Obituary: Robert Thomas

Meic Stephens
Friday 21 May 1999 00:02 BST

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.

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