Designer, sculptor and painter born in New Malton, Yorkshire. He started out as an apprentice to an engraver in Sheffield and in 1843 was one of the first students to enrol at the Sheffield School of Design, a regional training institution recently opened by the Government’s Department of Art and Science. In 1850, the headmaster, Young Mitchell, persuaded Alfred Stevens (whose pupil he had been) to come to Sheffield to teach and to work as a designer with Hoole & Co. Sykes took the opportunity this afforded to work three-days-a-week as Stevens’s unpaid assistant at the firm, Stevens’s techniques and style exerting the single most important influence on his approach and working methods. In 1854, Sykes was commissioned to design a 60-foot-long frieze for the Sheffield Mechanics’ Institute (now in Sheffield City Art Galleries). In 1857, he was appointed assistant headmaster, but in October 1859 accepted Henry Cole’s invitation to relocate to London to work as principal decorative artist on the Horticultural Society’s new buildings and on the adjacent South Kensington Museum buildings; Sykes shortly afterwards engaged three of his fellow students as his assistants, William Ellis, James Gamble and Reuben Townroe. Cole, keen to enrich his principal designer’s artistic education, took him to France and Italy in 1861 (Sykes’s sketches from the journey are now in the V&A). Sykes’s health seems always to have been fragile and in early 1866 at the age of 41, he died of pulmonary oedema reputedly exacerbated by overwork. He left a rich store of sketches and designs which his assistants continued to use for the decoration of the museum buildings over the ensuing years. Sykes’s main work outside the South Kensington Museum was his design for the Monument to William Mulready (d. 1863), Kensal Green Cemetery, executed after Sykes’s death by Gamble and Townroe. Sykes, who had lived with his wife at 2 Rich Terrace, Old Brompton Road, was buried in Brompton Cemetery. Gamble designed both the headstone for his grave and also his monument at Weston Park, Sheffield (unveiled 1875).
Sources: Bryant, J., Designing the V&A. The museum as a work of art (1857–1909), London, 2017; Graves, S., ‘Sykes, Godfrey (1824–1866)’, ODNB, Oxford, 2004; Mapping Sculpture; Marsden, C., ‘Godfrey Sykes and his studio at the South Kensington Museum’, in M. Pye and L. Sandino (eds.), Artists Work in Museums: histories, interventions, subjectivities, Bath, 2013, pp. 48–62; Physick, J., The Victoria and Albert Museum: The History of its Building, London, 1982; V&A Museum, National Art Library: Catalogue of the special exhibition of oil paintings, water-colour drawings, architectural and other studies by the late Godfrey Sykes: at the South Kensington Museum, June 1866, HMSO (call no. VA.1866.Box.0001); ‘Henry Cole. Diary: Typed Transcript’, 1859, 1861, 1866 (call nos 45.C.120, 45.C.122, 45.C.127).
Terry Cavanagh November 2022
James Gamble, Godfrey Sykes, copper relief patinated to resemble bronze, detail from the Godfrey Sykes Memorial Column, Western Park, Sheffield, 1871 (Photo: Ukance, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)