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Extracts from the manuscript diary of Lord Ronald Gower between 1859 and 1889 selected by Philip Ward Jackson.


These diary extracts have been made over the course of the last thirty years, and are the result of my on-going interest in Lord Ronald Gower (1845-1916) as a sculptor and chronicler of the art-world of his day. It has proved an added bonus that the diaries also shed interesting light on the gay life of the period. Gower produced three volumes of memoirs. The first, My Reminiscences, was published in 1883 by Kegan Paul, and subsequently ran through four editions. Then, in 1902, John Murray published Old Diaries. These were followed by Records and Reminiscences, in 1903 from the same publisher, an attempt to make a continuous narrative of the earlier volumes. All of these are lively enough texts, especially the account of Gower’s round-the-world trip of 1876 included in the 1883 volume, but, as often in such cases, concern for the interest, even the tolerance, of the reading public, resulted in regrettable omissions. By the turn of the century the Wilde trials had led to a moralistic backlash, and Gower was living a comparatively settled life with his long-term partner, Frank Hird. While the names of his erstwhile ‘aesthetic’ friends are not entirely expunged from the record, it is noticeable that Wilde’s is absent in Gower’s account of his “great day”, 10th October 1888, when his Shakespeare Memorial was unveiled at Stratford-upon-Avon. The newspapers and Wilde’s own letters confirm the prominent part he had played in that day’s celebrations.

We can also deduce from the version of events presented in the published volumes, either that Gower believed the British reading public was little interested in the processes of sculpture, or that he felt that a more detailed account of his artistic life in Paris in the 1870s might undermine his claim to be the true author of his sculpted oeuvre, including the Shakespeare Memorial itself. Therefore we are dependent on the manuscript diaries for a blow-by-blow account of what went on. The passages which concern Gower’s sculptural activities in Paris figure in the extracts between 15 March 1875 and 5 March 1888. Nonetheless, as Gower was keeping a diary in in his early teens, the extracts begin when Gower was thirteen, and span the years when he was the somewhat reluctant MP for Sutherland between 1867 and 1874, so as to give some idea of his artistic formation and early tastes. There is a strong link between the period of sculptural activity and the earlier history of Gower’s family’s patronage of sculpture, and particularly with their role as patrons of the Staffordshire Potteries. Albert Carrier-Belleuse, the artist with whom Lord Ronald chose to start his sculpture apprenticeship in 1875, had been employed as a ceramic modeller at Minton’s between 1850 and 1855. Ronald’s parents, the 2nd Duke of Sutherland and his wife Harriet were almost certainly instrumental in bringing this about, and Carrier-Belleuse in those years modelled statuettes of three of their children, including the young Lord Ronald, all of which were produced in Minton’s Parian Ware. How exactly, or even whether, the contact with Carrier-Belleuse was maintained, the diaries do not make clear. In the intervening years, Gower and his mother can be seen visiting some of the sites of the sculptor’s most spectacular activities, for example the thermal establishments at Vichy and the Hotel de la Païva in the Champs Elysées, but this does not necessarily indicate that they were in touch with the man himself. One possibility is that the contact was broken off, but that Gower was reminded of the possibility of entering Carrier’s studio by meeting one of his English pupils, Thomas Nelson Maclean on 12 November 1874.

Another fascinating sub-plot revealed only in the manuscript is the transfer of the services of Lord Ronald’s assistant, Luca Madrassi, first from Carrier-Belleuse’s Paris workshop, to a studio shared by Gower and Madrassi, and thence to Gustave Doré’s atelier. Doré, already a celebrated painter and illustrator, rather surprised the world in the late 1870s by appearing under the new guise of sculptor. Lord Ronald’s diary explains the mechanism behind this transformation.

What persuaded me to make these extracts available was the fact that some misinformation about the authorship of the Shakespeare Memorial has been doing the rounds. Much as we must applaud the decision by Historic England to upgrade the memorial’s listing status to Grade II with star, it seems desirable that the full facts about its creation, from the horse’s mouth as it were, should be made known.

It should finally be said that these extracts form but a tiny proportion of the diaries as a whole. Gower’s handwriting is often very difficult to decipher. It is necessary, in order to do so, to have a nose for the relevant detail. Another reader might make a completely different selection, concerned say, principally with the family life of the Leveson Gowers or visits to English country houses. Here though, for what they are worth are the ones which I extracted. At times it has been necessary to summarize or to make interpolations, when an extract is not entirely self-explanatory or the location of an event is not specified in the entry. Any material which is not a verbatim transcription is placed within square brackets. Standard brackets are Lord Ronald’s own.

The diaries are now held at the Staffordshire County Record Office in Stafford, with the ref. D6578/15

Further Recommended reading:

Carrier-Belleuse, le maître de Rodin, exh. catalogue with texts by June Hargrove, Palais de Compiègne, 22 May – 27 Oct. 2014

Michael Kimberley, Lord Ronald Gower’s Monument to Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Society, Stratford-upon-Avon Papers, no.3, 1989

Philip Ward-Jackson, ‘A.-E. Carrier-Belleuse, J.-J. Feuchère and the Sutherlands’, Burlington Magazine, 127 (1985)

Philip Ward-Jackson, ‘Lord Ronald Gower, Gustave Doré and the Shakespeare Memorial at Stratford-on-Avon’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, I (1987)

Philip Ward-Jackson, ‘Lord Ronald Gower’s Shakespeare Memorial’, European Gay Review, vol.2, 1987.

Philip Ward-Jackson, ‘Augustin Dumont’s Trentham Genius of Liberty Rediscovered’, Burlington Magazine, 1309 (2012)

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