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.