Joseph Edwards (1814-1882), the son of a stone-cutter, was born and grew up in Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, amid the ironworks and coal mines of South Wales. Merthyr then had about twice the population of Swansea, and a good deal more than twice that of Cardiff (see Newman 434), and Carlyle's depressing view of its struggling workers as "poor creatures broiling all in sweat and dirt, amid their furnaces, pits and rolling-mills" is often quoted (e.g. in Morrow 108). Death rates were high and Edwards had already carved his first headstone before being inspired by the collection of historic Celtic crosses at Margam Abbey, near Port Talbot. After a spell in Swansea, he returned to Merthyr, and then in 1835, at the age of twenty-one, set off for London, where he was almost starving before he was taken on by William Behnes as a studio assistant (see Wilkins 99). Behnes was a sculptor who, according to Francis Palgrave, conducted his studio on solidly traditional lines, and gathered the best of the best around him: "a general character of soundness or proficiency in art belongs to Behnes's pupils, and marks them off from other names which, to the detriment of English art at home and of out reputation in Europe, are sometimes put prominently forward" (225). So this was the finest possible start for the impoverished young Welshman.
In 1837, Edwards entered the Royal Academy Schools on the recommendation of no lesser light than Francis Chantry (see Gunnis 140), leaving Behnes' studio in the following year to work for Patrick McDowell. In December of the same year he won the first of his two silver medals at the Royal Academy for "the best model from the antique" ("Royal Academy"). Edwards stayed in the capital, and settled down in Hampstead, where he was happiest in his own studio, amongst his own works and his stacks of unshelved books. From 1838 to 1878 he exhibited seventy of his independent pieces at the Academy's exhibitions (Allen). In 1839, he won his first major commission. to execute the monument of the sixth Duke of Beaufort, to the designs of T. H. Wyatt. However, from 1860 he spent most of his time assisting Matthew Noble, in particular being responsible for almost all the reliefs on that sculptor's monuments — reliefs that the Pall Mall Gazette considered better than the statues themselves.
Noble's death in 1876 left Edwards with many commissions to complete, models to sell, and a great deal of paperwork to deal with, all on behalf of Noble's family. A conscientious and painstaking man, as well as a philanthropic one, he did little to ensure his own financial security. His friends Thomas Woolner and George Frederic Watts helped him towards an annuity from the Turner bequest. But he only received one instalment of it before his death at the beginning of 1882 (Ellis). He was 67 years old.
Edwards' gift did not go unrecognised at the time. The Art Journal had a special penchant for his works: indeed, when the journal's first proprietor George Virtue died in 1859, his widow commissioned Edwards to execute a bust of, and monument to, her husband (Ellis), the latter to be found in the cemetery in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. One of his best-known works, The Spirit of Love and Truth was commissioned by the wife of the editor, Samuel Carter Hall, as an overmantel relief for their home, also in Surrey (see Allen). Mrs S. C. Hall, best known as a children's writer, was evidently delighted with it: the design found its way to the front page of The Girls’ Own Paper, to the first volume of which she was a contributor. The only difference is that the angel carries a banner bearing the title instead of the original text (which was: "EVER LET LOVE AND TRUTH PREVAIL").
