From September 2008 those returning from receiving the sacrament or leaving the church by the West door can now see high above the West wall one of the most generous gifts ever given to St. Wilfrid's church - the bronze statue of Christ Ascendant by Uli Nimptsch which was dedicated in 1964.
This is an important work by one of Britain's most famous sculptors which was originally installed above the altar on the East wall and, controversially moved to a much less conspicuous position in the South Transept in 1977 to allow the reredos (screen behind the altar) complete with canopy from St. John's church to be fitted at the altar position.
The fascinating story about the seven and a half year battle by the donor to get a design accepted and installed, details about the donor and the two relocations may be found by clicking here.
This page is about the sculptor who, after two rejected designs by the Diocesan Advisory Committee was recommended and accepted at a faculty petition in 1963 following the recommendation by Professor Monnington of the Royal Academy after consultation with his colleagues there.
A most valuable source for biographical details has been the article written by A.D. Fraser Jenkins for the Dictionary of National Biography and published in 1986, from which much of the following information has been obtained.
Uli Nimptsch was born in Berlin on 22nd May 1897, the younger son and second of four children of Siegfried Nimptsch, a broker on the Berlin stock exchange, who was a descendant of the distinguished German poet Nikolaus Nimptsch von Lenau. Uli studied sculpture at the Berlin Academy and was awarded a Rome prize in 1928. He was based in Rome throughout the 1930s, although he visited Paris and returned to Germany in 1936-7.
He lived in Bavaria but left Germany for the sake of his Jewish wife Ruth. He went to Paris and Rome before settling in London in 1939, where he arrived with no knowledge of English, and he took British nationality after the War.
In Italy he had worked privately and there seems to be no record of public exhibitions there, but he is reported to have said that he studied his ‘masters the Greeks and Romans’. He was always a modeller rather than a carver and several of his works survive from this period. The life model - usually young - was his preferred subject, and despite working in Rome he preferred a naturalistic style. An acknowledged masterpiece from the 1930s is his 'Marietta' (1936-8), a full-length standing nude with her hands over her head, a cast of which was acquired by the City Art Gallery of Leeds in 1944.
His wartime sculptures created in London were different, being small-scale high reliefs in bronze or lead, of narratives from the Bible or classical mythology. He returned to life studies and was not apparently influenced by British sculpture. He had one-man exhibitions at the Redfern Gallery (1942), Leeds (1944), Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (1957), Stone Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne (1965) and finally at the Diploma Gallery of the Royal Academy (1973). Work was also included in some of the Arts Council's outdoor sculpture exhibitions in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1951 'Girl Sitting on a Stone Plinth' was acquired by the Arts Council's collection and his best-known work, 'Olympia' (1956), a reclining nude lying full length, supported on an arm and a leg, was acquired by the Tate Gallery (Chantrey Bequest) in the year that it was finished.
Portrait busts were commissioned of Paul Oppé (1949, British Museum Print Room), Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1969, British Academy), and Viscount Brendan Bracken (Bracken House). A group ‘The Good Samaritan’ (1961) was commissioned by Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham, and ‘Neighbourly Encounter’, (1961) by the London County Council for Silwood housing estate.
His imposing statue of Lloyd George stands opposite to that of Sir Winston Churchill at the entrance lobby to the House of Commons. It was originally commissioned from Sir Jacob Epstein, but after his death was awarded to Nimptsch.
The fact that the two statues - of Churchill, and Nimptsch's Lloyd George - flank the Churchill Arch leading into the Chamber of the Commons is also noteworthy. It was on 28th March, 1955 that Sir Winston Churchill rose to speak one last time in the House of Commons as Prime Minister to move approval of a statue of the late Member for Caernarvon Boroughs. The statue was completed in 1963 and it seems likely that our Christ Ascendant was Nimptsch's next commission. So here we have it -the sculptor of the nation's memorial to Lloyd George, the next in line for the commission after the death of Epstein, created our Christ Ascendant shortly afterwards.
Nimptsch exhibited at the Royal Academy almost annually from 1957, was elected ARA in 1958, and RA in 1967. He bequeathed ten of his sculptures to the Academy, together with the portrait of himself by Oskar Kokoschka who had been a friend in Britain.
After the war he had persevered with the subject he most admired, in work that is consistent over forty years. His best nude studies ‘possess an admirable sense of the conflict between liveliness and restraint, and few other sculptors in Britain took on this subject with such seriousness or such a sense of decorum’ (Dictionary of National Biography).
In 1925 he married Ruth Berthe (died 1974), the daughter of Max Steinthal of Berlin, a director of Deutsches Bank, and he had one son.
A trawl through the net for other information was not too productive but I was able to ascertain that there is a pastel portrait of Uli Nimptsch in the National Portrait Gallery by Haidee Becker (NPG 6464, 1976 but not currently on display). Also, the Cafe and Restaurant in the Royal Academy opened by Norman Shaw in 1885 and refurbished by Theo Crosby in 1990 'features celebrated murals by Fred Appleyard, Harold Speed, Gilbert Spencer and Leonard Roseman and striking sculptures by Uli Nimptsch and Alfred Turner'. The Tate Gallery website also catalogues 'Olympia' (T00097, 1953-6) and 'Seated Girl' (T00277, 1958).