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Public Statues and Sculpture Association

Michael Black (1928–2019)

An Oxford-based sculptor, who worked as a portraitist and as a restorer of Oxford’s ancient monuments. The son of a vicar, he was born in Portsmouth, grew up in Dorset and, following National Service, moved to Oxford where he studied at St Catherine’s College. In the mid-1950s, while still a student, he began training as a carver with Edgar Silver Frith, assisting him on the restoration of the carvings on several university buildings. In 1969, Black was commissioned by the University’s Hebdomadal Council to replace the 13 decayed herm busts – the so-called Sheldonian Emperors – on the piers of the boundary wall of Sir Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre. The decayed busts were themselves replacements, of 1867–68 by Edwin Gardiner, of the original set of 1666–69 by William Byrd. Black sought out Byrd’s surviving originals, using these and an engraving of the building by David Loggan, published in Oxonia Illustrata (1675), as references for his own versions in Clipsham stone (completed 1972). Also for Oxford, Black carved a replacement pelican for the sundial of Corpus Christi College and replacement angels for the south porch of St Mary the Virgin. Work for the City of London followed. In 1976 his monument to Baron Paul Julius Reuter was inaugurated in Royal Exchange Buildings, and in 1984–85 he carved the niche figures of Crutched Friars for the Commercial Union Insurance Office. The National Portrait Gallery, London, has two of his works, a plaster cast of his death-mask of the academic, Sir Maurice Bowra (1971), and a bronze bust of Sir Sacheverell Sitwell (1985); the Parliamentary Art Collection has his bust of Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

Bibliography: ‘Sheldonian Busts’, Architectural Review, November 1970, pp. 280–81; S. Bradley et al, Oxfordshire: Oxford and the South-East (The Buildings of England), New Haven and London, 2023, pp. 142, 339, 386, 510; J. Blackwood, London’s Immortals, London, 1989, pp. 358–59; L. Purves, ‘A life devoted to art and skill is well lived’, The Times, 18 February 2019, p. 27; ‘Heritage Heads’, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford; P. Ward-Jackson, Public Sculpture of the City of London, Liverpool, 2003, pp. 93–94, 341–42.

Philip Ward-Jackson, 2003; revised, Terry Cavanagh, July 2024