Michael Ernest Sadler (1861-1943)
University Vice-Chancellor, Educationist, Art Collector

Michael Ernest Sadler (1861-1943)In 1911 Michael Sadler was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds following the sudden death of its first VC, Nathan Bodington. An expert in the field of education and a man of exceptional talent and charm, he brought the further gift of his passion for modern art. Over the next twelve years, against the dark backdrop of the First World War and its aftermath, he took the university forward and created a vision for its future, while playing a dynamic role in the city’s cultural and artistic life.

He was 50 when he came to Leeds, returning to his Yorkshire roots. Born in Barnsley, the son of a doctor from a radical family background, he had been educated at Winchester and Rugby then Oxford, where he gained a double first. For the next ten years he ran Oxford’s Extension (adult education) programme, before being invited to join the Board of Education to take charge of policy research, reporting on education systems abroad and at home. Major national reforms were under discussion – then as now controversial and political. Bitter conflicts of belief and personality led to his unhappy resignation in 1903. A new professorship in Education at Manchester was created for him, part-time so permitting research, lectures, travel.

He came to Leeds full of energy and ideas, bringing fresh impetus to the University, still small and financially squeezed. Some departments were in makeshift buildings; the main approach from Woodhouse Lane was squalid; the library starved; social and sports facilities lacking. He had a concept for the future, for a handsome and dignified setting for what would become a great civic university. But the overriding need was for secure funding, more posts and better-paid staff; a wider curriculum, research facilities – he worked tirelessly for these ends. Much of what he planned was limited or frustrated by the years of war and the depression that followed, but he set the standard for the future.

He believed the university should play its part in the city – no ivory tower! This got him in hot water when he responded to the Council’s request for help in the 1913 general strike – the TUC was enraged. But other connections were made, significantly through his passion for art. In 1912 he helped to found the Leeds Art Collections Fund. (The Fund continues today and has contributed many outstanding objects of art to the city’s collections.) He joined the avant-garde Leeds Arts Club and with his friend Frank Rutter, newly appointed curator of the Art Gallery, sponsored ground-breaking exhibitions of modernist works, many of them lent from his own collection – Post-Impressionists in 1913, Cubists and Futurists in 1914. Local people were introduced to new artists like Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Kandinsky - exciting, shocking, challenging. Local councillors and the press were perplexed!

His superb collection was housed in his home at 41 Headingley Lane, a Victorian mansion (Buckingham House) – huge and impractical, freezing in winter, but with wall-space for his pictures. His wife Mary struggled with it, and by 1912 his expensive collecting mania had run him into debt, much to her distress. Some pictures had to be sold, and from then on he restricted himself to more selective collecting and generous support for young and talented artists like Jacob Kramer, John and Paul Nash and many others who owed their living to him.

Two of his artistic projects hit the headlines. In 1917 he commissioned the sculptor Eric Gill to create a war memorial for the university: a huge carved stone panel depicting Christ driving the moneychangers from the temple. When it was finally unveiled in 1923 it created a furore and was later moved to less publicly visible site. Another abortive project was his proposal in1920, with the Council’s approval, to commission a group of young modernist artists to design mural panels for Leeds Town Hall. Coordination of the artists and their payment caused endless problems and the scheme finally fell apart, the designs rejected by Sadler as ‘discordant’. Would it ever have worked?

In 1917 Sadler was asked to lead an important government commission to India on Calcutta University. It meant a difficult absence of some 18 months, but the resulting report was a significant landmark in Indian education. This work was rewarded with a knighthood. He resumed his duties in Leeds as energetically as ever, but in 1923 he accepted the offer to return to Oxford as Master of University College, where he remained until his death in 1943, still contributing to national educational policy – and supporting his beloved artists.

In Leeds his departure was deeply mourned – there was a strong sense that he had changed the whole spirit of the university and the city. In Eric Gill’s words ‘In Leeds he seems practically to be a god’.

Eveleigh Bradford
July 2018