Joseph Edwards – Merthyr’s Great Sculptor

Joseph Edwards was born on 5 March 1814 at Ynysgau, Merthyr Tydfil. His father, John was a stonecutter, and Joseph grew up helping his father, showing exceptional ability from an early age. He had a limited education at local charity schools, but at the age of seventeen, Joseph sought to widen his horizons by walking through South and West Wales, spending nearly two years in Swansea where he was employed as a mason.

In 1835, he went to London carrying an introduction to the sculptor William Behnes who, after some hesitation, employed him. He stayed with Behnes until 1838, during which time he attended the Royal Academy Schools, winning the silver medal for best model from the antique, and exhibiting for the first time. He entered the studio of Patrick MacDowell while continuing his studies at the Royal Academy, where he won a second silver medal in 1839. By this time he was gaining commissions for portrait busts and memorials in his own right, especially from patrons connected with South Wales. He carved the monument to Henry Charles Somerset, Sixth Duke of Beaufort, and in 1840 he made a bust of Ivor Bertie Guest, the first of several commissions from Merthyr industrialists.

Joseph Edwards

In 1843 Edwards carved The Last Dream at North Otterington Church in Yorkshire, now regarded as his early masterpiece. Welsh intellectuals became increasingly aware of his career, and Edwards was perceived to demonstrate the potential for national progress in Wales, having risen by his own efforts from humble origins to find a place in the English art world. Like Gibson, he was frequently cited in the mid-nineteenth century as an example for the young to follow. In 1855, at the Royal London Eisteddfod, he became the first Welsh artist to have a solo exhibition of his works.

Edwards was patronized by notable establishment figures. His marble relief Religion Consoling Justice (1853; Dingestow, Monmouthshire) formed part of the memorial to Justice Sir John Bernard Bosanquet, and in 1854 and 1856 he was again commissioned by the Beaufort family. In 1859 he met George Virtue, whose magazine, the Art Journal, promoted his work, publishing engravings on several occasions. Virtue also made use of a work by Edwards for the headpiece of his Girls Own Paper. In 1870 the sculptor was commissioned to execute the memorial to the publisher at Walton-on-Thames cemetery.

His sculpture ‘Religion’, exhibited as a plaster at the International Exhibition of 1862, became his only large-scale public sculpture in his native country, erected in marble at Cefn Cemetery ten years later (a second version is at Highgate Cemetery, London).

‘Religion’ at Highgate Cemetery

His seriousness and dedication to his art came at the expense of business considerations, and he was frequently financially embarrassed. Probably for this reason, in 1846 Edwards began to work for Matthew Noble in a role which, it is clear, far exceeded that of the normal assistant. Among Edwards’s papers is a list of some forty major pieces attributed to the English sculptor, on which Edwards worked at every stage from conception to completion, including the famous Wellington memorial of 1856 in Manchester. He became known in the art world as Noble’s ‘ghost’, entering his studio at the end of the day to work overnight, and on Sundays. On Noble’s death in 1876, Edwards completed his outstanding works, for which he received minimal recompense. In 1881 Thomas Woolner, who took a dim view of Noble’s practice, made application on Edwards’s behalf for a Turner bequest. The Welsh sculptor was able to benefit from only one payment, since he died on 9 January 1882 at his home in London. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery.

Joseph Edwards’ tomb

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