'The wonderful facility of invention displayed by Mr Thomas, his rapidity of execution, and his great knowledge of every department of ornamental and architectural sculpture, as well as of interior decoration, caused him to be extensively employed by many of the leading architects in the country, and also by many owners of mansions who consulted him about furniture and fittings.'
The sculptor John Thomas is not well known today, but he was one of the more prolific Victorian sculptors, responsible for much important architectural sculpture and a variety of statues, busts and ideal works. He also worked as an architect, designing, among other buildings, Regents Park Chapel.
John Thomas was born in Chalford, Gloucestershire, apprenticed to a local stone mason, and afterwards went to Birmingham. Coming to the attention of Charles Barry for a Gothic monument he had made for Huntingdon, he was employed by the great architect firstly on ornament for Birmingham Grammar School, and later, on Westminster Palace, where he was responsible for all the statues on the South and North fronts, and those on the Victoria Tower, as well as two statues inside. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1842 to 1861, and his final works were shown at the Great Exhibition, which, it seems, was at least partly the cause of his early death. As recounted at the time:
'Mr Thomas’s death was… hastened, we believe, by disappointment. The facts, as related to us on good authority, are, that the Royal Commissioners, or their agents, had, after considerable discussion with him, and not of the most conciliatory nature, refused him space for [his] Shakspere Monument. For two or three weeks previously he had been much indisposed, from over labour and anxiety; he went home after his last interview with the authorities at Kensington, took to his bed, and died within a very few days.'
Despite his very high output, John Thomas maintained a high standard of work, and almost all his work I have seen is most excellent. He favoured the ideal figure as a statuesque girl, very Greek in physique and structure of the face, but with slightly more rounded cheeks and chin, and drapery a little heavier and falling completely to the ground rather than exposing some lighter garment underneath at the ankle. For his allegorical figures and scenes, he added in as many accoutrements and extra ornament as the composition allowed. Even on subsidiary ornament, such as heads for keystones, he would add flowers and leaves and fruit, so that most of his work repays some considerable study and cannot be appreciated at a brief look. Really a sculptor worth making the aquaintance of, and one who should be much better known.
Part of a pediment by John Thomas.
Apart from the Houses of Parliament figures, in London, John Thomas was the sculptor of the pediment of Paddington Station Great Western Hotel, decorative work on the piers of the entrance gates of Buckingham Palace, the United Services Club frieze, the figures and decorative vases by the Hyde Park fountains, and the statue of Hugh Myddleton in Islington. In Manchester, the excellent figure sculpture on the Free Trade Hall is his. In Bristol, he did the sculpture for the Fine Arts Academy and the Law Courts, and his also the pedimental sculpture for Halifax and Leeds Town Halls (see the note on Headrow). In the Maidstone Museum is his charming equestrian statue of Lady Godiva, and a young Queen Victoria as part of a drinking fountain is in the high street of the same town. Among many portrait busts by John Thomas, a particularly characterful example is that of G. P. Watkins in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.
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