William Goscombe John was born in Cardiff and spent his formative years in Wales. In 1874 he entered the workshop of his father, who was engaged as woodcarver to the 3rd Marquess of Bute. John assisted his father on the restoration of Cardiff Castle, which was being undertaken for the Marquess by the architect William Burges (1827-1881).
Between 1881 and 1886, John was employed as an assistant in the Lambeth Studio of Thomas Nichols, Burges’s architectural carver. During this time (1881-1884) he also joined W.S. Frith’s class at Lambeth City and followed the clay modelling class of Aimé-Jules Dalou at the Guilds School of Art. He later entered the Royal Academy School, where he worked under Frederic Leighton, Thomas Brock and Alfred Gilbert. In 1889 he won the Academy’s Gold Medal and traveling scholarship, which he used to travel extensively before finally taking a studio in Paris, where he made contact with Auguste Rodin, becoming his pupil for a short time. He returned to London in 1890.
John’s success coincided with the exhibition of his Boy at Play at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The same sculpture was exhibited in 1900 at the Paris International Exhibition, where it was awarded a gold medal. This solidified the artist’s reputation and helped him secure a number of public commissions for the years to come.
Among John’s monumental works of particular note are the colossal bronze seated figure of the 7th Duke of Devonshire for the town of Eastbourne in 1901, the Memorial to the King’s Regiment at Liverpool (1905) – from which composition the statuette Drummer Boy derived (currently housed at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), the tomb of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Westminster Abbey, in 1906, and an equestrian figure of Viscount Wolsley at Horse Guards Parade, London 1920.
Goscombe John was also an admired portrait and relief sculptor. These include the stone figures of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra for the façade of the Victoria and Albert Museum (1906) and a marble, St David, for the Cardiff City Hall (1916). In light of his numerous contributions to the development of sculpture, the artist was knighted in 1911.