The following excerpt from Joseph Johnson's popular book, Clever Girls has been transcribed and formatted for this website by Jacqueline Banerjee, who has also illustrated it and added links. Page numbers are given in square brackets. Please click on all the images for more information about them, and to see larger versions of them.
In the Paris Exhibition of 1856, an object which attracted more than ordinary attention was a marvellous piece of sculpture announced in the catalogue as a Girl Skipping; and certainly, if truth to nature, the preservation of all the grace and spirit which characterise the budding years of a blooming girl, should entitle to attention and admiration, then the admirable work of Mary Thorneycroft [sic] was not overestimated or not unduly praised.
The Skipping-Rope / Girl Skipping (c.1856).
The sculptress happily still lives to spread around marks of her genius, and to give more than indications of the possession of talents which entitle her to rank with the most notable and famous sculptors of this or any other time. Had she lived in the palmy days of Greece or Rome, and had any of her works been preserved to us, we might not estimate them as we estimate the Apollo Belvedere, or The Dying Gladiator, but we should, nevertheless, look upon them as priceless treasures, more especially being the production of a woman. [233/34]
Mary was born in 1814, at Thornham, in Norfolk. Mr. John Francis, her father, was a sculptor. It was not, however, until he had attained to middle life that he put his cherished purpose, of adopting the profession of a sculptor, as a means of living. He had long practised, for his own amusement, the art of modelling in clay; then, when he had fully resolved upon taking the step, he removed with his family to London; first, with the intention of studying, and then practising his newly-adopted profession. His little girl, instead of amusing herself with the feminine amusements so congenial to her sex and age, found her greatest delight in frequenting her father's studio, in watching the growth and development of the clay models under his hands. Not content, however, with merely watching the process of clay modelling, she must needs make the experiment herself — try if by dint of perseverance she could not also make a thing of beauty. Thus, from her most childish years, when other girls were busy with their dolls, she was making strenuous efforts to imitate her father's works, and to put into form and shape the creations which even then were teeming ia her brain. Her father's friends deemed this a waste of time; they could not understand the use of a girl neglecting all feminine employments, to shut herself up in her father's apartments, and to busy herself only with clay models! In suffering his girl's time to be thus absorbed, he was warned by his friends o£ the injustice that he was doing her, and of the retri[234-35]bution which would await him in after years as the result of time wasted and talents misapplied. Mr. Francis, however, heeded not these cautions; he permitted the talents of his little girl to have their own bent, and to follow their own inclinings. How wisely he thus resolved we shall presently see.
Sleeping Child (an earlier work of this title, c.1836).
We can easily imagine that the amount of practice which Mary obtained gave her extraordinary facility in shaping and moulding the clay. The trite saying, that "practice makes perfect" was not at fault in Mary's case. Talents and genius she might have; and yet, from want of practice, there might be no results; and, as a consequence, one with ability less marked, and genius less recognised, would succeed in results more valuable and more enduring. But this could not be so in Mary's case — the very opposite was her daily experience; she practised unremittingly and untiringly. And, even though she had not the talents which she is known to possess, it would have been wonderful had she not succeeded. "Practice makes perfect," be the talents or genius what it may. A resolved purpose, an indomitable intention, will secure enduring results to the most meager talents, where genius is not possessed or recognised. The race is not always to the swift: the battle is not always to the strong.
During these years of girlhood, she sent some of her studies, busts and heads, to the Royal Academy Exhibition, where they were deemed worthy of a place, as they were entitled to notice. Her first ima[235/36]ginative work — for Mary was not satisfied to copy either the antique nor the productiona of modern sculptors — was a poetic composition; a figure of Penelope and a group, representing Ulysses and His Dog; these studies, beautiful, and, under the circumstances, wonderful as they were, were yet not so generally appreciated as a life-sized statue, called the Flower Girl. This work excited the attention of the public so that Mary came to be recognised as a power amongst living artists. She was no longer to be deemed an amateur, "dabbling with clay," but a professional, who had earned the title of sculptor by works of undoubted merit.
Her father had a pupil named Thorneycroft [sic], who, no donbt; had watched wi:h increasing interest the development of Mary's talents; and it may be that the encouragement which he gave her and the praise which he honestly bestowed incited her to efforts and to continuance in the career which she had chosen. How could it be otherwise but that he should fall in love with her? He saw her devotion to the pursuit which he had adopted as a profession; he saw her marvellous industry, and recognised her genius and talent. Would it not have been wonderful had he not fallen in love with her? And then can we blame Mary for contracting an attachment for the companion of her studies — he who probably gave her hints in the development of her work; and, when that work was in process and completed, filled her ears with praise? She would return his love — [236/37] cementing that return with a gift of her hand; thus, in the year 1840, Miss Francis, to be Miss Francis no longer, became the wife of Mr. Thorneycroft [sic], sculptor. Now, indeed, she would work on, not as a pleasure, but as a duty; her husband assisting her with his practical advice, and with the encouragement of a loving husband: no wonder that her zeal increased and that her industry was doubled.
Plenty: The Princess Louise, exhibited 1861.
After thus spending two years of their married life, Mr. Thorneycroft, in company with his gifted wife, made an extended tour through Italy, during which they spent a winter in Rome, where they made the acquaintance of the eminent sculptors, Thorwaldsen and Gibson, who were especially interested in Mary from the models of Sappho and a Sleeping Child which she had executed during her stay in the city. The Sleeping Child, indeed, made so deep an impression on the mind of Mr. Gibson, that when the Queen consulted him as to the sculptor best suited to model the portraits of the royal children, he at once named, without hesitation, Mrs. Thorneycroft [sic]; so that when she returned to England in 1843, she was at once commanded by her Majesty to execute a statue of the Princess Alice, which task she performed so much to the satisfaction of the Royal mother, that she received the further command to execute the statues of the Princess Royal, Prince of Wales, and Prince Alfred.
A later work,of 1877: Princess Victoria, with Princess Maud of Wales.
These distinguished children appeared under the design of the gifted artist as the four seasons; they [237/38] were exhibited at the Royal Academy, and owing to their being engraved, have become generally known and appreciated. Her Majesty's appreciation of the talents of Mrs. Thorneycroft [sic] was to her of signal advantage; not simply because it was the patronage of Majesty, but because it is well known that her Majesty, by taste and culture, is capable of appreciating and discriminating a true work of art. How she estimates Mrs. Thorneycroft [sic] may be inferred from the fact that she gave her an additional commission for two other members of the Royal family.
In the production of works of this kind her brother artists do not hesitate to assign her quite the foremost place amongst living sculptors. Doubtless she is aided by the eye of the mother which, merging in the woman, and not forgotten in the artist, tends so naturally to her success; her immense practice enabling her to realise the conceptions and images of her mind. We thus see that her youthful days were not wasted; that she has attained to her high position as the result of continuous labours; that she has realised in her own experience that "Industry is its own reward!"
Johnson, Joseph. Clever Girls of Our Time, and How They Became Famous Women. 2nd ed. London: Darton and Hodge, 1862. Internet Archive. From the collections of Oxford University. Web. 8 May 2023.
Created 8 May 2023