Obituary: Robert Thomas

WITH ONLY a few exceptions, the public statuary of Wales is not very distinguished. It consists, for the most part, of grandiose monuments commemorating famous soldiers like General Picton at Carmarthen or local worthies such as John Batchelor, "the Friend of Freedom", whose likeness stands on a plinth in the Hayes, in the very heart of Cardiff, where not one in a thousand passers-by could say who he was.

The work of Robert Thomas represents a more private, more intimate, almost domestic style of sculpture and a more indigenous tradition that seeks to honour Welsh men and women by the making of portrait busts which take their place in quiet corners of our national buildings, where they are appreciated on account of who their subjects are as much as for their intrinsic artistic merit. He made some 50 casts in all, several of which - for example, the larger-than-life monument to a hortatory Aneurin Bevan in one of the capital's main thoroughfares - have become icons of contemporary Wales.

Robert Thomas's first major commission, in 1965, was to make a portrait bust of James Griffiths, the first Secretary of State for Wales, which is housed at Parc Howard in Llanelli. It was followed by a bust of Lord Edmund Davies, the Welsh judge who presided at the trial of those accused of the Great Train Robbery of 1963 and at the Aberfan Disaster Inquiry of 1967, and another of the entertainer Ryan Davies, now kept at the headquarters of BBC Wales in Llandaf.

From the world of opera Thomas made busts of Sir Geraint Evans and Dame Gwyneth Jones. His head of the Welsh writer Gwyn Thomas, stolen from the foyer of the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, in 1988, and never recovered, had to be recast and is now displayed in the New Theatre, where it was unveiled by Anthony Hopkins in 1994.

Perhaps Thomas's best-known work, at least in the popular view, was his life-size bronze of Diana, Princess of Wales, the only sculpture for which she posed and with which she was said to have been delighted. Made in 1987, it is displayed at St David's Hall in Cardiff where, after her death, it became the focus for many hundreds of mourners daily.

A more robust work is his magnificent cast of Captain Cat, from Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, which was unveiled in Swansea Marina on St David's Day 1990. His last commission was a full-length figure of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Victorian engineer. At present in foundry, it is to be unveiled next July at Neyland in Pembrokeshire, where Brunel designed many of his big ships and at the terminal of the Great Western Railway line which was built under his supervision.

Robert Thomas was born in Cwm-parc, a grim mining village in a side-valley of the Rhondda Fawr, in August 1926, during "the Angry Summer" of the General Strike which crippled south Wales and made it a hotbed of militant socialism. His father was a miner, as was almost the entire male population, and the time and place left an indelible mark on him.

In 1944 he left Pentre Grammar School while still in the Sixth Form to become a Bevin Boy, and worked underground as an electrician for the rest of the war. Ever after he was left-wing in his political sympathies, staunchly humanist, and was attracted as a sculptor to subjects whom he revered for their humanitarian ideals. One of his most admired works is the miner's family group which now stands in Tonypandy, near the scene of the famous riots of 1910; while not quite Socialist Realist, it leaves no doubt as to where the artist's sympathies lie.

After the war, he won a scholarship to Cardiff College of Art. But he always claimed that it was the daily train journey up and down the Rhondda in the company of his fellow-artists Charlie Burton and Ernest Zobole, during which they argued fiercely about the nature and function of art, which taught him most.

Although not a formal member of the Rhondda Group, which consisted mainly of painters, Thomas remained in contact with them and shared many of their preoccupations. In 1949 he was the first student of sculpture to leave Cardiff for the Royal College of Art in London. After graduating, he and his wife Mary, a textile designer, taught part-time at Ealing Technical College, in west London, returning to Wales in 1971.

A modest man, Bob Thomas never sought the limelight and held no exhibitions of his work. When not in his studio, he took great pleasure in playing the piano and writing verse, some of which was published. Jovial in company and good- natured, especially in his relations with other artists, he served as Vice-President of the Royal Society of British Sculptors (1979-84) and as President of the Society of Portrait Sculptors (1972-77).

Robert John Roydon Thomas, sculptor: born Cwm-parc, Glamorgan 1 August 1926; teacher, Ealing Technical College 1953-71; married 1952 Mary Gardiner (two sons, one daughter); died Cardiff 11 May 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture