Monday 22nd August 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Thomas Brock, the great Victorian and Edwardian sculptor. Prayers will be said and respect will be paid in Westminster Abbey on the day.
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It is easy to overlook Brock’s contribution to Westminster Abbey, but amongst the Abbey's numerous monuments there are three important works that testify to his skill as a sculptor. They are:
Brock was born in Worcester, before moving to London in 1866 and working in John Henry Foley’s studio. He attended the Royal Academy Schools and inherited Foley’s unfinished commissions on his death in 1874.
At the same time, his friendship with the influential artist and President of the Royal Academy (from 1878), Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-96) encouraged his involvement in the ‘New Sculpture’ movement, which included contemporaries such as Alfred Gilbert. This movement brought a fresh approach to sculptural naturalism, realism and close attention to surface detail, evident in the vitality of Brock’s works in Westminster Abbey. Brock was elected a Royal Academician in 1891 and was a founder member and first President of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1905.
Brock’s commemorative statues and busts demonstrate his skill as a portraitist. Consistent with the principles of the ‘New Sculpture’ movement, he paid attention to surface detail and was concerned with the finish and overall harmony of the work. He disliked collaborating with architects as he preferred to take complete responsibility for a monument. That way he could determine the exact positioning of each statue, its overall appearance from all angles and the height of the pedestal.
Sir Thomas Brock is perhaps best known for important works of public sculpture outside the Abbey. These include the Queen Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace on the Mall.
This is the largest commemorative monument in the British Isles, which inspired King George V to knight the sculptor on the spot on its unveiling in 1911.
The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012 showed that this circular 24 foot-high monument to the seated Victoria still provides a popular public gathering place.
Brock also completed the magnificent 15 foot-high gilt-bronze statue of Prince Albert for the Albert Memorial on behalf of his teacher, John Henry Foley.
This impressive monument, designed by Westminster Abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78) was unveiled in 1876 and stands opposite the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington Gardens.
The Dean and Chapter of Westminster gave permission for the English admirers of American poet Henry Longfellow to install a marble bust in Poets’ Corner between the memorials to Geoffrey Chaucer and John Dryden.
The Chapter Book for 21 December 1882 notes:
‘Ordered that the Fine required for placing a Monument in the Abbey to “Longfellow” be £200’.
Sir Thomas Brock was selected to carve the bust out of a ballot of sixteen sculptors. It was displayed in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1884 and then installed in Westminster Abbey. Brock shows the magnificently-bearded poet wearing the robes of a professor of Harvard University and demonstrates his gift for realistic and sympathetic portraiture with his depiction of the poet’s thoughtful eyes and wrinkled forehead.
The Subdean of Westminster unveiled the bust on 1 March 1884 in the presence of the Foreign Secretary, Earl Granville and the American Minister, James Russell Lowell, who was also a poet. The secretary of the memorial committee, Dr. W. Bennett, praised the work for its portrayal of the subject’s intellectual power and kindly nature and Longfellow’s daughters, who attended the unveiling, thanked Brock for ‘giving to the world such a perfect and beautiful likeness’.
Parliament sometimes memorialised deceased Prime Ministers in Westminster Abbey, usually in the north transept, known as Statesmen’s Aisle. The day after Gladstone’s death on 20 May 1898, the House of Commons voted to erect a monument in the Abbey and later awarded the commission to Brock. The sculptor was also commissioned by The National Memorial Fund to execute a monument to Gladstone in his birthplace, Liverpool.
Brock had never met Gladstone and he asked Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, for the precise measurements of the sitter’s head, which he then shared with fellow sculptor, Hamo Thornycroft. Thornycroft had also been commissioned to produce a memorial to Gladstone and Brock wrote to him on 15 June 1901:
'I was aware that Gladstone had lost the first finger of his left hand, but the hand looked so queer without it that I thought I might be permitted in that particular to depart from the truth, especially as he himself did everything he could to prevent the disfigurement being noticed.'
Brock asked Punch artist, the satirist Harry Furniss to comment on his working clay model for the statue. Instead of describing the politician’s demeanour, Furniss gave an impersonation of Gladstone. Brock immediately:
'turned to the [clay] model, cut the throat across, thrust the head back; then seizing some clay raised both shoulders, after which he forced the elbows in – thus in the space of a few minutes completely altering the general appearance of the figure.'
The statue was exhibited in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1902, and was later installed in the north transept on 28 March 1903, between John Gibson’s, Sir Robert Peel and Edgar Boehm’s Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield.
His son, Herbert wrote to Brock on 31 March 1903:
'I must write a line to thank you for your very fine statue of my father. I have looked at it from all points of view and in different lights, and in every way it is worthy of its place in the Abbey.'
The brief inscription was added to the pedestal later:
‘Erected by Parliament. The Right Honourable William Ewart Gladstone.
Four times Prime Minister. Born December 29 1809. Died May 19 1898.’
The figure of Gladstone stands bareheaded wearing the robes of Chancellor of the Exchequer, holding a sheaf of papers in his left hand.
Contemporary comments appreciated the likeness of Gladstone and the fine, dignified head. It seems however, that Brock requested an alternative position for the monument and refused to sign the statue when his proposal was rejected.
Following the death of the pioneer of antiseptic treatment, Joseph Lister, on 10 February 1912, the Lister Memorial Executive Committee commissioned Thomas Brock to design two commemorative portrait memorials.
Westminster Abbey’s memorial, unveiled in 1915, was a ‘simple marble medallion’ depicting the surgeon’s head in profile. A be-whiskered Brock is shown wearing a frock coat with an upright collar, which he wore in the operating theatre before surgical gowns became commonplace.
A second memorial, a granite and bronze bust on a pedestal was unveiled in Portland Place, London in 1924, after the sculptor’s death.
Sir Thomas Brock died on 22 August 1922 and is buried in Mayfield churchyard, Sussex.
Westminster Abbey would like to thank members of the Sankey family, particularly the late Dr John Sankey, CMG (1930-2021) and his son, Martin, for the research and information that have contributed to this piece.
You are surrounded by history at the Abbey, not like a museum where it’s just displayed, but here you are standing where history has happened.