Details of Sculptor

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Surname Thornycroft Alternative Surname
First Name Thomas Initial of Surname T
Year of Birth/Baptism 1816 Flourished
Year of Death 1885
Biographical Details He was born into a farming family at Great Tidnock Farm, Gawsworth, Cheshire. His father died when he was six leaving his mother Ann with three young sons. Thomas showed no aptitude for farming and spent his spare time carving models of animals, using home-made tools until he and his youngest brother Isaac were sent to Congleton grammar school, leaving the middle son, William, at home to learn how to run the farm. On leaving school, his mother apprenticed him to a Macclesfield surgeon but it was not long before the surgeon complained that young Thomas was not suited to the medical profession as he spent his time using the scalpels to carve pieces of marble. His mother sought the advice of another local surgeon, WB Dickenson, a connoisseur of coins and medals, who recognised the young man's talents. He arranged through Edward Davenport, an influential Whig MP, for Thomas to have an interview with the Duke of Sussex, who after seeing some of his carvings suggested that he should become a pupil in the London studio of his protégé John Francis.
In August 1835 Thornycroft arrived at 56 Albany Street, Regents Park, London where Francis lived with his family and two other pupils, Matthew Noble and Joseph Durham. Before long Francis wrote to a delighted Mrs Thornycroft praising her son’s talents and offering ‘Thorny’, a nickname he was to keep all his life, a four year apprenticeship at a fee of £100 per year.
Thomas exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time in 1836 (58) and in 1837 showed a marble bust of Melancholy (29), which sold for 40 guineas. During the next few years he spent periods at home whilst working on commissions for Cheshire benefactors. He executed two works for WB Dickenson, a bust and a medallion portrait of his recently deceased wife (30, 1). Edward Davenport, who had an interest in phrenology, commissioned a bust of his young son Arthur and was anxious that the bumps on his head should be faithfully recorded (32). Whilst Thomas was away from London, he wrote letters to John Francis’s daughter, Mary Francis, and in 1839 they became engaged. That year Thomas returned to Cheshire to organise an exhibition of some of his and Mary’s works in Macclesfield and he showed a bust of John Ryle of Henbury Hall, Cheshire at the Royal Academy (31).
Thomas and Mary were married on 29 February 1840 at St Pancras church. The following two years were difficult for the couple, as commissions were scarce. Thomas’s statue of Orpheus Abandoned was rejected by the Royal Academy and he was so dismayed that he left the piece ‘on a strange doorstep, rang the bell and rushed away!’ (Manning 1982, 25). A meeting with Thomas Page, who had worked as assistant to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, began a lifelong interest in engineering and, with time on his hands, he produced a steam threshing machine for his brother’s farm.
In November 1842, hoping to gain more experience, Thomas and Mary went to Rome where they met John Gibson and other sculptors in the English colony. They took lodgings in the Via Felice and, as there was no heating, Thomas immediately set to work to build a stove . On 1 February 1843 when Mary gave birth to a son, Thomas acted as midwife, prompting her sister to write saying ‘You are lucky to have a husband who can do everything’. They both began to work and Thomas started on a dark subject, The jealousy of Medea (5). There was soon to be good news. John Gibson had been asked by Prince Albert to provide sculpted portraits of the Royal children and since he had no wish to leave Rome he recommended Mary for the task. In 1844 the couple returned to England and took a house at 39 Stanhope Street.
Mary gradually began to receive more commissions from the Royal family while for a time Thomas found it difficult to get work, which caused friction between them. However, Prince Albert soon began to show an interest in him and in 1847 he was commissioned to produce statues for the new House of Lords of two signatories of the Magna Carta (15, 17). In 1853 Mary gave birth to her seventh child, a daughter, Georgiana, thus completing their family.
