‘Unsurpassed Genius’: Godfrey Sykes and the Royal Albert Hall

 

This is one of a series of blog posts by students of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA programme, to accompany the ‘Building the Royal Albert Hall’ display at the V&A in Room 127 (the entrance to the Architecture Gallery) until 7 January 2018. It is written by Ruth Sykes.

Godfrey Sykes

Godfrey Sykes, second from right, photographed c. 1862 with Sir Henry Cole (left) and Captain Francis Fowke (second left) in the Quadrangle Garden at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Photograph attributed to Charles Thurston Thompson. E.1086-1989
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

 

 

Godfrey Sykes (1824 – 1866) was employed to design the terracotta decorations on the façade of the Royal Albert Hall by its first architect, Francis Fowke.  These exterior decorations included a series of terracotta shields, and a cast of one of the shields is featured in the ‘Building the Royal Albert Hall’ display at the V&A. The museum acquired plaster-casts of a number of these shields, to add to its extensive collection of cast copies of design and sculpture, used as a teaching aid for design students.

 

terracotta cast

Cast of terracotta shield used on the exterior of the Royal Albert Hall, currently in the V&A display ‘Building the Royal Albert Hall’. Image: Ruth Sykes

Fowkes described Sykes as ‘master and inventor of English cinque-cento decoration’.[1] Henry Cole characterized Sykes’ terracotta designs at the V&A as ‘unsurpassed genius’.[2] The popular revival of terracotta in the 1860s has been ascribed to Sykes’ work within the ‘South Kensington style’.[3] But how did Sykes, who was born in Yorkshire, achieve this prominent and influential position in the South Kensington design world?

Sykes began his working life as an engravers’ apprentice in Sheffield. He later worked for himself, designing ‘showcards and silverware’. In 1843 Sykes began part-time design classes at Sheffield’s Government School of Design, winning prizes such as ‘free student for life’ status in 1848. Sykes taught at the school, becoming Assistant Head in 1857.[4] From 1850 – 52, Sykes assisted prominent sculptor and designer Alfred Stevens (1817 – 1875), who had temporarily moved from London to Sheffield to work as head designer at Hoole’s stove and firegate manufacturers.[5] Following this informal training with Stevens, Sykes expanded his practice to encompass interior design, creating ‘stunning interior decorations’, before Cole acquired his services for South Kensington.[6]

Design for a decorative scheme for a hallway and staircase, Godfrey Sykes, mid-nineteenth century, E.473-2015. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Design for a decorative scheme for a hallway and staircase, Godfrey Sykes, mid-nineteenth century, E.473-2015. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sykes was also proficient painter: The National Gallery acquired his copy of Velázquez’s ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ in 1853.[7]

Godfrey Sykes, Adoration of the Magi

Godfrey Sykes, The Adoration of the Shepherds (After Velázquez), oil on canvas, mid-nineteenth century, 248-1866
Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Sykes’ most well-known London terracotta designs are those produced for the V&A.[8] His decorative schemes can be seen throughout the museum, for example, the North and South Courts and the Prince Consort’s Gallery. Sykes’ intricate V&A terracotta designs are characterised by Christopher Marsden, Senior Archivist at the museum, as having ‘depth, naturalism and a hand-made quality’ even though the work is ‘effectively mass produced‘.[9] In contrast, the Royal Albert Hall shields are comparatively unrefined in detail, but the Hall’s second architect, Major-General Scott RE explained this was done purposefully to be in keeping with a building of such ‘massive appearance’.[10]

Sykes’ early death in 1866 from a lung infection meant that sadly he never saw his shield designs in situ at the Royal Albert Hall.[11] Celebrations and commemorations of his achievements include an exhibition of his paintings and drawings at the South Kensington Museum in 1866, and a large memorial column, erected in Sheffield’s Weston Park in 1875 .[12]

 

Bibliography

Printed sources

Bryant, J Designing the V&A (London, Lund Humphries and V&A Publishing, 2017)

Henderson Floyd, Margaret, ‘A Terra-Cotta Cornerstone for Copley Square: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1860–1876 by Sturgis and Brigham’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol 32. No. 2 (1973), 83-103

Web sources

Brignell, Hannah, Museums Sheffield (2016) < http://www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/blog/2016/2/work-in-focus-godfrey-sykes> [accessed 7th May 2017]

Sheffield City Council (2015) Sources for the Study of Godfrey Sykes(1824-1866) Designer, metalworker, sculptor, painter. [Leaflet obtained via url <https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/content/dam/sheffield/docs/libraries-and-archives/archives-and-local-studies/research/Godfrey%20Sykes%20Research%20Guide%20v1-0.pdf >], [Accessed 7 May 2017]

Unpublished sources

Marsden, C. (2012) Godfrey Sykes and His Studio [Lecture at the conference ‘Artists Work in Museums: Histories, Interventions and Subjectivities’], Institute of Historical Research, 12 October 2012.

Royal Albert Hall. (date unknown) Terracotta Façade and Decoration. Internal RAH report.

 

[1] Royal Albert Hall. (date unknown) Terracotta Façade and Decoration. Internal RAH report. Unpublished, 2.

[2] Marsden, C. (2012) Godfrey Sykes and His Studio  [Lecture at the conference ‘Artists Work in Museums: Histories, Interventions and Subjectivities’], Institute of Historical Research, 12 October 2012, 8.

[3] Henderson Floyd, Margaret, ‘A Terra-Cotta Cornerstone for Copley Square: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1860–1876 by Sturgis and Brigham’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol 32. No. 2 (1973), 83-103, 92.

[4] Sheffield City Council (2015) Sources for the Study of Godfrey Sykes (1824-1866) Designer, metalworker, sculptor, painter. [Leaflet obtained via url <https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/content/dam/sheffield/docs/libraries-and-archives/archives-and-local-studies/research/Godfrey%20Sykes%20Research%20Guide%20v1-0.pdf >], [Accessed 7 May 2017], 4-5.

[5] Marsden, 10.

[6] Hannah Brignell, Museums Sheffield (2016) < http://www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/blog/2016/2/work-in-focus-godfrey-sykes> [accessed 7th May 2017] paragraph 7 of 11.

[7] Sheffield City Council, 4.

[8] Ibid, 96.

[9] Marsden, 7.

[10] Royal Albert Hall, 1.

[11] Sheffield City Council, 4.

[12] Ibid.

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