A Warrior carrying a wounded youth from the field of battle
Sir William Hamo Thornycroft
Inscribed EXECUTED IN BRONZE BY J. A. HATFIELD. FOR THE ART-UNION OF LONDON.1878. FROM THE ORIGINAL BY HAMO. THORNYCROFT
Bronze with a rich brown patination and lighter brown highlights
Height: 27 1/2'' (70 cm)
Conceived in 1875 and cast in 1878
An exponent of the British New School of sculpture, Sir William Hamo Thornycroft was a great inspiration to many other artists of his day. He was born in London in 1850, the son of sculptors Thomas and Mary Thornycroft. Encouraged by the family’s engagement with the arts, he entered the Royal Academy at the age of nineteen, while working in his father’s workshop.
In 1871, on his aunt’s death, the artist was left a £50 legacy. With the money, Thornycroft travelled to France and Italy with his sisters. Their tour lasted over seven weeks; they visited Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome, where the ruins of the Classical past mingled with the work of the great sculptors of the Italian Renaissance.
After his return to England in 1872, Thornycroft’s work was exhibited at the RA for the first time; he was only twenty-two years old. This date signals the beginning of the artist’s long-standing relationship with the Academy. Ten years later, Thornycroft started holding courses at the RA; he ceased to teach in 1914, after over thirty years of service.
In this time, the artist’s fame grew, receiving numerous public commissions, including the memorials to Gladstone (The Strand), to Oliver Cromwell (House of Commons, Westminster) and to General Charles Gordon (originally erected in Trafalgar Square). He was knighted in 1917 and won the RBS Gold Medal in 1923, two years prior to his death. A memorial exhibition of his work was held at the Royal Academy in 1927, also celebrating the recently-departed Francis Derwent Wood.
The present piece, A Warrior Carrying a Wounded Youth from the Field of Battle, was conceived by the artist in 1875 so as to compete for the Royal Academy’s biennial Gold Medal for the Best Work of Sculpture on a given theme. In this circumstance, the artist competed directly with Alfred Gilbert, eventually winning the prize. The art critic Edmund Gosse later defined such a competition as the ‘prologue’ to the English New Sculpture movement.
While the Royal Academicians set the theme for the piece, its treatment was left completely to the imagination of the competing artists. Thornycroft’s composition was hugely indebted to his travels to France and Italy, and particularly to the sculptural norms of the Florentine Renaissance and to the ruins of Classical antiquity.
In this light, the iconography of the present piece is likely linked to the bas-relief of Trajan’s Column, which narrates the victory of the Roman emperor against the barbarian Decebalus in the First Century AD. In the twenty-fourth vignette of the Column, two soldiers are depicted carrying a wounded youth from the field of battle. As in Thornycroft’s sculpture, the age difference between the figures is developed through the presence or lack of beard on their faces. Thornycroft exasperates the contrast further, modeling with painstaking attention the muscular soldier and the soft folds in the youth’s body, thus enhancing the heroism of the scene.
Although four years passed between Thornycroft’s visit to Rome and the conception of the present piece, the artist could make full use of the ingenious plaster cast of the column produced by +Oudry in 1864, which had been on display at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum) since 1873.
Trajan’s Column (detail), Rome
The success of the Warrior and Youth group led Thornycroft to produce bronze reductions of the sculpture for the art market. The present work was cast by John Ayres Hatfield at his foundry in 1878 – three years after Thornycroft’s victory at the RA. The foundry, which was founded in 1834 and was granted a Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria in 1882, represented a staple of Victorian craftsmanship in London. Their restoration workshop is still active today.
Another cast of the present piece is currently part of the Leighton House Museum, London. This was donated by the sculptor’s widow, Agatha Thornycroft, to the Museum in 1930, five years after the artist’s death. The sculpture testifies to the artists’ mutual friendship, which is also attested in a series of handwritten letters currently part of the Museum collection. In particular, in a letter addressed to the editor and biographer George Earle Buckle, Leighton introduces Thornycroft’s nephews referring to the sculptor as ‘his colleague’ Hamo Thornycroft, the son of ‘Mrs Thornycroft, a talented sculptress’ (Letter from Frederic Leighton to George Earle Buckle, Leighton House Archives, Ref. LH/1/1/5/B/B28).
Plaster cast of Trajan’s Column, V&A (image courtesy of the V&A Museum)
Hamo Thornycroft, A Warrior Carrying a Wounded Youth from the Field of Battle, Leighton House Museum (image courtesy of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea)