John Tweed: Sculpting the Empire. Nicola Capon. 2013

John Tweed: Sculpting the Empire. Nicola Capon. 2013

Capon, Nicola. 
John Tweed: Sculpting the Empire
Spire Books Ltd. 
ISBN 978-1904965435. 
112 pages

In place of the typical teenage bedroom wall adornments—pictures of footballers or portraits of pop stars—I had a poster depicting the Whitby statue of Captain Cook.  Not surprising then that the cover of this book immediately caught my eye when perusing the shelves of a London antiquarian bookshop: there was the image I knew so well in the form of a clay maquette, alongside the familiar moustached face of its sculptor, John Tweed. 


I didn’t have to think twice before buying the book! 


I was pleased to discover inside it a flyer for an exhibition of Tweed’s work at Reading Museum, Berkshire, co-curated by the book’s author, which I was able to see before it closed in early September, 2013.1  The exhibition featured original artworks, documents, including photographs of the Cook maquette and statues (in Whitby and St Kilda, Australia), but no original material relating to Cook. 


This book is the result of four years’ work cataloguing an extensive archive devoted to Tweed at the museum.  It would seem to be the first to set his life and work in an art history context. 


John Tweed was born in Glasgow in 1869.  His life and career spanned one of the most exciting and progressive eras of British history.  He was born when Britain was at the height of its imperial power and advances in science and technology were bringing increasing prosperity.  In his later years, before his death in 1933, all that was fading away, and he witnessed the effects of the First World War and the onset of the Great Depression. 


As a talented young artist Tweed thrived in Glasgow.  It was a great artistic centre and The Glasgow School of Art provided an ideal environment for a student and, later, a teacher.  His move up in the world took him to the Royal Academy Schools in London and he also studied for six months at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  It was at one of the many exhibitions of his work that he met and became friends with Auguste Rodin.  Their collaboration and Tweed’s promotion of the French sculptor’s work as his principal agent and friend in England led to Rodin making a gift of at least 17 works to the British nation in 1914, to be displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 


Tweed was a very successful artist in his own lifetime but, like many of his contemporaries at this time of great social upheaval in the early 20th century, he had to contend with ever changing fashions and tastes in art, together with the huge expansion of art movements throughout Europe and America.  Nowadays he is regarded as old-fashioned and too static.  He was not remotely interested in any art considered modern, which, in his view, put Form in first place over and above Beauty and Nature, the two concepts which he considered essential for successful sculpture. 


In the 1920s and 1930s in particular there was a fundamental shift away from the Victorian ideal of beauty in sculpture.  Tweed was left behind, finding himself at loggerheads with contemporary taste.  His discomfort was made worse by the absence of a clear definition of his own style: his simple guiding principle was the use of nature to produce beauty, with a nod to his forebears from Ancient Greece or the Renaissance. 

In 1909, Tweed failed to win a competition for a commission to make a statue of James Cook for London.  That went instead to Thomas Brock whose Captain Cook Memorial is located at the Admiralty Arch end of The Mall.  Brock was a controversial choice, and it gave rise to claims of favouritism given the number of works by him already situated there.  Tweed’s efforts in the competition were much admired, however, by a member of the Cook Memorial Committee, Gervase Beckett MP.  Having strongly supported Tweed’s bid, he commissioned Tweed to make a statue for Beckett’s own constituency of Whitby. 


And so, in October 1912, Tweed’s statue of Captain James Cook was unveiled on the West Cliff, Whitby,2 winning the accolade for the first Cook statue to be erected in Britain, as Brock’s work was not completed until 1914. 


Like most of Tweed’s sculptures Cook stands in static pose, feet set apart, legs straight and firmly attached to the pedestal, eyes staring straight ahead towards the horizon, holding a chart and a compass.  There is nothing theatrical here.  The pose is typical of Tweed, signifying masculine strength, stillness and steadfastness of purpose—found in most of his works.  Tweed’s Cook is a man in full control of himself, ready for action just as soon as it is required.  He is exactly the kind of man that Britain and her empire overseas had need of in her heyday.  The same sentiments are portrayed in Tweed’s depictions of some great Victorian patriarchs like Lord Clive, Lord Kitchener and Cecil Rhodes.  They resonate too in many of Tweed’s war memorials, guarded by alert and upright standing soldiers.  His work is found here and there across many of the countries that once made up the British Empire, which is the basis of him being named “Empire Sculptor”. 


I have to say I was disappointed by the coverage of the Cook statue in the book, which didn’t satisfy my interests. 


If you are new to Tweed and his work this book will provide an excellent introduction.  It is full of detail, but is very readable with many insights and anecdotes rather than a hefty historical account, and this is where it really succeeds.


John Wilson


  1. “John Tweed, the Empire Sculptor, Rodin’s Friend” – the first significant exhibition devoted to Tweed since 1934.  Held at Reading Museum, from 23 March to 8 September, 2013. 
  2. Cook’s Log, page 15, vol. 34, no. 3 (2011). 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 20, volume 36, number 4 (2013).

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