Lord Ronald Gower

by Dr. Philip Ward-Jackson

Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916): a little remembered Victorian sculptor

Whilst there seemed to me to be quite a few notable exceptions, and a considerable amount of good art in the show, I fear there is little chance that my complaint about the absence from it of two gay artists, who were also lords, will get much sympathetic attention.

Lord Berners enjoys respect for his music, which shows him keeping pace with the European avant garde. However, when it came to painting, which he did regularly, his credo was that Corot, with the ‘directness and simplicity’ he displayed in his early years, ‘had the perfect method of dealing with landscape’. Lord Ronald Gower (figs.1&4), with whom I am more concerned, became in his maturity a very civilized author of books on eighteenth-century British portrait painters, one of his chief qualifications being his familiarity, as to the manor born, with our great country house collections. Already in 1895 in Paris, visiting the Salon of the Champ de Mars, which he describes as ‘the preferred venue of the impressionists’, he found ‘one thousand canvases, not one of which one would care to possess’. Perhaps then it might be thought that the inclusion of these lords would only have been pouring oil on waters that were, perhaps deceptively, calm already.

I have for a long time felt an urge to make the case for Lord Ronald Gower as a sculptor, and this anniversary of gay law reform seems a good occasion to slip the leash on it. Actually I thought I had done this already in an article entitled ‘Lord Ronald Gower, Gustave Doré and the Genesis of The Shakespeare Monument at Stratford-on-Avon’, which appeared in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes back in 1987. But such learned journals remain unread, even by our myriad art-historians, as I discovered when, on the occasion in September last year of The Shakespeare Monument being upgraded to Grade II* in the listings, some completely wrong information, along with unreliable sources were given in Historic England’s listing notes.** We are talking here about what is probably one of the country’s most prominent and best loved public monuments, seen by thousands if not millions of pilgrims to Shakespeare’s birthplace. Suffice it to say that the obscure Milanese sculptor, Donato Barcaglia, given in the original listings information as one of the monument’s sculptors, had nothing whatever to do with it. Spurred into action by this, I have now put up online the transcriptions which I have made since the 1980s from Lord Ronald Gower’s manuscript diaries, from the years between 1859 and 1889. These should allow the public to see for themselves how this monument came into being. 

Lord Ronald Gower was the youngest surviving son of the 2nd Duke of Sutherland and his wife, Harriet (née Howard). He was educated at Eton and Cambridge, and began his adult life as a rather reluctant MP for Sutherland. Though he held the seat for a number of years, he made only one speech in the House, and it was with some relief that, with the resignation of Gladstone’s government at the beginning of 1874, he relinquished it. Later the same year he was appointed a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. By this time he had already become a regular visitor to the studios of many of London’s most prominent artists, and in his diary, he confessed to a longing to become an artist himself. He experimented with painting, etching and photography, and shared a studio in Sir Joshua Reynolds’s old home in Leicester Square with the Irish landscape painter and theatrical designer John O’Connor. The importance to him of proving himself as an artist in some form, even though he had to admit that his paintings were a flop, is shown by his later adoption of a device taken over from his painter ancestor, George Gower, serjeant painter to Elizabeth I, showing his armorials being outweighed in a balance by a compass representing the science of painting. 

A strong driving force behind all Gower’s manifold activities was the sense of his family’s destiny being bound up with the destiny of Europe. This he was anxious to maintain by being at the heart of any momentous action. Twice in the 1860s he visited Garibaldi in Italy, and he was very much in waiting when the Risorgimento hero was given hospitality by the Duchess of Sutherland at Stafford House in 1866. In 1870 he travelled to the front in the Franco-Prussian War with his friend the journalist, Sir William Howard Russell. His favourites amongst contemporary artists were those who captured dramatic moments in history. His family had been amongst the most committed collectors of the work of the French romantic history painter, Paul Delaroche. At the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867, he was mightily impressed by the Italian sculptor Vincenzo Vela’s excursion into historic genre, The Last Days of Napoleon, and when he himself became a sculptor, it was clearly his desire to emulate such stirring imaginative reconstructions of history. He was also very close to members of the British group of painters known as The Clique, who practised what one might call cross-over genre, bringing to both historical and contemporary scenes the same combination of psychological intimacy and picturesqueness of detail.

In 1875 Gower went to Paris and began to sculpt in the studio of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse. In childhood, sculpture had formed a small part of his education. He recalled that in July 1854, the Sutherland children’s drawing master, a Mr Kenworthy, had brought them modelling tools and clay to construct figures, from which they afterwards drew in chalk. After his parents’ deaths, he found himself commissioning their monuments from the prolific British sculptor, Matthew Noble. In the case of Noble’s effigy of Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, for the church at Trentham, Staffordshire, Gower’s attendance in the sculptor’s studio was almost obsessive. Hardly a day passed without him going to check the work in progress. He was not shy about admitting that he was ‘a mother’s boy’ and there is every evidence that he was devastated by losing her. It is slightly mystifying, given his attraction to studios and the life in them, that there is so little in his published reminiscences about his artistic life in Paris in the 1870s. He writes of the risk of becoming ‘tedious and prolix’ by going on at length about ‘the few pieces of sculpture that owe their origins to me’. Either he felt that the British reading public’s interest in such matters was limited, or else this terseness indicated that he was aware that aspersions had been and would continue to be cast on these works’ true authorship.

