Completed Portraits: British 19th C, Sculpture, Yorkshire, The Humber and North East England: Artists and Subjects 31 Is this bust of Doctor Henry Sorby by William Ellis?

Topic: Artist

This is very similar to another bust of Sorby in the same collection by William Ellis It seems reasonable to attribute this version to the same sculptor.

Jacinto Regalado, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The bust has been recorded as 'by or after William Ellis (c.1824–1882)' and the title has been updated to ‘Henry Clifton Sorby (1826–1908), LLD, FRS’.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing it for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


The Collection has commented: 'Thank you for this - however when placed side by side the two works do seem to be stylistically different. We believe the bust above shows Sorby around 20 years older than the other one. Of course he may have sat for Ellis 20 years apart?'

Jacinto Regalado,

Sorby and Ellis were both Sheffield men, so the connection makes sense. However, the white plaster bust in this collection attributed to Ellis (linked above) is not signed, as far as I can see. It was given to the collection in 1882, the year Ellis died, when Sorby was around 56. However, he could be taken for older than 56. Can the collection say what the Ellis attribution is based on?

Kieran Owens,

The Sheffield Independent, of Saturday 9th December 1876, carried the following:

"Bust of Mr. Clifton Sorby - A portrait bust of Mr. Clifton Sorby is being executed by Mr. Ellis, the well-known sculptor, of St. James' Street. When finished, it will find a fitting place in the gallery at the Weston Museum."

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, of Saturday 10th March 1877, noted:

"The bust of H. C. Sorby, Esq., can be seen at the studio of W. Ellis, 11, St. James' Street; ..."

In the Sheffield Independent, of Saturday 17th March 1877, a follow-up appeared:

"I understand Mr. Ellis has just completed a casting for a bust of Mr. Henry Clifton Sorby. The bust will be in marble and the cost will be defrayed by subscription, in recognition of the valuable services Mr. Sorby has rendered to science. When completed, the bust will be placed in Weston Park Museum. If Mr. Ellis is as successful in the marble as he has been in the casting - and on that point there need be no doubt - a most faithful likeness of our distinguished townsman will be produced."

In the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, of Friday 8th February 1878, it was reported that, at the annual conversazione of the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society, "a model of the bust of Mr. H. C. Sorby, executed by Mr. Wm. Ellis, was also shown."

The Sheffield Independent, of Monday 23rd December 1878, carried the following:

"Mr. H. C. Sorby's Bust - It has already been stated that some of the friends and admirers of Mr. H. C. Sorby had decided to present him with his bust, to be placed either in the Free (?) University or the Museum. The model was shown to the members of the committee on Saturday, and Mr. W. Ellis, who has received the commission to execute it, was instructed to proceed with it at once."

At the Sheffield School of Art conversazione, as reported in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, of Wednesday 23rd April 1879, "Mr. William Ellis' work is seen in marble busts of the Rev. S. Earnshaw and Mr. H. C. Sorby, the latter showing the marks of the pointing, and having by its side the tools used by the sculptor. The pedestal on which it is mounted is not only novel, but artistic and sensible."

In an letter from E. Ellis, of Pitsmoor, Sheffield, dated 6th March 1909, reference is made to a marble bust of "Dr. H. C. Sorby", "relegated to the dark corridor of the University."

• Date

1877 (if this is the model referred to above)

Kieran Owens,

"In an letter....." above should, of course, be "In a letter.....".

Jacinto Regalado,

Kieran, there is a marble bust of Sorby, currently listed under "unknown artist," at the University of Sheffield, which could be the marble bust by Ellis mentioned in the references you found:

It is similar but not the same as the white plaster bust attributed to Ellis held by Graves Gallery/Museums Sheffield.

Jacinto Regalado,

Also, Kieran, I submitted a still pending proposal to AD over a year ago suggesting that the marble bust at the University of Sheffield must be by Ellis, given its similarity to the white plaster bust at Graves Gallery, but I was not aware of the information you have found.

Jacinto Regalado,

It would appear that Ellis made some changes to the original version of the Sorby bust when he produced the final marble version. I expect he had kept the plaster in his possession, and that it was given to the museum upon his death in 1882.

As to the painted plaster bust, bequeathed to the museum in 1946, it would be of interest to know the identity of the donor.

Jacinto Regalado,

The collection, of course, should know the identity of the donor of the white plaster bust it received in 1882.

Jacinto Regalado,

The relevant staff member at the University of Sheffield has been alerted as to the new evidence found by Kieran concerning the marble version of the bust. We are awaiting her response.

However, that still leaves the painted plaster bust under discussion here. It seems most likely to be another variant with a longer beard by Ellis, possibly somewhat later than the marble bust. I suppose it is also possible that it was based on or derived from the known Ellis bust even if made by someone else. Thus, pending new evidence, it appears reasonable to list it as by or after Ellis.

Kieran Owens,

I would be very surprised if the Sheffield Museum marble was not by Ellis, especially given the newspaper reports above.

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Jacinto Regalado,

I think there is virtually no doubt that the marble at the University of Sheffield is by Ellis, and it is clearly related to the white plaster version at Graves galley/Museums Sheffield. The newspaper description of the pedestal as "not only novel, but artistic and sensible" also fits nicely.

Jacinto Regalado,

I meant Graves Gallery, of course. I hate typos.

