William Goscombe John (1860-1952)

Oliver Fairclough


Sir William Goscombe John (1860 - 1952)


Sir Alfred Gilbert (1854 - 1934)

Cardiff Castle's Animal Wall

In 1881, William Goscombe John assisted in creating the sculptures for Cardiff Castle's Animal Wall

Edwardian Wales, newly wealthy from coal, iron and steel, provided rich opportunities for a sculptor. William Goscombe John's public monuments can be found all over Wales, but nowhere more than in his native Cardiff. He also modelled the prize medals still awarded by the National Eisteddfod today.

Making his way

He was born William John in Cardiff in March 1860. He assumed the name Goscombe from a Gloucestershire village near his mother's old home. His father Thomas John was a woodcarver in the workshops set up by Lord Bute for the restoration of Cardiff Castle. William joined his father at the age of 14, while also studying drawing at Cardiff School of Art.

In 1881 he went to London as a pupil assistant to Thomas Nicholls, the sculptor responsible for the Castle's Animal Wall. He continued his studies at the Kennington School of Art and, from 1884, at the Royal Academy Schools, where he was taught naturalistic modelling in clay in the French manner introduced in London in the 1870s by Jules Dalou.

He was an outstanding student, and travelled widely. He spent a year in Paris, including a period in Rodin's studio. In 1890 he returned to London and settled in St John's Wood.

His sculpture Morpheus, shown in the Paris Salon of 1892, clearly shows Rodin's influence.

The 'New Sculpture'

British sculptors of John's generation were trying to make sculpture more dynamic through the vigorously naturalistic representation of the human body. They represent the final flowering of a sculptural tradition that had its roots in the Renaissance, and was revitalised by Rodin and his contemporaries in mid nineteenth-century France. John followed the success of Morpheus with a statue of John the Baptist for Lord Bute, and by a group of life-size nudes including Boy at Play and The Elf. These show complete mastery of anatomical form.

By the end of the 1890s Goscombe John had firmly established himself, exhibiting his work both nationally and internationally. He was beginning to win big public commissions and in the years leading up to the First World War he was extremely busy.

Wales and the Empire

Although based in London, John was careful to position himself as Wales's national sculptor. In 1916 he contributed the central marble figure St David Blessing the People to a group of ten figures made for Cardiff City Hall. He also received commissions for portraits from the leading Welshmen of the day. John may have built his career on local patronage, but he attracted work from across the Empire, such as his tomb in Westminster Abbey to Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and his equestrian statue of King Edward VII in Capetown.

His first major public sculpture was the King's Regiment memorial (1905) in the centre of Liverpool, incorporating soldiers from the regiment's history, including the vast Drummer Boy, which is his best-known work.

The Welsh and the Imperial came together in the commission for the regalia for the investiture of the future Edward VIII as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1911. John designed a crown, a ring, a sceptre and a sword that contained a 'Welsh' iconography of dragons, daffodils and Celtic interlace.

John had little sympathy with what he termed the 'Easter Island' style of modern sculpture, with its emphasis on direct carving in stone. Critical opinion was already beginning to leave him behind by 1914, but the First World War tragically brought new commissions for memorials, including many in Wales.

Goscombe John and the National Museum

Goscombe John was one of the founding fathers of Amgueddfa Cymru. He served on the governing Council for over forty years, and played a major role in establishing the future direction of the art collection. As well as a complete representation of his own work, his gifts to the Museum included work by many of his fellows in the New Sculpture movement, among them the primary cast of Alfred Gilbert's Icarus, and by many other artists he admired.

Comments (2)

Lyn Mews
25 August 2021, 04:36
Just would like to correct the origin of the name Goscombe taken by Sir William John and added to his name. The surname belonged to his grandmother Sarah Goscombe who married John Smith in Stroud Gloucestershire. His mother married Elizabeth Smith married Thomas John. I know this as my g. grandmother Matilda Goscombe was a cousin to Sir William G John and my grandfather, along with his siblings, wrote to him. In fact I have a letter or two in my possession from him. My grandfather and grandmother stayed with him in London in 1919 for a night before embarking a ship at Tilbury - after the War to make their home in Sydney Australia where my grandfather had been living with his family who migrated from Long Ashton Somerset to Sydney in 1884. He had gone to England with the troops from Australia in 1916/17. He did not go to the front as they decided he was more valuable serving as the Pay Officer. He was a lucky one!
Alistair V. Phillips BA, Prof. MICME, Eng Tech, LCGI.
26 June 2020, 06:47
I was first smitten by Sir William Goscombe John's work when I saw "The Elf" for the first time, many years ago in the Cyfarthfa Castle Museum and Art Gallery in Merthyr Tydfil, my home town. He was a sculptor that I'd never heard of at that time and I've wondered through the years why he never seems to have received the universal acclaim that I feel that he deserves. "The Elf" is a supremely beautiful work of sculpture when viewed from any and every angle, there are other of Goscombe John's works in this museum but "The Elf" remains the supreme work in my view. "The Drummer Boy" is also there but I must admit that I do not care for it too much.

On a visit to the National Museum of Wales, I saw many of this supreme artist's works both in bronze and also in marble. I've also seen many of his works in and around Cardiff and have always been smitten by the perfection of these works of art. I have just finished reading "Goscombe John at the National Museum of Wales." (National Museum of Wales, 1979) for the umpteenth time and always find new aspects of his masterpieces to admire. Looking at the amount of work he produced over the years, his output was prodigious, sometimes six or seven monumental works per year. The result of this output means that he has given his admirers very large numbers of works to savour.
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