“The Mower, The Sower, and The Mayor…”*

Image: The Sower by Sir William Hamo Thornycroft (1850-1925) Bronze c1886

Purchased by the Leighton Fund and erected in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on 23rd January 1929.

Jane E. Thomas wrote in her paper* for Word & Image on 28 Feb 2018 of:

“…the techniques that Hamo Thornycroft learned from his classical forebears. Thornycroft was perfecting these techniques, in what his champion Edmund Gosse called his “bucolic experiments,” at the point when he and Hardy met and initiated a regular and engaging correspondence that lasted until the sculptor’s death in December 1925.

When Hardy and Thornycroft were introduced in June 1883, each was at a turning point in his personal and professional life: Hamo was probably the most talked-about sculptor of the day and Hardy the equally famous author of A Pair of Blue Eyes, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native. Both men were caught up in the new spirit of democracy abroad in the radical 1880s arising partly from the growth of Socialism and also from the debates preceding the Liberal Government’s proposals to extend to male tenants in the rural districts the same concessions granted by the 1867 Reform Act to working men in the boroughs. The ensuing “Representation of the People Act” was passed in 1884…

…Hardy had begun work on The Mayor of Casterbridge and Thornycroft was modelling his much feted sculpture The Mower, which was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1884, and was then followed by The Sower in 1886, the year that Hardy’s Mayor was serialized simultaneously in the Graphic and Harpers Weekly, before being issued in novel form in May.

Frederic Leighton’s bronze sculpture, Athlete Wrestling with a Python, is generally regarded as initiating the ‘New Sculpture’ movement in England. The piece was first seen at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1877 and was regularly on view at the South Kensington Museum along with other works purchased for the nation. As David Getsy has indicated, Leighton’s Athlete became ‘one of the most recognizable sculptures of the late Victorian era…

…Thornycroft was to develop the neo-classical theme in an even more startling way, heralding, in England, the birth of a new democratic form of art that was to find its match in the work of Thomas Hardy.

Hardy first mentions Thornycroft on the eve of the New Year of 1884 at a party in the company of Henry James and Edmund Gosse. Hardy’s biographer, Michael Millgate, dates their acquaintance a year earlier to a private dinner arranged by Gosse at the Rabelais Club on 25 June 1883, at which Hardy was introduced to both Thomas Woolner and Thornycroft.

In a letter to Gosse, congratulating him on the success of the dinner, Thornycroft wrote:

The artists proved themselves equal to hold forth in conversation with the famous literary men of the company. Was not Woolner loquacious and how charming Du Maurier.

He added: “Hardy & I had a nice talk about country folk.”

According to Hamo’s daughter, Elfrida Manning, a warm friendship grew up between Hardy and Thornycroft “based on their shared passion for country folk and country ways.” Hardy was particularly taken with Thornycroft’s wife Agatha who had declared herself a Positivist aged thirteen and was a firm believer in “land reform, Malthusianism, Votes for Women, Home Rule for Ireland and the Abolition of War”…

…Thornycroft’s embodiment of the “romance of the sower,” with all its intertextual implications, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886, where it was much admired by many including the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Like its predecessor, The Mower, the life- size sculpture The Sower combines elements of French realist sculpture – specifically Henri Gauquiè’s Le Semeur, which was exhibited in the Paris Salons in the 1880s – with classical forms. Thornycroft reverses the contrapposto of the Belvedere Apollo so that the sower’s weight is thrown upon his leading foot, giving the figure a forward momentum indicative of concentrated purpose. By the time the sculpture was exhibited, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge was published in novel form, but it is interesting to speculate whether the imminent demise of The Sower from the English countryside formed part of Thornycroft and Hardy’s “nice talk about country folk.”…”

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