Jacinto Regalado,

Ellis, by the way, although a "provincial" sculptor, was a pupil of the better known Alfred Stevens.

Jacinto Regalado,

Also, in the newspaper report of 23/12/1878, Free (?) University may refer to Firth College, established in 1879, which later merged into what became the University of Sheffield.

Jacinto Regalado,

Sorby became president of Firth College in 1882 and worked hard for the establishment of the University of Sheffield, founded in 1905.

Kieran Owens,

Given that William Ellis started work on the idea for the Sorby bust in December 1876 and the go-ahead to complete the marble version was not agreed until December 1878, this two-year time period might explain the variations in detail from the plaster models to the actual finished piece.

Jacinto Regalado,

Theophilus Smith was also a Sheffield man and was active 1861-1881.

Jacinto, re: 'As to the painted plaster bust, bequeathed to the museum in 1946, it would be of interest to know the identity of the donor.' I have asked the Collection, David

Jacinto, I have returned to the Collection and asked our temporary Art Detective contact by email the question I asked for you back in June. David

Marcie Doran,

The wife of one of Sorby’s executors passed away in 1946. While the will of Emily Sorby (née Stendall) (1876–1946) does not mention busts, it does mention paintings, including two depicting her late husband Albert Sorby Buxton (1867-1932). I have attached an extract of her will and two articles about her husband.

The probate record for Henry Clifton Sorby, who passed away on March 9, 1908, shows that his executors were the reverend John Archibald Sorby, clerk, Albert Sorby Buxton esquire, and the reverend Albert Ernest Sorby, clerk.

The probate entry for John Archibald Sorby (1861–1922), shows that his own executors were his unmarried sisters Gertrude Sorby (1855–1938) and Catherine Elizabeth Sorby (1867–1941).

Albert Sorby Buxton (1867–1932) was the son of Thomas Buxton (1826–?) and Lucy Sorby (abt. 1839–1899). Albert was the headmaster of the Mansfield Art School and an artist. He has an entry on Wikipedia.

Buxton’s portrait by Frank Carter is on Art UK, here, and a posthumous portrait by Margaret C. Cook is on Art UK here,

Probate for Albert Ernest Sorby (1859–1934 the Rectory Darfield, near Barnsley, Yorkshire) was provided to his wife Lydia Jane Sorby (née Walker)(1869–1947).

Some dates were provided by the 'Mackeig-Jones Family Tree' on Ancestry.

Jacob Simon,

This discussion, “Is this bust of Doctor Henry Sorby by William Ellis?”, has made good progress. It has thrown light on two other busts of Dr Sorby. As Jacinto says (20/6/2021 ), it seems most likely that our painted plaster bust is by Ellis.

Since June we have been seeking a response from the collection to the question, “'As to the painted plaster bust, bequeathed to the museum in 1946, it would be of interest to know the identity of the donor.” It is possible that an answer to this question may enable us to progress this discussion if it provides a link to Ellis the sculptor.

Jacob, I have followed up now with a different Curatorial email contact after two failed previous attempts to establish contact further to the Curator taking up a new position last Summer. David

Sorry, I failed to post at the time a very helpful reply from our new Art Detective contact:
'With regard to the first bust (VIS.2762), our collections database lists the provenance of the work as: ‘Mrs Emily Buxton bequest 1946’. In regard to the other bust (K28.3.82.4), the only information given on provenance is that the donor was ‘William Sorby, Sheffield’. Our collections database does, however, give a research note to say: ‘The marble bust version of this plaster case stood at the entrance to the Firth Hall in the University of Sheffield’. Which seems to match the suggestion that the work at the University is also by Ellis.'

Marcie Doran,

I have just noticed a typo in my earlier comment. Emily’s name should be “Emily Buxton (née Stendall) (1876–1946)”.

Jacinto Regalado,

So, this plaster bust was apparently in family hands until it was bequeathed by the wife of one of the sitter's executors in 1946. Said executor was an artist, but apparently a painter as opposed to a sculptor. It is up to the collection, but I would suggest listing this as probably by or after William Ellis.

Jacob Simon,

In my post of 6 February this year, the hope was expressed that the identity of the donor in 1946 might provide a link to Ellis the sculptor. But, in fact, we now find that instead it provides a link to Dr. Sorby the sitter.

Additionally, I noted that as Jacinto proposed (20/6/2021 ), it seems most likely that our painted plaster bust is by Ellis. Despite the lack of clinching evidence, do we feel that we can now close this discussion on the basis of giving the sculptor as “by or after William Ellis”, as Jacinto has said in his most recent post?

Jacob Simon,

I am now recommending, subject to the collection and other group leaaders, that this discussion, "Is this bust of Doctor Henry Sorby by William Ellis?", be closed by identifying the sculptor as “by or after William Ellis” as discussed above.

I am happy to agree to closure of this discussion with the recommendation that the authorship of the bust of Sorby should be recorded in the form 'by or after William Ellis (c.1824-1882)'.

It would seem that Sorby's doctorate was an honorary one - a doctorate in law awarded by the University of Cambridge. I therefore recommend that the title of the work should match that of the plaster bust in the same collection as it appears on ArtUK: 'Henry Clifton Sorby (1826–1908), LLD, FRS' [omitting 'Dr'].