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Public Statues and Sculpture Association

Thomas Milnes (c.1810–1888)

Sculptor born in Tickhill, Yorks, the son of a stonemason. The year of Milnes’s birth given both in Gunnis and in Roscoe, 1813, is based on the fact that Milnes gave his age as 28 on his entry into the Royal Academy (RA) Schools in 1841. Chris Bell, a descendent of the sculptor, has discovered, however, that Milnes was baptised on 26 January 1810, suggesting 1809 for his year of birth. Bell presumes the date on Milnes’s tombstone in Kensal Green Cemetery, 21 December 1810, to have been supplied by his widow (his third wife) who, while knowing her husband’s birthday, was mistaken about his birth year. Milnes first came to public notice when his entry for the 1844 Westminster Hall competition, a group entitled The Death of Harold, was savaged by the Literary Gazette. Despite this inauspicious start he nevertheless won two important commissions in the late 1840s, Portland stone statues of Admiral Lord Nelson (1847) for Norwich and the Duke of Wellington (1848) for the Tower of London, now at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. In 1858, the government invited Milnes to model four lions for the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square; although it is not known how he received such a prestigious commission, it may be significant that the sculptor who recommended him for entry into the RA Schools, Edward Hodges Baily, was also the sculptor of the column’s crowning figure. Unfortunately for Milnes, his models were considered unsuitable and the commission passed to Edwin Landseer. However, Titus Salt, who two years earlier had commissioned Milnes to carve his portrait bust (now United Reformed Church, Saltaire, Yorks) purchased the four lions, which were then executed in sandstone, for his workers’ village, Saltaire. Two of them, representing respectively Vigilance and Determination, are now outside the former Factory School and the other two, War and Peace, are outside Victoria Hall. Although rejected as supporters for Nelson’s Column – possibly because they lacked the requisite architectural calm – the Art Journal (1869, p. 159) thought they compared ‘by no means unfavourably with those in Trafalgar Square’. Milnes’s funerary commissions include a free-standing monument to Alfred Cooke, 1854, Kensal Green Cemetery (now ruinous) and a wall monument to the architect and engineer George Knowles (d. 1856) in St John’s Church (built by Knowles), Sharow, Yorks, this latter featuring a dramatic relief of a bridge succumbing to a raging torrent (presumably a symbol of death more suitable to an engineer than the traditional broken column). Milnes showed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and also the International Exhibition of 1862, and was a regular exhibitor at the RA (26 works, mostly busts, 1842–66).

Bibliography: C. Bell, ‘Thomas Milnes, c.1810–1888. The Nearly Man of British Sculpture’, The Saltaire Village Website, World Heritage Site; T. Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Kensington and Chelsea with Westminster South-West, Watford, 2023, p. 220; R. Cocke, Public Sculpture of Norfolk and Suffolk, Liverpool, 2013, pp. xiii, 14–15; R. Gunnis, Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660–1951, London, [1968]; Mapping Sculpture; I. Roscoe et al, A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660–1851, New Haven and London, 2009; Victorian Web; P. Ward-Jackson, Public Sculpture of Historic Westminster. Volume 1, Liverpool, 2011, p. 285.

Terry Cavanagh November 2022