21 August 2023

Enjoying a variety of
public sculptures in
the gardens and on
the streets in Wolverhampton

Sir Charles Wheeler’s statue of Lady Wulfrun at Saint Peter’s Church, Wolverhampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Lichfield Street and the buildings along it are among the most important parts of central Wolverhampton. During my first and all-too-brief visit to Wolverhampton last week, I went in search of some of the churches and the former synagogue.

I also enjoyed walking Lichfield Street, with its wonderful Victorian architecture, stepped into the Posada to see an exquisite example of a late Victorian pub that has remained largely intact, and enjoyed some of the city’s public architecture.

One of the sculptures I admired in Wolverhampton during my visit was Sir Charles Wheeler’s statue of Lady Wulfrun at the west end of Saint Peter’s Collegiate Church.

The sculptor Sir Charles Thomas Wheeler (1892-1974) was educated in Wolverhampton, his father worked there as a journalist, and the statue was presented by the Express and Star to mark the newspaper’s centenary in 1974 – the year Charles Wheeler died.

Wheeler worked in bronze and stone and was the first sculptor to be elected president of the Royal Academy (1956-1966). He was born in Codsall, Staffordshire, five miles from Wolverhampton, the son of a journalist. He was raised in Wolverhampton, and from 1908 to 1912 he studied under the sculptor Robert Emerson at the Wolverhampton College of Art, now Wolverhampton University.

Wheeler went to the Royal College of Art on a scholarship in 1912, and studied under Édouard Lantéri until 1917. For the rest of World War I, he was classified as unfit for active service and instead modelled artificial limbs for war amputees.

As a sculptor, Wheeler specialised in portraits and architectural sculpture, and he worked closely with the architect Sir Herbert Baker. His major works with Baker include the 20-ft bronze doors at the Bank of England and a programme of sculptures, including the ‘Lothbury Ladies’ and the gilded finial figure of Ariel (1922-1945).

Wheeler exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, was elected a fellow in 1940 and became its president in 1956. While he was president of the Royal Academy, a controversial decision was taken to sell the most valuable painting in the academy’s collection, Leonardo da Vinci’s cartoon of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist. The possibility that the painting might leave Britain caused a public outcry and eventually it was sold to the National Gallery.

Wheeler was a trustee of the Tate Gallery from 1942 to 1949, and a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission in 1946. Wheeler married the sculptor and painter Muriel Bourne and they were parents of a son Robin and a daughter Carol. His autobiography, High Relief, was published in 1968.

Wheeler’s statue of Lady Wulfrun at Saint Peter’s Church was presented to the people and city of Wolverhampton by the Express and Star to mark the newspaper’s centenary in 1974. He died later that year on 22 August 1974, at the age of 82 and was buried in Codsall, where he was born.

Saint Peter’s Gardens, on the north side of Lichfield Street, were part of Saint Peter’s churchyard until the church gave it – and the task of maintaining it – to the town. The graves were cleared, some buildings were levelled and the gardens were created. Over time, the gardens have had many changes and rearrangements, and ‘interpretation panels’ were installed in 2004.

The Horsman Fountain … a Victorian fountain in Saint Peter’s Garden, facing onto Lichfield Street in Wolverhampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Horsman Fountain by Farmer and Brindley is in memory of Philip Horsman and was unveiled in 1896. Philip Horsman was a self-made man who became a successful building contractor. His major buildings in Wolverhampton include the town hall. He also built the art gallery and is named as its founder because it was built on his initiative. Although the council provided the site, Horsman contributed £8,000 towards the cost and his firm built it.

Horsman has been described him as ‘being of a modest and retiring nature … and was considered a quiet, unostentatious man, of a kindly disposition.’ His major philanthropic bequest to Wolverhampton was the Eye Infirmary. He was one of the founders and also contributed £5,000. He rescued the Blind School in Victoria Street, donating £800 and persuading others to give generously too.

The Horsman Fountain has a red granite lower bowl and the rest is in stone. Six dolphins support the central bowl and four putti support the upper bowl.

The inscription on the bowl of the fountain reads: ‘This fountain was erected by public subscription in grateful recognition of the generosity of the late Philip Horsman, JP, who presented the adjoining art gallery and other philanthropic gifts to the town.’

The 1920s War Memorial in Saint Peter’s Gardens, Wolverhampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The War Memorial in the gardens was erected in 1920 and was Grade II listed in 1992. It is made of Portland stone ashlar, displays a crucifix on a base with walls curving forward and ending in piers with raised letters in sunk bands giving the of services.

The Harris Memorial is by Robert Jackson Emerson (1878-1944), a sculptor who taught sculpture and drawing at the Wolverhampton Municipal School of Art from 1910 to 1942. His students included Sir Charles Wheeler.

Douglas Morris Harris, a naval hero in World War I … the sculpture by RJ Emerson in Saint Peter’s Gardens, Wolverhampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Douglas Morris Harris from Penn had worked in a bakery before signing up to the navy during World War I. He is shown life-size, with the cap of HMS Admirable, the ship to which he was first posted.

A plaque records his heroic death and a relief shows him slumped in the ship’s wireless room. Harris was on loan to the Floandi of the Italian navy when it came under heavy fire in the Adriatic. He remained at his post in the wireless room of the Floandi and continued sending messages and making entries in his log, until he was killed by a piece of shrapnel on 15 May 1917.

Although Harris was posthumously decorated by Italy, he does not seem to have received any award from the United Kingdom. However, the people of Wolverhampton did not forget him, and this memorial was paid for by public subscription.

Nevesaurus … a sculpture in Saint Peter’s Gardens, Wolverhampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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