Although Edwards liked to execute allegorical works, portrait busts and funerary monuments were the kinds of pieces for which he was best known (of course, the monuments themselves incorporated allegories). Both busts and monuments often memorialised his fellow-countrymen. As a result, most of them are to be found in Wales. The 1878 issue of Y Cymmrodor, the publication of the Welsh society in London, proudly quoted the Art Journal on Edwards' bust of the Welsh scholar, Thomas Stephens. The bust was temporarily on display at the Royal Academy, but the commentator felt that it would attract much more attention in South Wales, adding that the Welsh
may well be proud of their countryman, Joseph Edwards. There are artists who will make as good busts, but there is no living sculptor who can produce monumental work so pure, so refined, so essentially holy. There seems to be in his mind and soul a natural piety that manifests itself in his work; an out-pouring of a lofty religious sentiment; a true conception of what is just and right. There is no one to whom we would so instantly assign the task of perpetuating in marble what is lovely and of good report; he gives a sweet repose to death, and makes the change a sure indication of happiness. Perhaps that is the highest, as it is certainly the holiest achievement of the sculptor's art. If we desired evidence to confirm our opinion as to the genius of Mr. Edwards in this especial and most important branch of art, we should refer to several engravings given in the Art Journal during years past. The artist is in the prime of life. Yes; "Wales may well be proud of the Welshman, Joseph Edwards." [qtd. in Jones 200]
Edwards in turn never lost his loyalty to Wales. An autodidact whose interests ranged across literature in many languages, including Hebrew and Sanskrit, he collected an especially fine library of Welsh books, and would later be recalled in the annals of the Cymmrodorion society as a "patriotic and gifted Welshman" (Powell 44).
Why is Edwards not better known today? In its obituary of him, the Pall Mall Gazette suggested that working for Noble, "a man who was his acknowledged inferior as an artist," had "checked his original production." In fact, Edwards' career gives an insight into the world of sculpture in the period, when the best-known sculptors had large studios and turned out major public statues with the help of skilled assistants, who therefore had less time and energy to realise their own, perhaps more delicately artistic visions, and whose names were soon forgotten. Perhaps something was missing in such cases: drive, or originality, or both. Edwards was certainly not ambitious in a worldly way, and the Gazette, comments not only on the smallness of Edwards' own (named) output, but on the "too Chantreian smoothness" of his busts. Nevertheless, this was an artist who produced deeply poignant and lyrically conceived as well as meticulously "finished" work, and who was rightly celebrated in Wales as a "poet-sculptor" (Wilkins 107). He certainly deserves more recognition than he currently receives. — Jacqueline Banerjee
- Memorial for Sir John Bosanquet: Religion Consoling Justice (1853), at Cefn-coed-cymmer, Merthyr Tydfil
- Memorial for Eliza Vaughan: Daughter of Grace — Religion (1861), at Highgate Cemetery
- The Spirit of Love and Truth (1866)
- Memorial to George Virtue, at Walton-on-Thames cemetery, Surrey (1870)
Allen, Sylvia. "Details of Sculptor: Edwards, Joseph." A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660-1851 (The Henry Moore Foundation). Web. 30 December 2013.
Ellis, Megan. "Edwards, Joseph." Welsh Biography Online (National Library of Wales). Web. 30 December 2013.
Gunnis, Rupert. Dictionary of British Sculptors, 1660-1851. London: Odhams, 1953. Print.
Jones, Rev. Robert. Y Cymmrodor: Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion. Vol 2 (1878). Internet Archive. Web. 30 December 2013.
"Joseph Edwards." Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851-1951. University of Glasgow History of Art and HATII, online database. Web. 30 December 2013.
Morrow, John. Thomas Carlyle. London: Continuum, 2007. Print.
Newman, John. Glamorgan. Buildings of Wales series. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004. Print.
"Occasional Notes." The Pall Mall Gazette. 16 January 1882: 3. 19the Century British Newspapers. Web. 30 December 2013.
Palgrave, Francis Turner. Essays on Art. London: Macmillan, 1866. Internet Archive. Web. 30 December 2013.
Powell, Thomas, ed. Y Cymmrodor: Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion. Vol 5 (1882). Internet Archive. Web. 30 December 2013.
"Royal Academy." The Times 13 December 1838: 5. Times Digital Archive. Web. 30 December 2013.
Wilkins, Charles. "Notable Men of Wales: Joseph Edwards, the Sculptor." The Red Dragon: The National Magazine of Wales. Vol. I (Feb.-July, 1882). Internet Archive. Web. 30 December 2013.
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