This bronze sculpture is probably the first important life-size statue of a manual labourer ever produced in Britain. It reflects the increasing desire of 'New Sculpture' artists, such as Hamo Thornycroft, to reflect scenes of everyday life. Despite this apparent commitment to representing reality, the figure has been placed in a carefully arranged composition, inspired by the works of the Renaissance sculptor Donatello (1386/7-1466). The sculpture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1884 to great critical acclaim.
Hamo Thornycroft was inspired to produce the sculpture in the summer of 1882, whilst sailing up the Thames on the 'S S Waterlily'. The sculptor recalled seeing: ‘a mower who, as the tiny swell of our boat passing heaved the river grass, stood with suspended scythe to see us pass’. He produced a quick sketch, which was later re-thought and developed into a large-scale, semi-nude figure. His companions on the boat that day included the homosexual poet and critic Edmund Gosse, with whom Thornycroft had an intense and close relationship.
Research on this important sculpture has focussed on the political implications of casting a representation of a working-class labourer in bronze. It has been suggested that the sculpture was intended as a radical political statement: a show of solidarity with the labouring communities. After all, Thornycroft's diaries reveal that he felt a ‘special rapport with the working classes’ and he moved in socialist circles. However, an intervention by the contemporary artist Wolfgang Tillmans (born 1968) at the Walker Art Gallery, highlighted some of the issues with this interpretation. It drew attention to recent scholarship which has explored the homoerotic undertones of Thornycroft's original. This research suggests that Thornycroft’s intention for the sculpture had less to do with any radical sympathy with the labouring classes’ plight, and more to do with expressing the physical beauty of the male body.
In 2008, Tillmans placed 'The Mower' at the centre of an intervention in the Walker Art Gallery's 19th-century Impressionist gallery, designed to draw attention to the beauty and sensuality of the male body. He stripped the walls of several of the existing paintings and added three of his own photographs. The first was a large photograph of a young male punk, entitled 'Empire (Punk)'. The second was a smaller scale photograph of a young, male market vendor, Cameron (in the Walker Art Gallery collection: WAG 2014.5) and the third was his photograph, ‘Wilhelm Leibl Painting’ (also in the Walker Art Gallery collection: WAG 2014.6). 'The Mower' was positioned to face in the direction of the punk, whilst the farm boy in 'Wilhem Leibl Painting' looked on from the side. The idea was to ‘queer’ the viewer’s perception of 'The Mower' by casting the male eyes in Tillmans’ three photographs towards the muscular physique of the sculpture. By drawing the viewer’s focus away from the labourer’s role as a farm worker, Tillmans enabled his beautifully toned body to be reconsidered as the subject of admiration.