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Public Statues and Sculpture Association

Reuben Townroe (1835–1911)

Designer, sculptor and painter, born in Sheffield. He was, with James Gamble and Godfrey Sykes, a student at the Sheffield School of Design where one of his masters was Alfred Stevens. Shortly after Sykes’s move to London to work on the architectural decorations for the South Kensington Museum (since 1899 the Victoria and Albert Museum), both Townroe and Gamble were invited to join him as his assistants; and after Sykes’s death in 1866 the two took over as joint heads of the museum workshop. Townroe designed the mosaic panel portraying Bernard Palissy for the museum’s South Court (1864; since relocated) and Owen Jones for the Oriental Courts (1874; now lost). He also designed a large stained glass window for the North Staircase (1867; destroyed in the Second World War); the figurative mosaic lunettes and panels on the façade of the Lecture Theatre and the Great Exhibition mosaic for its pediment (1868; designs based on Sykes’s sketches); and, with Gamble, modelled the reliefs on the museum’s then principal doorway (now opening onto the inner quadrangle, the John Madejski Garden). Townroe also designed the 15 mosaic panels above the round-headed first-floor windows on the outside of the Library building and the plaster overdoors within (c.1881). In 1865–71, Townroe and Gamble executed the terracotta decorations for the exterior of the Royal Albert Hall. Beginning in the 1870s, the South Kensington Museum suffered funding cuts and in 1882 Townroe resigned over his lack of payment. In the breaks between their work on the museum’s projects, Townroe and Gamble assisted Stevens on his two great commissions, the decorations for Dorchester House and the Wellington Monument for St Paul’s Cathedral. Townroe lived for much of his life in Chelsea (Church Street from c.1875, and Gertrude Street from c.1891 until his death). He exhibited at the Royal Academy only twice, in 1875 a portrait medallion of Captain Francis Fowke and in 1880 another of an unnamed sitter. In 1909, Townroe was a beneficiary of the Royal Academy’s Turner Fund (set up for artists in hardship who were not Royal Academicians). The Victoria and Albert Museum holds a large collection of his designs and sketches; Museums Sheffield, a self-portrait in oils (VIS.2310); and the National Portrait Gallery, a plaster cast of his 1875 death mask of Alfred Stevens (NPG 1413).

Bibliography: J. Bryant, Designing the V&A. The museum as a work of art (1857–1909), London, 2017; T. Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Kensington and Chelsea with Westminster South-West, Watford, 2023, pp. 161, 163, 164, 166, 169, 355; S. Graves, ‘Sykes, Godfrey (1824–1866)’, ODNB, Oxford, 2004; Mapping Sculpture; C. Marsden, ‘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; J. Physick, The Victoria and Albert Museum: The History of its Building, London, 1982.

Terry Cavanagh November 2022