08 May 2024

The 1970s murals in
Tamworth Library are
rare surviving works
by a forgotten sculptor

Fritz Steller’s ‘Communication and Documentation’ at the entrance to Tamworth Library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The German-born sculptor Fritz Steller (1941-2015) produced some of the most dramatic and innovative post-war architectural ceramics in post-war Britain in 1969-1975. including 10 massive stoneware panels for Queensgate Markert in Huddersfield (1970-1972).

The ceramics historian and conservation campaigner Christopher Marsden says Steller’s work was innovative but was unappreciated for 30 years and much of it has been lost or is threatened. His surviving few sculptures include his mural at the entrance to Tamworth Library, ‘Communication and Documentation.’ It was completed over half a century ago, in 1973, when the new library was designed by the architects John Tetlow and Partners of Tamworth and Lichfield.

Fritz Steller was a German-born refugee architect who was working from Stratford-upon-Avon when he designed the sculpture in Tamworth Library. He was born in Dresden in 1941, and while was still in his childhood, his family moved from East Germany to West Germany. He arrived in England as a student in 1959, and he studied sculpture and architecture at Birmingham College of Art in 1959-1964, specialising in sculpture.

Steller was the head of art at Sebright School, Wolverley, near Kidderminster, Worcestershire, until 1969, when he established and led the Square One Design Workshop and Transform Ceramic Company in Snitterfield, near Stratford-Upon-Avon.

He moved from the English Midlands in 1977 to South Africa, where he established and led ceramic production in Isithebe-Mandini in KwaZulu-Natal. But he left South Africa in 1980 because of his opposition to the apartheid regime, and moved to Swaziland (now Eswatini), where he and set up and led an art centre and gallery in Ewzulwini Valley near Mbabane.

His art centre and gallery was destroyed in 1992, and he moved to Germany. But he returned to South Africa the following year and in 1993 he set up a new business in Empangeni, KwaZulu-Natal. He continued to live between in South Africa and Germany, working as an internationally recognised artist. He died in 2015.

Tamworth Library was designed by John Tetlow and Partners of Lichfield and Tamworth and was opened by Margaret Thatcher in 1973 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

One of Steller’s most acclaimed works in England was his panels for Queensgate Markert, Huddersfield (1970-1972). Clifford Stephenson, an enthusiast for public art, was then a borough councillor in Huddersfield with a particular interest in modern ceramic sculpture. At the time, Steller was pioneering the production of large-scale ceramic art, and he was interested in the use of a wide variety of materials in sculpture.

This combination led to Steller’s commission to produce designs for the new Market Hall in Huddersfield. The development company Murrayfield had a policy of incorporating public art into their schemes, and Gwyn Roberts, the project manager of J Seymour Harris, the architects for the Huddersfield development, was a friend of Steller.

Steller produced a number of ceramic and other artworks between 1969 to 1975, including his now-lost ‘People of God’ surrounding the altar in Saint John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Cathedral in Portsmouth, with the ‘Crown of Light’ above. He also worked on the now-lost interior of the Trustee Savings Bank in Wigan and other private commissions. However, very little of his work survives.

His outstanding, surviving works include his panels in Queensgate Markert, Huddersfield, and his mural in Tamworth Library on Corporation Street. Christopher Marsden started a study of the Huddersfield ceramics in 2004, and this led to him uncovering works by Steller across the country, including Birmingham, Bromsgrove, Leeds, Luton, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Southend, Tamworth, Wigan and Wokingham.

Fritz Steller’s mural elebrates ‘the art of writing and the development of a phonetic alphabet’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The library in Tamworth was opened and Steller’s tableaux was unveiled on 8 June 1973 by Margaret Thatcher, then the Secretary of State for of Education and Science. The library was designed for Tamworth Borough Council by John Tetlow and Partners of Lichfield and Tamworth, and built by A&R Astbury of Cannock.

Tamworth Borough Council also commissioned Steller to design his mural in the library. It includes 200 cm figures in ciment fondu and free-standing ceramic. Steller intended his pairs of naked figures to outline ‘the art of writing and the development of a phonetic alphabet.’

Steller’s explanatory plaque says: ‘This work outlines the most decisive achievement ever to affect mankind – the art of writing and the development of a phonetic alphabet.

