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Godfrey Sykes
Dates: British, 1824 - 1866
Biographical Account:

Sykes, Godfrey (1824–1866), designer, was born in New Malton, Yorkshire, and baptized there at the Ebenezer Independent Chapel, Saville Street, on 28 December 1824 the son of George Sykes and Elizabeth Jagger (or Tagger). He was apprenticed to a Sheffield engraver and then worked for himself designing showcards and silverware, mostly for the firm of Edward Atkin in Sheffield. However, when the Sheffield School of Design opened on 1 July 1843, he was one of the first pupils to enrol. These provincial schools were being established by the government to enable working craftsmen to learn the elements of design, especially for use in the local metal trades. Sykes's association with the Sheffield School of Design lasted sixteen years, first as a leading pupil, and then from 1856 as assistant master to the headmaster, Young Mitchell (1811–1865). He won many prizes between 1844 and 1854, and was given free studentship in 1848. In 1856 he designed a silver inkstand which was presented to Mitchell in 1857. Mitchell, the headmaster from 1846 to 1863, had been a pupil of the painter J. A. D. Ingres (1780–1867) in Paris, and of the sculptor and designer Alfred Stevens (1818–1875), who had spent nine years studying in Europe, at the Government School of Design, Somerset House. Mitchell persuaded Stevens to come to Sheffield in 1850 to work as a designer with Henry E. Hoole (c.1806–1891)—manufacturer of stoves, grates, and fenders—who wished to exhibit at the Great Exhibition in 1851. Stevens also spent time with the students at the school of design, and at Mitchell's home. Sykes worked three days a week, unpaid, at Hoole's, with access to Stevens's designs, drawings, and paintings, learning the technical skills of metalwork production. In his metalwork designs and decorative schemes, Sykes was influenced by Stevens's neo-classicism. His design for the telegraphic news room ceiling (1856; destr.) included allegorical figures and semi-abstract designs set in panels. He also produced domestic decorative schemes, for Richard Solly (1807–1869), an ironmaster (president of the school of design, 1847–9), in 1855, and for Sir John Brown (1816–1896), steel baron, at Endcliffe Hall (1863–5). It is possible that he also did some decorative work at Wortley Hall, the home of Lord Wharncliffe. In 1854 Sykes was commissioned to design a frieze, 60 feet long, for the Sheffield Mechanics Institute, showing a procession reminiscent of the Elgin marbles in which deities and allegorical figures combined with everyday subjects (steelworkers, miners, children). This frieze of thirteen panels is now in Sheffield City Art Galleries. Sykes also did paintings, watercolours, and drawings during his stay in Sheffield, many of which are in Sheffield City Art Galleries. They are of local characters, street scenes, Sheffield and Derbyshire landscapes, grinding hulls, tilt forges, and workshops.


In October 1859 Sykes left for London to work on the Horticultural Society's new buildings and later at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). For the latter he had been recruited by Henry Cole, who wanted designers with a thorough training and knowledge of Italian decorative art. In his history of the building of the Victoria and Albert Museum, John Physick noted that 'Sykes was so highly regarded that the Board decided that his “views on questions of decoration [were]to be adopted in future”' (Physick, 58). Sykes's team of assistants included two fellow students from Sheffield, Reuben Townroe (c.1883/1885–1911) and James Gamble (1835–1911), who carried out much of his design work in many media. They specialized in terracotta for external work with 'bold yet sensitive and spontaneous … modelling'. For the south court they produced decorative constructional ironwork, and in the refreshment rooms enamelled metalwork (restored c.1980). Sgraffito decoration in coloured cement covered walls, and ceramic mosaic was used on floors and in panels for wall decoration. They designed stained-glass windows, and patterns and pictures for tiles and majolica. Although he observed that the 'total effect of the decoration must have been one of incoherence', Physick stated that 'the work of Sykes and Gamble is of excellent quality'. After his death Sykes's sketches continued to be used by Townroe and Gamble and other members of the design team until the end of the century. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took a great interest in the museum and visited Sykes there and at his home.


In 1860 Sykes was asked by Thackeray to design the cover of the Cornhill Magazine which features a sower based on a drawing made in Heeley, Sheffield. He also designed the tomb of the artist William Mulready (1786–1863) in Kensal Green cemetery. Sykes died, aged forty-one, at his home, 2 Rich Terrace, Old Brompton, Middlesex, on 28 February 1866, leaving a wife, Ellen, and was buried in Brompton cemetery beneath a stone designed by Gamble, who also used Sykes's designs as a basis for a memorial in Sheffield. Erected in 1875 in Weston Park, it consists of a stone base with panels containing inscriptions, reliefs of the artist's working tools, and a portrait of Sykes.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ,

Godfrey Sykes was born to George Sykes and Elizabeth Jagger in Malton in North Yorkshire in 1824. His family moved to Sheffield in the 1830s. In his teenage years, Sykes worked as an engraver's apprentice with Messrs. James Bell and Tompkins, and designed works for local firms such as Edward Atkin.


From 1844 through 1854, Sykes studied at the Sheffield School of Design. Sykes was one of the first students to enrol at the school, which opened in 1843. During his time there, he won many prizes for his designs, and was twice awarded the Marlborough House Medal National Prize. Museums Sheffield's collection contains a silver copy of his award-winning design for a bronze tobacco urn.


Sykes stayed at the Sheffield School of Art for sixteen years. He was given free studentship in 1848. From 1856 he became Assistant Master to the Headmaster, Young Mitchell, and later became second master of drawing at a local grammar school.


Towards the end of his studies, Sykes met the sculptor Alfred Stevens, who would go on to design the Wellington Monument at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Sykes worked with Stevens at the ironworks of Henry E. Hoole & Co. where Stevens was chief designer, and Stevens' Renaissance Revival style was highly influential on Sykes.


While studying and working in Sheffield, Sykes designed a number of works for the city as both public and private commissions. He designed a ceiling for The Telegraphic News Room, the murals and staircase at Endcliffe Hall, the gates to Weston Park, and several domestic residences.


Sykes also carried out a number of oil paintings featuring the industries and workers of Sheffield, and genre scenes and landscapes in oil and watercolour. In addition, he supplemented his interest in Renaissance art and architecture by painting his own versions of great works by Renaissance masters. 


Around 1859 Sykes moved to London to work as Superintendent of Design for the South Kensington Museum, which included the Royal Horticultural Gardens' buildings and what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. His work for the museum brought him great acclaim, and he received a visit from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at home. 


Sykes' design for the South doors of the museum Alphabet Frieze in what is now the Gamble Room was one of his final works, and incorporates self-portraits in the letters A and I. Sadly, Sykes died n 1866 at the age of only 41. His tomb in Brompton cemetery, Kensington, was designed by two of his students, James Gamble and Rueben Townroe. Their design was used in the creation of the memorial to Sykes which can be seen in Weston Park in Sheffield.


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