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Celebrating a new acquisition on International Women’s Day

8 March 2019 by Alex Patterson

Walker Art Gallery’s new acquisition, Bust of Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester & Edinburgh, 1853 by Mary Thornycroft (1809-1895).

On International Women’s Day, I wanted to share some exciting news about one of the Walker Art Gallery’s newest acquisitions. It is a marble Bust of Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester & Edinburgh, 1853, by Mary Thornycroft (1809-1895). It was transferred to the Walker from Leighton House Museum earlier this year to join our world renowned sculpture collection.

Thornycroft was a leading Victorian sculptor and one of the few women artists to receive significant public recognition during her lifetime. This is a very important acquisition for the Walker as there are currently only three sculptures by 19th century women artists in the collection. The other sculptures include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Edmonia Lewis (about 1844-1907), Puck by Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) and Recumbent Ewe by Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899).

Thornycroft was born in Thornham, Norfolk. She was the daughter of sculptor John Francis (1780-1861) and first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1835 at the young age of 21. Thornycroft received training from her father as there were limited opportunities for women to formally study art at this time. For example, the Royal Academy Schools in London did not accept women as pupils until 1860.

Thornycroft primarily made portraits but her subject matter was limited because of her gender. As a woman, it was frowned upon for her to travel and reside in a patron’s house overnight, as was usual for male portrait artists when they worked on a commission. Instead, Thornycroft capitalized on subjects that were accessible to her, particularly infants and children.

Thornycroft married the sculptor Thomas Thornycroft (1815-1885) in 1840. He was an apprentice in her father’s studio. They travelled to Rome in 1842 where they could get access to cheaper marble and meet potential patrons while touring Europe. It was during this trip that they met the prominent sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866). Gibson was a great admirer of Mary’s work. On his recommendation she was commissioned to produce numerous works for the Royal Family when she returned to London.

The Princess Mary (1776–1857), Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh by William Beechey (1753–1839) (possibly copy), Pembroke College, Cambridge

Thornycroft  made busts of Queen Victoria, her children and the extended Royal family between 1844 and 1877. The Walker’s newest acquisition Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester & Edinburgh is one of these commissions. Princess Mary (1776-1857) was the fourth daughter of George III. The bust shows Princess Mary at the age of 77. She outlived all her siblings and was mourned by Queen Victoria on her death as ‘the last link, which connected us with a bygone generation…. She had become like a grandmother to us all, from her age, and from her being the last of her family’ (RA Queen Victoria’s Journal, 30 April 1857).

As a sculptor, Thornycroft was particularly praised for her natural rendering of the human form and retaining a high degree of likeness of which this acquisition is a superb example. Currently it is quite difficult to see Princess Mary’s features due to the build up of dust and dirt on the marble. Over the next year the bust will undergo cleaning and treatment in National Museums Liverpool’s Conservation Center. It will transform the sculpture to near its original condition and reveal how Princess Mary looked in the senior years of her life.

There is an identical version of this bust in the Royal Collection Trust which is dated 1852. The Royal Collection bust has remained in excellent condition and it gives us some idea of how the Walker’s version will look once conservation is complete. According to documents held at the Leighton House Museum, the Walker’s bust was made a year later than the Royal Collection bust. It is presumed that the original bust, now in the Royal Collection, was well received and this second version was commissioned soon after.

The Walker’s Bust of Princess Mary was gifted to Leighton House Museum by Lady Agatha Thornycroft (née Cox) (1865-1958) in 1932. Lady Agatha was the wife of Sir William Hamo Thornycroft, Mary’s son and a leading figure in the New Sculpture movement. The Walker Art Gallery has a major work by William, entitled The Mower, and also an Equestrian Statue of Queen Victoria by Thomas (1815-85), Mary’s  husband. Thomas and Mary had five children in total and they all became painters, sculptors or architects.

I hope that the bust will be displayed soon. We’ll keep you updated on the conservation progress!

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