‘One of the first forms of communication was by means of handsigns as indicated by the figures. The tableaux show different types of record keeping and finally the phonetic stages are indicated in the background of the books.’

Christopher Marsden’s research has identified two other works by Steller in the Tamworth, completed shortly after his library sculptures.’ He has published his research as ‘The Architectural Ceramics of Fritz Steller’ in the Journal of the Tiles & Architectural Ceramics Society (Vol 13, 2007, pp 3-14).

When the architects John Tetlow designed the council offices in Tamworth a year later in 1974, Steller was invited to design external and internal door handles and an internal ceramic partition wall, measuring 260 cm X 520 cm X 18 cm. Marsden presumes this has since been lost.

When Tetlow designed the Kerria Centre in Amington, Tamworth, in 1977, Steller was commissioned to design a 1.5 times life-size bronze figure of a nude girl on a concrete anvil. Nearby, a relief, reminiscent of Steller’s Commerce in Huddersfield, was incised into a brickwork wall. It was Steller’s last major work in England before moving to South Africa.

Steller’s bronze figure and anvil were moved to a brick plinth in 1990, according to Marsden. In 2004, the bronze, damaged anvil and plinth were surrounded by a 1.8 metre high steel spiked cage, and the bronze and anvil were coated in black – perhaps as an anti-graffiti measure.

Tamworth Library celebrated its 50th anniversary last year (2023) with a series of special events, a ‘Tamworth Then and Now’ photography exhibition, including photographs from the Tamworth Castle Archives alongside recent photographs of Tamworth by members of the public.

The library has also had a significant refurbishment with new shelving and furniture. However, Steller’s sculpture is partly damaged and partly obscured behind a couple of screens at the entrance to the Library in Tamworth.

While Steller described himself as a sculptor, he denied he was a ceramicist or potter, yet he was responsible for what was described as ‘the largest ceramic sculpture in the world.’

As Marsden points out, only one of Steller’s public art installations, his mural Communication and Documentation in Tamworth Library, has received any academic interpretation, ‘and even then the materials, ceramic and ciment fondu, were incorrectly identified as fibreglass.’

Tamworth Library celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2023 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
39, 8 May 2024

Julian of Norwich depicted in a window in Saint Julian’s Church, Norwich … she is remembered in the Church Calendar on 8 May (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Easter is a 50-day season that continues until the Day of Pentecost (19 May 2024). This week began with the Sixth Sunday of Easter (Easter VI), and tomorrow is Ascension Day (9 May 2024). Easter was celebrated in the Greek Orthodox Church on Sunday (5 May), and today is known in the Orthodox Church as ‘Bright Wednesday.’

Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today remembers Julian of Norwich (ca 1417), spiritual writer. Later today, I hope to take part in a meeting of local clergy in Saint Frideswide’s Church, Water Eaton. Later this evening, I have a meeting of a working group of Stony Stratford Town Council, which may mean I late for a choir rehearsal at Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church. But, before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The Church of Saint Julian in Norwich, where Julian of Norwich lived as an anchorite (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

John 16: 12-15 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’

Inside the south chapel or shrine of Julian of Norwich (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Wednesday 8 May 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with some Reflections.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (8 May 2024) invites us to pray:

We pray for Thy Kingdom Come – thanking you Lord for its reach across the world and for all who will be taking part in it this year.

The Collect:

Most holy God, the ground of our beseeching,
who through your servant Julian
revealed the wonders of your love:
grant that as we are created in your nature
and restored by your grace,
our wills may be so made one with yours
that we may come to see you face to face
and gaze on you for ever;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of truth,
whose Wisdom set her table
and invited us to eat the bread and drink the wine
of the kingdom:
help us to lay aside all foolishness
and to live and walk in the way of insight,
that we may come with Julian to the eternal feast of heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect on the Eve of Ascension Day:

Risen Christ,
Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that as we believe your only–begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ
to have ascended into the heavens,
so we in heart and mind may also ascend
and with him continually dwell;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘Wisdom set her table and invited us to eat the bread and drink the wine of the kingdom’ (Post Communion Prayer) … bread and wine on the table at the Sunset Taverna in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org