A missing marble bust by eminent Welsh sculptor Joseph Edwards (1814-1882) has been rediscovered in an under-stairs cupboard in the Old College at Aberystwyth University.
The bust, of prolific nineteenth century scholar and historian Thomas Stephens of Merthyr Tydfil (1821-1875), is believed to have reached Aberystwyth along with Stephen’s papers which were donated by his family to the National Library of Wales. At the time, the National Library of Wales was housed in the Old College. The bust may have been overlooked when the papers were transferred to the new National Library of Wales building in the late 1930s. Neil Holland from the School of Art explains: “A great deal of work has taken place since the 1960s to re-catalogue and re-assemble artefacts and collections donated to the University since 1872, and as far as we can recall we have never come across any accession record for the bust of Thomas Stephens in all that time. So it has been hidden away for at least 40 years.”
Joseph Edwards’ love of carving was revealed at an early age. Also from Merthyr Tydfil, and the son of a stone cutter, Edwards left for London in 1835 at the age of 21, after two years apprenticed to a memorial mason in Swansea. There, after almost succumbing to starvation, he was taken on as a studio assistant by sculptor William Behnes. Two years later, in 1837, Edwards entered the Royal Academy of Arts, where he won several awards for his work. Numerous commissions followed, and in the ensuing years Edwards created a large number of allegorical works such as The Last Dream, Religion consoling Justice, a monument to Sir Bernard Bosanquet and Religion which was shown at an international exhibition. In 1838 he was taken on by sculptor Patrick MacDowell, and assisted him in the production of works such as Girl Reading, Triumph of Love and Virginius. In 1860 Edwards’ began assisting Matthew Noble, and upon Noble’s early death in 1876 Edwards was given responsibility for the considerable task of completing his outstanding commissions and selling original plaster models for the benefit of Noble’s widow and children. Upon completion of this work Edwards found himself in straitened circumstances and in 1881, sponsored by painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts, Edwards’ was awarded a financial award of £50 per annum under the Turner bequest. He died shortly after receiving the first instalment. A year after his death The Red Dragon: The National Magazine of Wales wrote, ‘Of Joseph Edwards it may be said that Wales never had a truer or a more gifted son.’ Edwards was also well known for his portrait busts of contemporary figures and funerary monuments, often memorialising fellow Welshmen. Examples of his work can be seen in churches and cemeteries throughout Wales and England.
Despite a lack of formal education, Thomas Stephens, an apothecary by profession, became one of Wales’ most innovative scholars, social reformers and cultural critics. His critical essay on the history of language and literature of medieval Wales, Literature of the Kymry, published in 1849 was met with international acclaim and even appeared in a German translation in 1864. An important public figure in Merthyr Tydfil, Thomas Stephens led a number of initiatives to improve educational provisions, health and welfare of the town, where living conditions were deplorable and social unrest was prevalent. He co-founded its public library, helped to establish its health board, and advocated state-aided secular education. Dr Marion Löffler from the University of Wales Centre for Celtic Studies Aberystwyth, who is currently leading a Leverhulme-funded research project focusing on Thomas Stephens, was delighted with the find: “This bust is an important part of Welsh intellectual and art history. Thomas Stephens is one of the best examples of a self-made Welsh Victorian and represents European amateur scholarship at its best. “The story of the commissioning of the bust speaks volumes itself. When Stephens retired from his post as secretary of Merthyr Library on grounds of severe illness in 1862, a collection was made, but he refused the money. The committee then decided to commission fellow Merthyr man, Joseph Edwards, to create a commemorative artwork.” In 1878 the Art Journal, the most important Victorian magazine on art, commented on Edwards’ bust of Thomas Stephens: ‘[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.’