This week we continue our look at the artists who resided in High Wycombe for at least part of their career, and consider Alfred James Oakley.

Alfred became an internationally renowned sculptor in the first half of the 20th century. His is a real rags to riches story. He was born in High Wycombe on March 13th 1878, the eldest son of James and Emily Oakley.

At the time of his birth they were living with the parents of James at No. 62 Bridge Street, which is now located opposite the bus station. James’s father Alfred was a tailor, and James himself was a chairmaker. He and Emily went on to have six children, three sons and three daughters.

By 1891 the family had moved to Railway Road near the railway station and Alfred James was working as an errand boy, with his elder sister Louisa being a milliner. Alfred then took up an apprenticeship to a chair-maker, but his real love was sculpting.

His mother Emily died in 1896, and by 1901 Alfred had left High Wycombe to move to Wolverhampton, where he was now working as a ‘Sculptor in Marble’. With him was another sculptor Walter E Robertson, and the two were lodging with widow Hannah Gillett and her adult children at No.157 St Marks Road.

In 1903 Alfred decided to move to London in order to study for his City and Guilds at the Lambeth School of Art. This was until 1908. He was then awarded the School’s Modelling Scholarship of £50 for the years 1909-10. By 1911 Alfred had returned to live in High Wycombe with his father James, who in 1905 had re-married, to Marion Sharpley.

In May 1914 Alfred exhibited a bust entitled “Lama” at the Royal Academy exhibition of that year, which was said to be a “much closer to a sculpturesque ideal “ than some of the other exhibits. Shortly after that Alfred’s career was interrupted, like so many other men, by the first world war.

At the time he was working on a commission for an exhibition at Burlington House, but “his loyalty and patriotism led him to at once join the Colours”. He enlisted at Chelsea on September 1st 1914 for an initial term of 4 years. At this time he gave his next of kin as his father, who lived at Rosalyn Villa, Upper Hughenden Road, High Wycombe.

It would seem that in his success as a sculptor Alfred had not forgotten his parents, setting them up in this more affluent part of the town. During the Great War Alfred served in the 5th (London) Field Ambulance Brigade in the Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Force.

After three months training he was sent to the Western Front, leaving Southampton on SS Viper on April 1st 1915 bound for Le Havre. He was promoted to Lance Corporal in April 1916. Sometime after that Alfred was moved to the Special Works Park of the Royal Engineers, presumably to be engaged in work which would make use of his creative abilities. It has been said that this was to work on camouflage.

He was not officially transferred to the Special Works Park until May 25th 1917, when he was given the rank of Sapper. From December 1916 Alfred suffered from frequent bouts of a debilitating illness, which included anaemia, and spent periods in hospital. He was discharged from the British Army on February 24th 1919.

In his discharge papers it was recorded that he was not suffering from any disability arising from his military service, and Alfred signed this statement. He gave his permanent address on discharge as 174 Hammersmith Road, Hammersmith Back in civilian life Alfred carved the memorial tablet to his Field Ambulance unit which is situated in St Alfrege’s church in Greenwich.

Around 1922 he established a studio in Hampstead, 5 Mall Studios in Tasker Road. He began then to really establish his reputation, working on commissions for London County Hall and various architects and private clients.

In May 1926 his exhibit in the Burlington House exhibition of the Royal Academy was “Mamua”, an ‘accomplished, sensitive bit of carving’ of a head, with one press report stating that it was in pear-wood and another in cedar-wood!

This was then purchased under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest and donated to the Tate Gallery. The Chantrey Bequest had been established in 1875 following the death of Sir F L Chantrey, who in his will left a large donation to the Royal Academy to purchase works of art and so build up a national collection.

It was a great honour for an artist to have an item of his work purchased under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest - as noted by one contemporary critic it was ‘a magic pronouncement, for to be bought for the nation means more than an incidental honour; it means that all future work that artist does will be anxiously looked for, given due regard when it appears, and that there will be meted towards even its shortcomings generous judgement.’

Alfred’s entry to the Royal Academy in May 1930 was another carving of a head, this time called “Marie” and in lime-wood. The following month his work “Country Life” was shown at the RSA exhibition at Sculpture Hall. It was described as “an excellent wood-carving in which all the attributes of Chanteclere are rhythmically and ideally expressed”.

During the second world war Alfred’s studio was bombed ending his artistic work for the time being. He did war work with Daimlers, but was then invalided out in 1941. He then visited the Benedictine Order at Prinkash Abbey in the Vale of Gloucester and was so taken with the life of the monastic community that he decided to join them.

He was known as ‘Jim’ and lived with the Order for the remaining 18 years of his life. He retained his connection with the Royal Society of British Sculptors until 1952 and undertook a number of commissioned works for the Benedictine community.

Towards the end of his life his health deteriorated seriously and he was cared for by the Sisters of Nazareth in Newbury. He died in the District Hospital in Newbury on April 28th 1959.

Over the course of his career Alfred worked with many different types of material - wood, bronze, stone and marble. His work was shown in London, Paris, Brussels, Venice and Buenos Aires. In total he exhibited 30 works of art at the Royal Academy over a 40 year period.

His commissions also included a decorative panel and group for the Queen Mary liner. A number of his works are held by Wycombe Museum, most of which were originally shown in major exhibitions.