Sitting confidently, albeit incongruously, amongst white stucco Italianate villas, and next to a Shell petrol station on the Old Brompton Road, is an ornate, red brick, double-fronted, Dutch-gabled building with leaded windows, called Dora House. This is home to The Royal Society of Sculptors, founded in 1905 by some of the leading sculptors of their day, including Thomas Stirling Lee, the first Chairman of the Chelsea Arts Club in 1891, George Frampton RA, and Francis Derwent Wood RA. The aims of the Society were cited as: ‘The promotion and advancement in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and its Colonies and Dependencies, of the art of sculpture and the maintenance and protection of the interests of Sculptors and the elevation of the status of the Profession of Sculpture.’ In 1911 the Society was granted royal patronage, and became The Royal Society of British Sculptors, only dropping ‘British’ in 2017. Dora House was originally built by William Blake in 1820 as a pair of early Georgian semi-detached villas, with the ornate frontage remodelled in 1885 to provide a grand studio for Court photographers Elliot and Fry.
Some twenty years later, one of the giants of British sculpture, Charles Sergeant Jagger, was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, winning the Gold Medal in 1926 and 1933, and an Associate of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1926. He was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry, having been wounded three times. His memorial to the Royal Artillery at Hyde Park Corner, is arguably the greatest edifice to war ever erected anywhere on earth, while his reflective sculpture of a soldier reading a letter on Platform One of Paddington Railway Station, commissioned by the Great Western Railway, is as moving a war memorial as one could imagine or see. George Frampton is probably most famous for his Peter Pan sculpture in Kensington Gardens, but his memorial in St Martin’s Place to the British nurse Edith Cavell, shot by the Germans as an alleged spy in 1915, met with some derision. James Pryde, one half of the graphic artists the Beggerstaff Brothers with his brother-in-law William Nicholson, was heard to remark, in a stage whisper, as the statue was being unveiled in front of thousands of people, ‘My God! They shot the wrong person!’
Derwent Wood’s Atlanta, on the North side of Albert Bridge, who was paid for by his friends at Chelsea Arts Club three years after his death in 1929, suffered the ignominy of being cut off at her ankles by thieves in 1991. The original marble statue was tracked down to Manchester Art Gallery and another cast was taken, with the result that she is back on her pedestal, this time with lighting and CCTV. Other names associated with the Society include Cecil Thomas, who bequeathed Dora House, his home and studio for many years, to the Society in memory of his wife. He was also Master of the Artworkers Guild. Alfred Drury was assistant to Joseph Boehm, who famously died of a heart attack in flagrante with his pupil Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, and produced the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds in the courtyard of Burlington House; Gilbert Bayes was responsible for the Portland Stone bas-relief sculpture at the entrance to Lord’s Cricket Ground in St John’s Wood; Sir William Hamo Thornycroft was famed from a very young age, becoming one of the youngest Royal Academicians at the age of 32, and erected a statue to Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament and to General Gordon in Trafalgar Square; John Bunting was primarily an art teacher at Ampleforth, a post he held for 40 years, in between producing works on a religious theme; Thomas Brock is probably best known for his sculpture of Queen Victoria outside Buckingham Palace, the bronze of Prince Albert on his memorial in Kensington Gardens, Sir Henry Irving outside the National Portrait Gallery, and Millais at the back of Tate Britain. The Society is very proud of supporting women sculptors, and have featured many as Pioneering Women, including Faith Winter, who carved the statue of General Sikorski in Portland Place; Edith Elizabeth Jukes, who worked in wood, stone and clay; Elizabeth Koster, who made totemic pieces in wood and aluminium; Naomi Blake, who survived Aucschwitz and was concerned that her works ‘spoke’, so there was no need for an unnecessary explanation, saying, ‘don’t talk sculpture, sculpt’; ‘Lady Feodora Gleichen had access to the royal family through her father, and carved Queen Victoria in marble, before designing the Diana Fountain in Hyde Park (no, not that one!), which showed a nude woman in a public space, which was both unprecedented and shocking for the time.
Since those early days, the Society has provided a supportive membership community to sculptors throughout their careers, offering access to expert advice, training, bursaries, residencies and awards. Other illustrious members have included Sir Albert Gilbert, Sir Charles Wheeler, Eric Gill, Frank Dobson, Dame Elizabeth Frink, Tony Long, Anthony Caro and Anthony Gormley, and the Society now boasts some younger sculptors, with a healthy programme of exhibitions, workshops, community activities and talks.