When the Johannesburg City Council’s management commit- tee decided to commission a commemorative statue as part of the city’s cen- tennial celebrations, they did not have a specific idea in mind as to what the statue should represent. Their only solid specification was that it had to be a substantial monument, along the lines of New York City’s Statue of Liberty, which would be easily visible to motorists on the highway.
Thus, Tienie Pritchard, the pre-eminent South African bronze sculptor who was commissioned to undertake the project in 1985, was given free rein to produce a piece of his own design.
Interestingly, the enormous statue of George Harrison that now looms large over motorists entering and leaving the city’s eastern limits along Albertina Sisulu road was not Pritchard’s first design but was the product of a back-to-the drawing-board scenario. In fact, his first design was radically different in concept and form.
When Pritchard was awarded the commission, he believed that the most appropriate commemorative piece should, in some way, pay homage to the gold mining industry, which had been Johannesburg’s lifeblood for the previous century. The best way to do so would be to portray the men who had ceaselessly toiled to win the minute traces of gold from the extensive conglomerate reefs.
Thus, his first model depicted two mineworkers, one white and one black, each hold- ing a jackhammer. What is most interest- ing is that each jackhammer was connected by an air hose, which, according to Pritchard, was meant to symbolise the cooperation and connectedness of the different races in both the history of the city and the development of the mining industry. Such an inherent message was quite astounding, given the political climate of the late 1980s, and it is not entirely surprising that the management committee rejected the maquette on the grounds that the subject matter was not suitable enough for a centenary project.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, this model would have been a far more appropriate commemorative piece, given South Africa’s transition to a nonracial democratic dispensation and the reconciliation efforts made just a few years after the statue’s unveiling.
Although this model was rejected, the committee was impressed by the style and quality of the work and gave Pritchard an opportunity to submit another design. This time, they stipulated that the statue had to depict George Harrison, who, according to their own research, first discovered gold on the farm Langlaagte.
Given that the historical information detail- ing the life of Harrison is sketchy, at best, and no photos of the man exist, Pritchard was forced to do an imaginary representation based on pictorial research of late-nineteenth-century gold miners. As the statue aimed to celebrate the city’s centennial, Pritchard opted to portray Harrison in the act of discovering the first piece of gold, thereby emphasising the discovery theme of the celebration.
The committee liked and approved this new maquette, specifying that the statue should be four times life size to realise its ambition of creating Joburg’s answer to the Statue of Liberty.
Creating a statue that is 9 m tall, however, was no small feat, especially consi- dering the sculptor’s fear of heights! Such was the large scale of the project that Pritchard was forced to build an entirely new studio to accommodate the commission. The new studio, which he still uses to this day, was equipped with an overhead crane and a hydraulic turntable that could be lowered beneath floor level to enable him to the top limits. He also had to install a hydraulic lift consisting of an adjustable arm that could move both vertically and horizontally.
After having completed a life-size working model, Pritchard began work on the full- scale statue in mid-1986. Given the sheer scale of the project, he had to work in sec- tions, starting with the legs, and slowly working his way upwards. The legs were cast entirely in plaster of Paris, while the torso, arms and head were modelled in clay first before being cast in plaster of Paris.
According to Pritchard, the challenge was not so much the conceiving of the com- position, but the engineering challenge to sculpt a piece of such monumental proportions. (While it is difficult to judge the size in the open air, such is its enormity that a person of average height will only reach the knee of the sculpture.)
The plaster of Paris model was completed in June 1987, at which point it was sent to the Hendrik Joubert Foundry to be cast in bronze. Interestingly, according to Hendrik Joubert, the torso was the biggest bronze ever cast in one piece in a South Africa foundry.
Once cast, the statue, weighing a hefty 7 t, was transported on a low-bed truck from the foundry to the site chosen at Settlers Park, Eastgate. Preparing for the journey, Pritchard personally measured the height of all but one of the flyovers along the way. As Murphy’s Law would have it, the last bridge proved too low to clear and so the top part of the pick that is held by the left arm had to be sawn off. However, once at the site, the pick was welded into place and the joint repatinated.
It was on the May 4, 1988, some three years after having been commissioned, that the reassembled statue was lifted onto its 4 m podium by means of two cranes and finally completed.