Though Charles Wheeler is well known as a sculptor of stylised – and stylish – human and animal figures, he also produced and exhibited striking landscapes and portraits in oil and watercolour. Charles Wheeler was born in Church Lane, Codshall, Staffordshire on 14 March 1892, the second son of a freelance journalist. Educated in Wolverhampton, he began to study at Wolverhampton School of Art in 1908, and was inspired in his enthusiasm for sculpture by his teacher, Robert Emerson. In 1912, he won a national exhibition to the Royal College of Art, London, becoming one of the last students of Edward Lantéri. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1914.
Deemed unfit to fight in the First World War, Wheeler served on the home front, producing prostheses for amputees. Winning prizes for medal designs in 1917 and 1918, he used the proceeds to buy a studio at 2 Justice Walk, Chelsea.
Then, in 1918, he married Muriel Bourne, a painter and sculptor he had met at Wolverhampton School of Art. Together they would have three children.
At the end of the First World War, Wheeler began a long collaboration with the architect, Herbert Baker, providing sculptures for his buildings, and usually carving them in situ. Notable among these projects was his sculptural ensemble for the Bank of England (1928-37), which ensured his reputation and made him financially secure, allowing him to buy a house at 21 Tregunter Road, Chelsea.
Honours came quickly, as Wheeler was elected an associate (1926) and then a fellow (1935) of the Royal Society of British Sculptors (RBS). His election as an Associate of the Royal Academy – in 1934 – was opposed by its President, Sir William Llewellyn, on the grounds that his work was too revolutionary. Yet, the fact that he became a full academician only four years later confirmed a turn in the tide of taste.
In the post-war period, Wheeler became central to the artistic establishment as President of both the RBS (1944-49) and the RA (1956-66). As President of the RA, he generally took a progressive stance, and encouraged the inclusion of abstract works in the Summer Exhibitions (though, in 1959, he ordered John Hoyland’s diploma show of abstracts to be removed). At various times, he was also a member of the Royal Society of Water-Colour Painters, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colour Painters and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. He was also a trustee of the Tate Gallery (1942-49) and a member of the Royal Fine Arts Commission (1946-52).
Wheeler was honoured with a CBE (1948) and a knighthood (1958), while the RBS awarded him a Gold Medal for Distinguished Services to Sculpture (1949) and the Royal Institute of British Architects made him an Honorary Fellow.
In later life, Wheeler lived at Weavers, Warwickswold, Merstham, Surrey (1948-68), and then at Woodreed Farmhouse, Five Ashes, Mayfield, Sussex until his death on 22 August 1974. In 1968, he had published his autobiography, High Relief.
His sculpture is represented in numerous public collections, including the Royal Academy of Arts and Tate.