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The Mower, by William Thornycroft


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About the artwork

In November 1882, William Hamo Thornycroft wrote to his fiancée, Agatha Cox, that he had begun work on a sculpture of “a mower”.  The inspiration for this work can be traced to earlier that year when he spotted a farmhand resting on the banks of the River Thames whilst on a boating trip. From the rapid sketches made on the spot, the artist went on to create several maquettes before setting to work on a life sized version in clay.

In the early sketches and models, the figure variously wore a shirt, was bare footed, carried the scythe over his shoulder before arriving at the present composition which Hamo described to Agatha:

“He will keep his hat on and carry his shirt on his right arm along with the scythe. A brace will pan over his left shoulder, which will take off the nude look and connect the hat with the breeches somewhat.  This gives the hang of the shirt.  It is a great help in solidifying the composition and supporting the scythe”.

The artist always intended the work to be cast in bronze in order to suggest toil and sweat through the material’s lustre.  This, however, would not be achieved until twelve years later when the Walker Art Gallery acquired its unique cast which has since been on display almost continuously.

In the meantime, the plaster version was exhibited at the Royal Academy to mixed reviews.  Whilst the sculptor’s technical virtuosity was highly praised, the subject matter provoked a more reserved response:

“Whether it is a subject to be treated in sculpture on that scale is another matter…it hardly seems worth the dignity of art”. (The Builder, June 1884)

Exhibited amongst the classical nudes and mythological figures at the Royal Academy, this life sized farmhand was viewed as a radical work of art – which it undoubtedly was.  Though the subject was familiar in painting ('The Stonebreaker', John Brett, 1857-8, for example), 'The Mower' was one of the first sculptures of a common labourer in modern European art.

Thornycroft came from a family of sculptors.  His mother, Mary sculpted all of Queen Victoria’s children, whilst his father is best known in Liverpool for his equestrian statues of the Queen and Prince Albert.  Hamo’s early works consisted of naturalistically modelled figures inspired by the classical nudes of Lord Leighton.  He became the leading artist in a movement known as the New Sculpture, a name coined by his close friend, writer Edmund Gosse, which sought to reanimate the classic tradition.

The change in direction marked by 'The Mower' was largely due to Thornycroft’s reading of Ruskin, Arnold and the influence of his future wife.  Agatha Cox and her family were active socialists and he was keen to keep her updated with the progress of his sculpture of the labourer. However, 'The Mower' cannot be viewed as a political work.  Rather than inciting revolution or creating a heroic representation of the working man, Thornycroft displays a rather languid figure which does not seem that far removed from the pastoral tradition in British art. This is deliberate, for the artist believed that he had to temper his work in order to make it accessible. 

He introduced the subject of everyday life into the conservative medium of sculpture through an amalgamation of classic nude and contemporary labourer.  The rough, tousled figure of his initial sketches was worked up in his studio using the model Orazio Cervi, an Italian farmhand, and the boots were based on a pair borrowed from a local navvy. This realism was tempered by the adaptation of a pose reminiscent of Donatello’s David and the pastoral nostalgia of Matthew Arnold’s poem Thyrsis. The following lines adapted from this poem appeared in the Royal Academy catalogue:

 “A mower, who as the tiny swell
   Of our boat passing heaved the river grass,
  Stood with suspended scythe to see us pass”