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Snowdrift, by Edward Onslow Ford

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About the artwork

'Snowdrift' was Ford’s last work. Shortly after his death, aged 49, in late December 1901, his friend and obituarist, Frank Rinder, entered his studio and saw the almost finished clay model, still soft and with the hand marks of the sculptor still visible:

"What more aptly than this Snow Drift could symbolise those ‘thoughts hardly to be packed into a narrow act’, the ‘all I could never be’, of a life which closed before the fiftieth milestone had been reached? It is a figure born of snow flakes - snow flakes which thus congregated retain much of that intangibility, that airy grace, that happy abandon which they possess as in myriads they pass, wind-driven, before our eyes. An inscrutable fate has cast this personification of snow drift - numbed, but surely with breath still issuing from the parted lips - upon some lone shore."

It recalls an earlier work by Ford, another sculptural representation of a corpse, naked, emaciated, lying on its side, as if washed up on a beach. 'The Memorial to Percy Bysshe Shelley' (1892) in Oxford is regarded as his masterpiece. 'Snowdrift', however, ’wrought as it was during the last weeks of Onslow Ford’s life’ acquires a greater emotional charge, irresistible to the obituary writer:

"So, almost unawares, did the peace of death come to freeze into an eternal calm his efforts here, the efforts of one whose sympathies, like sun-lit snow-flakes, had gladdened the hearts of many, caused them to step forward with uplifted instead of downcast eyes."

It would have been out of place, in such a eulogy, to raise questions about the circumstances of his early death but there is some suspicion that Ford may have committed suicide. He was apparently in debt, chronically overworked and experiencing creative problems.

Rinder suggested the figure of this last work was the ‘personification of snow drift.’ It has also been interpreted, more prosaically, as a ‘nude body that has died, presumably of exposure, and is being overtaken by the snow’. It might equally be the corpse of winter revealed in the melting snows of spring. Ford died in the winter of 1901, leaving the clay version of 'Snowdrift practically finished. By' the time the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1902 opened the work had been completed by another hand in accordance with the sculptor’s intentions. ‘The soft clay has been translated into marble,’ wrote Rinder:

"…and the figure…lies, not on dull clay, but on honeycombed marble - frozen snow it might well be - with, as base, an oblong slab of gleaming green onyx, above a band of lapis lazuli. In any circumstances the rare beauty of the work would give us pause; knowing it to be a work finished during the last days of a nobly directed career, it becomes the more impressive. ‘Snowdrift’ remains as an epitome of the life of Onslow Ford, shaped…by himself. Peace has breathed its message into the marble figure who, arms folded, lies on the snow. We could desire nothing more poignant, more apt."

There are thirteen works by Edward Onslow Ford in the Lady Lever collection. We pass between two of them - busts of 'Lord Lever' and his wife flanking the doorway - as we enter the South Sculpture Hall. Elsewhere in that circular chamber are busts of 'James Lever senior', 'William Ewart Gladstone', and - most prominently - the life-size male nude, 'Linus'. Contemporary criticism of this figure - ‘too purely a portrait of the body of some particular model, imperfections…slavishly reproduced rather than finer forms selected’ - was common to that directed at much of the so-called ‘New Sculpture’.

William Hesketh Lever was a friend of Ford’s but bought comparatively little from him while he was alive. He ‘generally preferred to acquire works of art at auction or through dealers rather than direct from the artist,’ we are told, ‘partly through shyness and partly because he believed that he could buy more cheaply in the market than in the artist’s studio.’ But in 1911, for a combined sum of £1000, he purchased four works from the artist’s executors. They were 'Linus' and, in the Main Hall, 'Dancing', 'Saint George', and 'Snowdrift'.