Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thom, James

THOM, JAMES (1802–1850), sculptor, ‘son of James Thom and Margaret Morison in Skeoch, was born 17th and baptised 19th April 1802’ (Tarbolton Parish Register). His birthplace was about a mile from Lochlee, where Robert Burns lived for some time, and his relatives were engaged in agricultural pursuits. While Thom was still very young his family removed to Meadowbank in the adjoining parish of Stair, where he attended a small school. With his younger brother Robert (1805–1895) he was apprenticed to Howie & Brown, builders, Kilmarnock, and, although he took little interest in the more ordinary part of his craft, he was fond of ornamental carving, in which he excelled. While engaged upon a monument in Crosbie churchyard, near Monkton, in 1827, he attracted the attention of David Auld, a hairdresser in Ayr, who was known locally as ‘Barber Auld.’ Encouraged by Auld, he carved a bust of Burns from a portrait—a copy of the Nasymth—which hung in the Monument at Alloway. It confirmed Auld's opinion of Thom's ability, and induced him to advise the sculptor to attempt something more ambitious. Statues of Tam o'Shanter and Souter Johnnie were decided upon, and Thom, who meanwhile resided with Auld, set to work on the life-size figures, which were hewn direct from the stone without even a preliminary sketch. William Brown, tenant of Trabboch Mill, served as model for Tam; but no one could be induced to sit for the Souter, whose face and figure were surreptitiously studied from two cobblers in the neighbourhood of Ayr.

The statues were secured for the Burns monument at Alloway, and when completed were sent on tour by Auld. The profits, which were equally divided among the sculptor, Auld, and the trustees of the monument, amounted to nearly 2,000l. They reached London in April 1829, and at once attracted great notice, the critics hailing them as inaugurating a new era in sculpture. Replicas to the number of sixteen, it is said, were ordered by private patrons, and reproductions on a smaller scale, but also in stone, were carried out by Thom and his brother. James Thom also produced statues of the landlord and landlady of the poem, which were grouped with the others, and several pieces of a similar class, such as ‘Old Mortality’ and his pony, which was conceived in 1830 while reading the novel on board the packet-boat between Leith and London. A few years later a second exhibition of his work was organised in London by Jonathan Sparks, but proved a failure.

Tam and the Souter are now at Burns's Monument, Ayr, in which town Thom's statue of Wallace has been placed in the tower named after the national hero. The ‘Old Mortality’ group is at Maxwelltown, Dumfries.

About 1836 Thom went to America in pursuit of a fraudulent agent. Recovering a portion of the money embezzled, he settled at Newark in New Jersey, where he executed replicas of his favourite groups, ‘an imposing statue of Burns,’ and various ornamental pieces for gardens. While exploring the vicinity of Newark for stone suitable for his purposes, he discovered the valuable freestone quarry at Little Falls, and the stonework and much of the architectural carving of Trinity Church, New York, were contracted for by him. Purchasing a farm near Ramapo on the Erie railway, he seems latterly to have abandoned his profession, and died in New York on 17 April 1850. He was married and had two sons, one of whom was trained as a painter.

Thom's work is principally interesting as that of a self-taught artist. His design was not distinguished in line or mass, but his conception and execution were vigorous, and his grasp of character great. His Tam o' Shanter group has had, and is likely to retain, great popularity. It is an exceedingly clever and graphic embodiment of the poet's heroes. It has been reproduced by thousands in many materials; photographs and prints abound.

Another artist of the same name, James Thom (fl. 1815), subject-painter, was born in Edinburgh about 1785. He studied art in his native city, and exhibited some thirteen pictures, of which one or two were historical, three were portraits, and the rest of domestic incident (including two designs for vignette illustrations to Burns), at the Edinburgh exhibitions between 1808 and 1816. In 1815 he sent two pictures to the British Institution, and about that time removed to London, where he met with encouragement and practised for some years. In 1825 his ‘Young Recruit’ was engraved by A. Duncan.

[Edinburgh Literary Journal, 1828; The New Scots Mag. December 1828; New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1842; Anderson's Scottish Nation; Blackie's Dict. of Scotsmen; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Newark Advertiser, U.S.A., May 1850; Ayr Advertiser, 23 April 1896; private information.]

J. L. C.