Charles Summers was Margaret Thomas's mentor during her early career in Australia and the Royal Academy.
Charles Summers was born in 1827 in the village of Charlton near Illchester, Somerset. He worked for his father, who was a stonemason, from a very young age. Here he learnt his craft and at age 19 he was asked by Henry Weekes to come to London to be his apprentice in his studio. Summers returned to Somerset after about a year, having learnt a great deal from Weekes, and was commissioned to produce busts of the Mayor of Bristol and Mr Moody, MP for Somerset.
He was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1850 and in 1851 was awarded the silver medal for Best model from life and the gold medal for Best group of historical scultpure. He then opened his own studio in Pimlico but could not work at full capacity due to ill health. Summers decided to join his brother in Melbourne, Australia in 1852, believing that the climate would be of benefit to him. Summers was able to complete more work in Australia and was instrumental in galvanising the fledgling artistic community in the country. He was the first president of The Victorian Academy of Fine Arts.
In 1864 Summers was commissioned to design and sculpt the Burke and Wills Monument. The monument, financed by Ambrose Kyte, was to stand in Melbourne as a tribute to the assistance provided by the Aboriginal people to two white men, Burke and Wills who tried to cross the outback with disastrous consequences. Summers spent six weeks with the Aboriginal people casting their faces for the monument. On completion, the figure of Wills was at that time the largest single figure cast from bronze. This painting shows Summers holding a scultpure tool and over his left shoulder there is a maquette of the Burke and Wills monument. This painting is not dated, but it is clearly after 1864 because of the inclusion of the monument. It is thought that this painting was completed first and that then Thomas went on to complete a larger portrait of Summers in 1866, which is in the La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, Australia. The painting in Victoria is not signed or dated, but was exhibited in the Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia, Melbourne 1866–1867. A maquette of the Burke and Wills monument is much clearer over Summers' right shoulder in this painting, and he is holding a hammer and chisel.
In 1867 Summers returned to England. His final commission was from W. J. Clarke at the National Gallery of a marble group of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Prince and Princess of Wales. Following an operation, Summers died in Paris in November 1878. In 1879, 'A hero of the workshop and a Somersetshire worthy, Charles Summers', a biography and personal tribute by Margaret Thomas was published.
Where to see this painting?
Letchworth Museum and Art Gallery
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