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Nigel Sales RT bust stone (L)

Stone Carver Nigel Sales in his St Leonards studio with the marked up block of Portland stone to be carved into the portrait bust of author Robert Tressell. Photo Clive Gross

146th Birthday tribute to Robert Tressell

A St Leonards based master stone carver with work in Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and The House Of Commons, and the proprietor of seafront retailer, St Leonards Central at Marine Court, have brought together their passion for Robert Tressell and his seminal novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ to launch a project to create a permanent public memorial to the author in the town. Clive Gross writes.

Robert Tressell – real name Robert Noonan – wrote the novel while working as a decorator and sign-writer for local firm, Adams & Jarrett and completed the manuscript while living in London Road, St Leonards in 1910. Now regarded as the first socialist novel written in England, it only appeared first in abridged form in 1914 – three years after his death from tuberculosis in Liverpool in 1911 – and not in its full intended version until 1955. Although two of the houses he lived in are marked with modest plaques and the local Hastings Museum and Art Gallery have a display about his life in St Leonards and Hastings, there is no visible memorial to Robert Tressell other than having student accommodation on Warrior Square named after him.

The Tribute to Tressell project was conceived after an event held in Hastings in 2014 to mark the centenary of the first version of the book being published. Nigel Sales, who will be carving the portrait bust of Tressell that the project is commissioning, commented “Like many people before me I came to Robert Tressell through reading his book, but apart from finding that fascinating I was immediately intrigued to find out more about the author and why he was moved to write it. Through doing my own research on him and then living in the same town as he did when he was writing, I came to think that he really does deserve to be immortalised with a public memorial, and what can be more appropriate than being immortalised in stone?”.

I’ve been selling The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and a range of other work that has sprung up looking into Tressell’s life through my shop – and felt that the author deserved a higher profile within the town, and the idea to commission and create the portrait bust was born. Although I was aware of the novel, I did not read it until after I moved to St Leonards in 2008, and it was a real lightbulb moment for me in having a new insight into the area and the problems it still faces a century later than when Tressell lived here. His themes and observations are as relevant today as they were in Edwardian England, and so I wanted to see a memorial created to a man whose ideas and experiences are very much still alive today.

With the block of deep bed Portland stone that will become the bust now delivered and marked up, the project is about to launch its crowdfunding campaign to complete the commission and then look to tour the piece to other places with a connection with Tressell – such as Liverpool and Dublin, where he was born in 1870 – before finding a permanent public home for it back in St Leonards. In advance of the crowd funding launch, the project has already started posting behind-the-scenes videos about the preparation for the commission, which will carry on throughout the creative process.

One of the problems with the commission is the very limited visual record of Tressell, who is usually pictured wearing a Homburg hat and a suit. Nigel continued “I use a very traditional technique called direct carving, which means I do not use scale models or any kind of preparatory carving but work directly onto the final stone. I really want people to engage with and be able to follow the creative process and so we will be filming each stage of the work from block to completion. I have chosen to use the best known portrait photograph of him wearing his hat as the basis for the bust – and I am already being asked how I am going to carve that – well, now you will be able to see!”

The crowdfunding campaign launches on on Monday 25 April. More information about the project, links to the videos and to the funding campaign can be found on the website, Tribute To Tressell, from where you can also follow it on Facebook and Twitter. Nigel and I are both planning to attend the forthcoming Robert Tressell Festival in Liverpool on 28 April to talk about the project.

Funding for the project is being raised through leading UK based crowdfunding platform The project is aiming to raise a total of £12000.00 to complete the commission. Funds raised are being managed by St Leonards based community development social enterprise, Forward St Leonards Limited.

Posted 17:49 Monday, Apr 18, 2016 In: Arts News


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  1. Marcus Weeks

    “there is no visible memorial to Robert Tressell other than having student accommodation on Warrior Square named after him”. Really? What about Robert Tressell Close, and the Tressell council ward, to name just two?

    Comment by Marcus Weeks — Wednesday, Apr 20, 2016 @ 17:42

  2. ESHT

    You’ve forgotten to mention that Tressell Ward at Conquest Hospital is named after Robert.

    Comment by ESHT — Wednesday, Apr 20, 2016 @ 17:07

  3. Michael Madden

    I am also a local sculptor who worked on London buildings for many years: a new animal head on the facade of the Natural History Museum, new lifesize figures and lions on the London Coliseum and a lifesize limewood transposition of Raphael’s Bridgewater Madonna in John Latsis’ private chapel (among others).

    I would love to make a new memorial to Robert Tressell, but surely it would be better to have an open competition and let the best sculptor win, but first the idea needs to get real life funding and be a real project. How is anyone to get crowd funding for a sculpture that might never find a site?

    I cannot find anything out about Nigel Sales on the Web, but I doubt his You Tube claim that he was apprenticed to Eric Gill, because Gill died in 1940. Since Nigel is unlikely to have started before the age of 15, he would have to be over 90, and he sure looks young if he is!?

    Comment by Michael Madden — Tuesday, Apr 19, 2016 @ 17:02

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