helping to plant the trees in a Labyrinth style shape. The central circle included a single Cedar tree representing the cross of the Crucifixion cross and as a symbol of peace and hope for new life.

On Easter Day 2019, Lichfield Cathedral invited people to walk from Lichfield Cathedral to the Peace Woodland for a blessing by Bishop Michael Ipgrave and Dean Adrian Dorber, and the Peace Woodland was opened officially on 4 June 2019. The Peace Woodland was later recreated in 2020 in Limburg, Lichfield’s twin city in Germany.

The Peace Woodland features in the City Sculpture trail as a permanent living artwork. It will grow and be a symbol of Hope and a place for Peace for future generations.

‘One Small Step’ marked the 50th anniversary of the Lunar Landing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘One Small Step’ (2019), representing the moon surface with real NASA imagery, marked the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing in 1969. Visitors in the cathedral naves in Lichfield and Peterborough were invited walk on the moon and take their own one small step in the footsteps of Armstrong and Aldrin.

He created ‘Light of Hope’ in 2020 as an installation at seven cathedrals and a church, with simultaneous beams of light cast into the sky at Carlisle, Exeter, Salisbury, Ely, Lichfield, Liverpool and Wellington as a sign of Hope for All Saints-tide during the pandemic.

The Hope Garden is a living artwork and a gift to the city of Lichfield, created at the same time as the Saint Chad statue for Lichfield Cathedral. It comprises of 50,000 spring flowers, planted as a gift of hope and delight for all who see it. The flowers bloom every year around Saint Chad’s Day, 2 March.

The Hope Garden was designed to remember all who were victims of the pandemic and how life has been altered by the effects of the virus.

Peter Walker’s statue of Saint Chad at Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

His new statue of Saint Chad was dedicated by Bishop Michael Ipgrave on 26 June 2021. This major new sculpture of Lichfield’s patron saint was commissioned by Lichfield Cathedral. Saint Chad now stands at the south-east corner of the cathedral, facing down Dam Street, with Stowe Pool to his left and Minster Pool to his right, his hand raised in blessing and welcoming all who visit Lichfield.

‘The Laboratory’ (2021) was a free and contemporary installation artwork in Lichfield Cathedral by Peter Walker, with sound compositions by David Harper. It offered an opportunity to explore the fascinating world around us through the eyes of a scientist.

After almost seven years working in collaboration with Lichfield Cathedral, his time as Artist in Residence and Artistic Director at the Cathedral came to a completion at the end of 2021. The last performance of the Luxmuralis ‘The Cathedral Illuminated, 2021, The Manger,’ was the last night of his work at Lichfield Cathedral.

‘The Laboratory’ was an installation by Peter Walker in the South Transept of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Roll on, ye Stars!
Exult in youthful prime,
Mark with bright curves
The printless steps of time
Erasmus Darwin


Dictionaries are like watches.
The worst is better than none
And the best cannot be expected to go quite true
Samuel Johnson


But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams
WB Yeats


Love and the muse can boast superior power
Indelible the letters they shall frame
Anna Seward


The human heart has hidden treasures,
In secret kept, in silence sealed
Charlotte Brontë

‘Dictionaries are like watches. The worst is better than none and the best cannot be expected to go quite true’ – Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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