In the years around the Great Exhibition, Carrier-Belleuse had been employed as a ceramic modeller in the Staffordshire Potteries. While there, he had modelled statuettes of three of the Sutherland children, including the young Lord Ronald, all of which were produced by the Minton firm in their new Parian Ware. Carrier returned to Paris in 1855. There are some indications that contact may have been maintained between the family and the French sculptor in the intervening years, but nothing conclusive. Interestingly, in 1874, Gower met a London sculptor, Thomas Nelson Maclean, who had trained under Carrier in the 1860s, so perhaps that was what triggered his decision to embark on a career as a sculptor. It was hardly likely that this aristocratic aficionado was going to be integrated into Carrier’s workshop processes as Rodin had so productively been in the previous decade. More likely that he would have been a spanner in the works, demanding assistance with his busts of Marie Antoinette in various costumes, with which he had decided to get his hand in. The solution found was for one of Carrier’s assistants, Luca Madrassi, to hire a studio, no doubt at Gower’s expense, in which they could both work, Gower politely absenting himself when Madrassi was under pressure to get his work ready for the Salon.

It was in this studio that Gower moved on to full length figures, a statue of Marie Antoinette on her Way to Execution, and The Old Guard, a reclining figure of a member of the French Imperial Guard at Waterloo, facing defeat, but still defiant. After these, he began what would be his magnum opus, TheMonument to Shakespeare, upon which he embarked without any prospect of seeing it erected in a public place. As exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1881, it was radically different from the monument which was subsequently erected at Stratford-upon-Avon. In its first incarnation, it was crowned by a rather stiff group of Tragedy and Comedy paying homage to Shakespeare. The Duke of Westminster, Gower’s brother-in-law was taken to see it in construction in the studio, Gower imagining that the Duke could be persuaded to have a version of it in terracotta made for his garden pavilion at Eaton Hall in Cheshire.

The diaries contain many fascinating details about the creation of all Gower’s sculptural works. At one point he muses over the possibility of having another tier to the Shakespeare Memorial, consisting of groups: Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello and Desdemona, and Lear and Cordelia. He often makes feeble Victorian puns, even about his most solemn works. For instance, about his bust of the crucified Christ, which he called It is Finished, he confided to the diary on completing it that it was a ‘fait accompli’. The diary also tells us that the model was Madrassi’s brother-in-law, a M. le Bouvier, who took up the pose after making tea, and who is clearly sound asleep. Whilst making his Falstaff, he speculated on whether corpulence was good in sculpture, writing ‘Belly or no belly, but belly it must and will be’, an extended play on Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’. It clearly amused him that the quotation on the base of his Old Guard. ‘Le garde meurt et ne se rend pas’ (‘The Guard dies and does not surrender’), was the official version of what Marshal Cambronne exclaimed at Waterloo, when others heard what came to be known as ‘le mot de Cambronne’ (the word of Cambronne), i.e. merde (shit). Especially interesting for historians of French sculpture will be Gower’s account of how the painter and illustrator, Gustave Doré, a close acquaintance, became overnight a sculptor. The diary makes it plain that Gower’s Shakespeare Memorial was seen by him as a rival to Doré’s Monument to Alexandre Dumas, erected in Paris around the same time.

Finally, in 1887, Gower managed to persuade an ex-mayor of Stratford, Charles Flower, to get his sculptures erected at Stratford. Money from the Duke of Manchester’s Tercentenary Fund was used to pay for a pedestal designed by the Parisian architects Peigniet and Marnez. It was only at this late stage that the decision was taken to exchange the allegorical group for a more simple, seated figure of Shakespeare as the crowning feature. The final inauguration took place on 10 October 1888.

The eighteenth century had paid its sculptural homages to Shakespeare, but the nineteenth, until that moment, had only succeeded in producing a servile copy of Scheemakers’s Westminster Abbey memorial, as a fountain feature in a make-over of Leicester Square. It took an aristocratic amateur to make good this deficiency. Once his great aim had been achieved, Gower ceased his sculptural activity altogether, devoting himself to writing and travel. During the period of his sculptural activities, he had fought off gossip in the press about his private life, and his final days were darkened by suspicion of involvement in the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels. He was finally forced to sell his country house, Hammerfield at Penshurt in Kent, when Ernest Shackleton’s shady brother, Frank, conned him out of a very large sum of money. In court he made a pathetic figure, but in his last days, he was looked after by the journalist and writer, Frank Hird, by this time a long-term partner.

**The PMSA would like to thank Historic England for having corrected the information in these notes, and regret that they seem in the first place to have been misled by an unfortunate error in the entry on The Shakespeare Monument, in the National Recording Project series by George Noszlopy, Public Sculpture of Warwickshire, Coventry and Solihull (2003).

Main image: Lord Ronald Gower, The Shakespeare Monument, 1877-88, bronze and stone, detail (photo: Elliot Brown, Creative Commons)

Aurora Corio