Thornycroft always claimed that during discussions with Prince Albert about art, he had encouraged the Prince to admit sculpture to the Great Exhibition. The sculptor was then asked to produce an equestrian statue of Queen Victoria to be displayed there (8). It depicts the Queen, on her favourite horse, in a dashing close-fitting riding habit, wearing a small crown. It was given Royal approval and placed in a prominent position just inside the exhibition’s entrance, prompting Thomas to say that ‘you see the Queen riding out as you enter’. The composition did not receive universal approval and no new commissions followed. After some modifications, including the substitution of a plumed hat for the crown, the work was chosen as the model for a limited edition Art Union bronze statuette. In 1869 the revised statue was cast in bronze and erected in Liverpool as a companion to the Thornycroft memorial statue to the Prince Consort (24). In 1857 Thomas entered a competition to find a design for a memorial to the Duke of Wellington for St Paul’s Cathedral. His design was much admired but the commission finally went to Alfred Stevens.
Although the death of the Prince Consort in 1861 was a blow to the many sculptors he had sponsored and encouraged in his lifetime, it opened the door to a mass of commemorative commissions. Nearly every town wanted a memorial to the Prince and Thomas’s equestrian statue for Liverpool was adapted for Halifax and Wolverhampton (24). The Liverpool statue depicts the Prince wearing civilian dress, but for Wolverhampton the Queen requested that he should be shown in a field marshal’s uniform. The statue was considered ‘one of the most faithful and characteristic likenesses yet produced’, due to the fact that the sculptor had been personally acquainted with the Prince over many years.
Soon after the Prince Consort’s death, it was decided to commission a national memorial to stand on the site of the Great Exhibition. Gilbert Scott’s Gothic design was chosen, comprising a seated statue of the Prince under an ornate canopy, presiding over various sculptural groups. Thomas was selected to execute the group representing Commerce (23) to accompany Agriculture, Manufactures and Engineering, all skills which were ‘furthered and promoted by the International Exhibitions ... which claim the Prince Consort as their great originator’. The Art Journal described Commerce as ‘a group of much elegance, combined with spirited and life-like action’ (AJ 1871, 208).
In 1856 Thornycroft had conceived the idea of a colossal group depicting Boadicea and her Daughters (28) and Prince Albert had encouraged him by lending horses from the Royal mews, visiting the studio frequently to give advice and expressing a wish that the completed work should eventually be erected over the central arch to the entrance to Hyde Park. After the Prince’s death the work was abandoned until the 1870s when there was hope of a new commission. Thomas set the whole family to work, his daughters acting as models and his son William (Hamo) working on models of the horses. No commission was forthcoming and the huge plaster model was put into storage. It was not until 1902, when his eldest son John Isaac Thornycroft donated the model to the recently formed London County Council, that the statue was eventually realised and erected at the west end of Westminster bridge.
In 1871 a Mrs Mangini Brown set up a competition for sculptors to produce a design for a monument to the glories of English poetry to be set up in Park Lane, opposite her house. Despite tough competition, Thomas won the commission and the family set to work again on The poets’ fountain (54). Whilst Mary worked on Melpomene and Hamo tackled Thalia, Thomas concentrated on Milton, and various members of the family again acted as models. The fountain, erected in 1875, stood until the Second World War. It was around this time that Thomas lost interest in sculpture and turned his attention entirely to engineering. From 1864 he had experimented with the building of steam launches at Church wharf, Chiswick, where his eldest son John Isaac eventually founded a successful boat-building works, John Thornycroft & Co. Thomas began to spend more of his time at Chiswick working with his son and navigating the Thames in his own steam launch, Waterlily. In 1885 he died at the home of his daughter in Brenchley, Kent, of sunstroke caused by falling asleep on the Waterlily. He was buried at St Nicholas, Chiswick, within sound of the hammers of the boat builders and ten years later Mary was laid beside him, leaving their son, Hamo Thornycroft (1850-1925), by now an accomplished sculptor in his own right, to ensure that the name of Thornycroft remained influential in the world of sculpture.
Sylvia Allen
Literary References: Sassoon 1938, 35; Physick 1970, 29-30, 48-49, 159-161; Bayley 1981 87-9; Manning 1982, passim; Darby & Smith, 1983, 74-5; Newark 1985, p12; Blackwood 1989, 58-69; Ward-Jackson 2003, 70-72
 
 
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