Pioneering Coventry: the post-war photography of Richard Sadler

Photo Miners, a Community Interest Company, has announced plans for three consecutive exhibitions highlighting the work of Coventry photographer Richard Sadler as part of the City of Culture programme. The exhibitions will be held in the city’s Old Grammar School in Hales Street.

Dr Richard Sadler was the official photographer at Coventry Cathedral, Belgrade Theatre, RSC and Courtaulds for many years. He also undertook arts projects, exhibiting locally, nationally and internationally, finding fame in particular with his portrait of Arthur Fellig, known as WeeGee, the American crime photographer.

Richard exhibited regularly, both locally, nationally and internationally. His website has more details on his many accolades and successes.

In 1968 he joined what is now Derby University as a member of the arts faculty and remained there until his retirement in the 1990s. Richard sadly died in 2020 aged 93.

The exhibitions portray Coventry in the immediate years after the Second World War. In this period, Coventry not only recovered from the horrors of the multiple bombings that devastated the city but also renewed its character through hard work and forgiveness.

Coventry became a city of the future, a welcome home to displaced and migrant people and one that pioneered new ways of living through its architecture and planning and innovative industry.

Richard lived through this period and, in a time of scarce photographic resources, committed to documenting Coventry’s story. Thanks to his work, we have high-quality visual evidence of 1950s Coventry.

The first exhibition presents the people of post-war Coventry: the children, teenagers and young adults that inherited a damaged city and set the common ground to transform Coventry into a city of peace and reconciliation.

You’ll see the Umbrella Club, opened by the Goons in 1955 as well as Foleshill Jazz Club from earlier in the decade. There are photographs of dancing in the streets, as well as people hanging out in the precinct in 1950s Coventry.

There are also some photographs of Coventry at the time, the damage and the recovery, including a series on the famous Godiva Cafe and Broadgate – to illustrate Coventry’s belief then that it is a city of the future, a belief we believe applies today.

Courtaulds was an internationally-renowned man-made fibre manufacturer, producing products used by the military as well as by civilians. It was so strategically important that, as a condition of the USA joining the Second World War, the Courtaulds Company had to give up its manufacturing base and product rights in America.

Courtaulds had facilities across the UK but Coventry was its beating heart – its research centre that developed the products that made its name.

In the second exhibition, we see Sadler’s 1951-54 photography showcasing the scientists, workers and processes that made the company such a huge success.

In particular, how Courtaulds employed more women than men, and in particular Vera Furness, who led the research team which eventually created another world-changing product – carbon fibre.

Coventry remains an innovative city and elements of the Courtaulds Company, and their specialisations, have been inherited and built upon, and the exhibition also features a few examples about specialist companies today.

The new Cathedral appeared in Coventry not just as an extraordinarily high-quality building designed and built to last for a thousand years but as one that was home to new art. In a time when so much of the past was lost, and so the clamour to return to known ways was strong, the committee that oversaw the new cathedral was steadfast in its commitment to new art. Today we know they made the correct decision and are grateful for it.

This third exhibition, held to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral, celebrates the time when the cathedral was new. The exhibitions present unseen images of the Sutherland tapestry being offloaded and moved to the cathedral, of it being hung before the internal space was complete. We see the Ramsey-Hoskins nativity scene, now partially lost, making its first appearance. We also present previously unseen images of early mystery plays performed in the ruins. As with the City of Culture today, we’re seeing in this exhibition an investment in emerging and new artists whose ways of seeing provide fresh but unfamiliar perspectives. Trust in art and you will be rewarded for years to come.

Martin Williams, CovSoc member and Chairman of the Friends of the Cathedral, writes “Richard Sadler was Coventry Cathedral’s first official photographer. In 1961 he was appointed by Provost Williams to record the final stages of construction and the completed Cathedral architecture.

“The Cathedral photos catch moments in Cathedral life that will never be repeated.   They are an exciting record. You will not want to miss them.  

“Sadler’s Cathedral photos show the nave windows reflected in marble floors that shine like mirrors.   At Baginton Airport the pictures catch the arrival of the Tapestry from France and workmen carrying it into the building. High overhead the helicopter is seen delivering the fleche and the Flying Angel.   As you can see in the photo above, Richard Sadler watched the Tapestry face of Christ peering over the dust sheet when it was lowered for the first time after Cathedral building work finished.

“Amongst many individuals his camera captured Basil Spence, Bishop Bardsley, Yehudi Menuhin, David Lepine, Einar Forseth, Susan Hill. The exhibition includes these and many other subjects.”

The timetable for the three exhibitions is as follows:

Pioneering People: Sadler and the City; The people of Coventry in the post war era

Tuesday 8th February 2022 – Friday 11th March 2022

Pioneering Industry: Sadler and Courtaulds: Documenting the Courtaulds Works in Foleshill in 1952 – 54

Tuesday 15th March 2022 – Friday 22nd April 2022

Pioneering Arts: Sadler and the Cathedral                

Sunday 24th April to Tuesday 31st May

All exhibitions are to be held at the Old Grammar School, Hales Street from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. from Tuesdays until Sundays.

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