A trailblazer for Barbara Hepworth - this is why 'forgotten' sculptor Catherine Mawer has been recognised with a blue plaque in Leeds

The unveiling of a blue plaque for Catherine Mawer and the Mawer Group of sculptors.
The unveiling of a blue plaque for Catherine Mawer and the Mawer Group of sculptors.
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Her home city may be at the heart of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle but even there, the name Catherine Mawer is one that is little known.

Yet the forgotten sculptor was a pioneer in her field, blazing a trail for women in artistry a century before the internationally-acclaimed Dame Barbara Hepworth emerged onto the scene.

A self-portrait sculpture of Catherine. Photo provided by Leeds Civic Trust.

A self-portrait sculpture of Catherine. Photo provided by Leeds Civic Trust.

With an eye for intricacy, Mawer crafted decorative stonework for buildings across Yorkshire, her most famous work perhaps being the Corinthian capitals and ornamental roof turrets that still adorn Leeds Town Hall today.

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But not only was she a celebrated sculptor in her own right, she was also an astute businesswoman, successfully running a family stoneyard on Great George Street in central Leeds for several decades following the death of her husband Robert, at a time when many women were tied to domestic duties.

Blue plaque recognition

It is for these reasons that a blue plaque was unveiled in recognition of Mawer in the city of Leeds yesterday, alongside a second for the Mawer Group of sculptors, of which she was a member. The collective, made up of members of the Mawer and Ingle families, who were related by marriage, worked together throughout the Victorian era decorating many buildings and structures in the region and beyond, with Trent Bridge in Nottingham amongst their high profile work.

Martin Hamilton, director of Leeds Civic Trust said the plaques recognise the contribution of Mawer and her colleagues to the architectural landscape during the 1800s, claiming that their detailed design work was often overlooked and architects or owners were typically given credit for buildings as a whole.

He said: “We admire the grandeur of our Victorian buildings but forget to consider the detail that makes them so special. These plaques recognise the work of a group of highly-skilled sculptors who dominated this industry in the 19th century in Leeds but who are largely unknown to the general public.”

“They were called upon particularly for important, impressive, statement buildings,” he added.

Yorkshire Sculpture International

Mawer was suggested to the civic trust as a plaque recipient by local historian Linda O’Carroll, who has researched the family and examples of their work that remain in existence.

The trust wanted to recognise more women who played an important role in the development of Leeds and scheduled the unveiling, at the Henry Moore Institute, to tie in with the ongoing Yorkshire Sculpture International festival, which is celebrating the region’s strong reputation for the art.

But whilst the area is famed in particular for the work of Wakefield-born Hepworth and Castleford’s Henry Moore in the 20th century, Mr Hamilton said Mawer and her colleagues were evidence of a sculpting history that goes back at least 100 years prior - and one which remains significant today.

He said: “Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore are big names and people may have an image of the sort of work that they did, or may have seen it. But if you think about impact, what could be more impactful than coming on the bus to Leeds, driving past the town hall and seeing the wonderful sculpture? That has a huge impact on people everyday of the year.”

The plaques, unveiled by artists Jill McKnight and Pippa Hale will ultimately be placed on prominent buildings associated with the sculptors on Albion Street and Park Place.