News and events archive 2004 - 2013


Ken Ford - Doctor of Letters - Leicester-born, internationally acclaimed sculptor

Oration by Dr S J Gurman

Ken Ford is a professional sculptor based at Hallaton in Leicestershire. His primary genre is the landscape and the human figure in that landscape. His usual method of working is to walk the landscape, making quick sketches of whatever catches his eye, deciding afterwards which drawings hold something that may be developed three-dimensionally as sculpture.

Ken Ford was born at Birstall, in Leicestershire, in 1930. He grew up in Newfoundpool, in the inner city of Leicester. As a child he formed a love of the countryside, a love which has never left him, through frequent visits to his grandparents who lived near Stapleford. At the age of eleven he went to Mantle Road School but received a special transfer to Gateway School, the local grammar school, in 1943 in recognition of his exceptional artistic talent: talent that had been recognized by his receipt of the Sir Jonathan North Gold Medal, a local award of which he was, by far, the youngest ever recipient. Gateway School nurtured this talent, allowing him to spend one day a week at the Leicestershire College of Art and Design. In 1947 he moved to the College as a full-time student, a move which was only made possible by the total remission of fees by the College. This was followed by three years, supported by scholarships, at the Royal College of Art in London where he studied sculpture. He graduated ARCA with First Class Honours in 1953. He then returned to Leicester, working on his sculpture and supporting himself by occasional jobs as a gardener and some part-time teaching. In 1955 he won the Rome Scholarship for Sculpture, at the second attempt: only one such Scholarship was awarded each year. This enabled him to spend three years at the British School in Rome. He found Italy, its sculpture and its landscape, a revelation and developed a love for that landscape which continues to this day. On his return to Leicester he again took up part-time and then full-time teaching at the Leicester College of Art and Design. He was its Head of Sculpture from 1967 until 1988. He took early retirement in that year, partly because of his strong disagreements about how art education in the College, by then part of Leicester Polytechnic (now de Montfort University) was being changed. Many of those on the stage behind me will sympathize, particularly when I point out that he spent twelve years as a member of Academic and Faculty Boards! He did, however, continued to teach and act as a research supervisor at other establishments until recently.

Ken Ford has won many commissions for public sculpture, often as a result of success in open competition. One of the earliest was the 1961 commission for a work to symbolize the re-birth of Newcastle-upon-Tyne after wartime devastation. The work, “Symbol of Rebirth”, celebrates evolution and rebirth, itself evolving from the primitive forms at the base up to an embryonic form in a pelvic structure at the summit. Other public sculpture commissions include the Sir Frank Whittle commemoration in Lutterworth and a 1993 work, “Into Our First World”, at Surrey heath House at Camberley. The latter work is very popular, especially in its garden setting, so much so that a recent proposal to move it resulted in much local protest. The protest campaign succeeded and the work may still be seen where Ken Ford, and the local people, want it to be.

Perhaps the most characteristic of Ken Ford’s sculptures are the many works celebrating the Leicestershire and Tuscan landscapes. An example is two sculptures based on a single set of sketches of Hallaton church and its surrounding trees, dating from 1998 and 2000. In the first of these, simply titled “Hallaton”, the church is represented nestling harmoniously between two clumps of trees, with a single tree overtopping the roof of the nave. It is, as Ken Ford said, a fairly uncomplicated expression of his response to this very familiar place. However, the more he looked at the more expressive possibilities he began to see in the forms. The later version, now titled “Hallaton, et in arcadia ego” brought out these new perceptions. In this version the church is remodelled, increasing its scale and gouging out two deep shadowy openings, like eye sockets in a skull, into the elevation of the nave.

Another important group of works which embody many of Ken Ford’s artistic preoccupations is the series of Tuscan landscapes. One of these was exhibited last year in the University’s “Sculpture in the Garden” show. The works fall into two series, the second being drastic re-workings of the first. Their source is a set of drawings made in the Italian countryside. “Tuscan Landscape II” is a good example. Perched precariously at the upper left of the sculpture is a cube form, opened up at the front, suggesting a Tuscan hill town. In the centre of the composition is a shape like a hedge-ringed field, a solitary shrub marking its lowest extremity. The whole is deeply evocative of that sun-baked landscape which Ken Ford has long known and loved. Other work by Ken Ford may be seen in this year’s exhibition, which the Vice-Chancellor has already mentioned.

Ken Ford has travelled a long way during the past seventy years; from Newfoundpool in the inner city of Leicester, via Italy to Hallaton in the Leicestershire countryside he loves and tends; from a talented boy reliant on scholarships to a respected and highly productive sculptor. Today, we honour him for his massive contribution to the artistic life of Leicestershire and of this country.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and of the Council, I present Ken Ford that you may confer on him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters.

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