In early Autumn 1818 Jane Burnard, the wife of Altarnun’s stonemason, gave birth to a son. Neville Northey Burnard was christened that November. He was the eldest child in the family and is described as being a beautiful child ‘with a head of golden curls’.
This boy was destined for fame, excellence and wealth but also grief and self-distruction.
A Childhood on the Moors
Neville’s father was George Burnard, the stonemason of the moorland village of Altarnun. The family lived at Penpont Mill in the centre of the village. Jane Burnard made bonnets for extra money and ran a small school in her spare time. She was the one that gave Neville his education but it was George that introduced him to his calling.
Neville began working with his father as a mortar boy. He showed a natural talent for the work. In the evenings he would practice his carving with makeshift tools on rough pieces of wood. His first official job came when he was just 14 years old.He carved the decoration on his grandfather’s headstone below, which can still be seen in Altarnun graveyard. The writer Alice C. Bizley mentions Burnard in her book, The Slate Figures of Cornwall. She writes:
“One of his earliest carvings can be seen on a family headstone in that [Altarnun] churchyard, where he carved, in relief, an eagle in flight against the sun’s rays and signed it ‘N N Bernard sculpt aged 14’.”
That carving and inscription can still be seen.
At the age of 16 he carved a relief portrait of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. The beautiful image, at first glance hard to spot can above the doorway of Altarnun’s old Wesleyan Chapel. The chapel, now a private home, is in the centre of the village and stands beside the house where Burnard was born. Seeing it now it is almost impossible to believe that he produced such wonderful work while still a teenager.
Soon after producing the carving of Wesley, in 1834, Neville entered a sculpture in to the exhibition at the Royal Cornwall Polytechic Society in Falmouth. He won a Silver Medal but more importantly he was introduced to Sir Charles Lemon.
Lemon became Neville’s patron, he sponsored his tutorship and paid for him to travel to London. Lemon also introduced him to the celebrated sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey. Chantrey took Neville on as a carver in his London atelier and here he worked alongside Henry Weekes. Weekes eventually took over his master’s studio on Chantrey’s death in 1841.
Impressively one of Burnard’s first commissions came from Buckingham Palace in 1847. He produced a bust of Albert Edward, the 6 year old Duke of Cornwall, later prince of Wales. The sculpture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1848 and then Queen Victoria had it sent to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
Rise to Fame
In 1852 Neville was commissioned to make a statue of the Cornish explorer Richard Lander after his return from Africa. The statue still graces the column at the top of Lemon Street in Truro.
He also made busts for some of the most eminent men of science of the age. Including one of John Couch Adams , the fellow Cornishman who discovered Neptune. In fact his work can still be seen in the National Portrait Gallery and Westminster Abbey.
Despite his growing fame Neville frequently returned to Cornwall to see his family. He was the toast of the county and spent time with the Fox family, who were Quakers and keen supporters of the arts and sciences.The diarist Caroline Fox described Neville in 1847 as:
“A great powerful, pugilistic looking fellow of twenty-nine, a great deal of face, with all the features massed in the centre . . . His father, a stone mason, once allowed him to carve the letters on a little cousins tombstone which would be hidden in the grass, this was his first attempt . . .”
She also wrote that he was prone to telling ‘amusing stories’ about his fellow sculptors.
The Beginning of the End
In November 1844 Neville married Mary Ann Nicholson at the All Saints Church, Marylebone in London. At first the marriage appears to have been a happy one. Neville’s reputation was growing and the family were wealthy enough to have a comfortable home on Hanover Square.The couple had two sons and two daughters, the eldest Thomas also became a sculptor.
But in March 1870 tragedy struck Neville’s family. Both his 11 year old daughter Charlotte and his brother George died of scarlet fever within 24 hours of each other. Burnard carved a relief of the daughter he called Lottie on her tombstone. Sadly soon after this it seems he began to drink heavily. His private and professional life went into freefall. He became estranged from his wife and failed to fulfil his commissions. His life in London was untenable and he returned to Cornwall a broken man.
The Western Independent newspaper reported:
He begged his way from village to village . . . towards the end he roamed about the lanes and moors of Cornwall . . . He was a brilliant storyteller. His mind was crammed with anecdotes and reminiscence from his 30 years among the celebrities of London. He richly entertained his friends in return for their hospitality.
Neville survived on the kindness of strangers and by sketching portraits of local people. He also began writing poetry and produced some small newspaper articles.
On his last visit to Altarnun in 1875 Neville stayed for a week with an old school friend, Mr S. Pearn. It is said that he was still drawing pencil portraits “with a firm hand”, and that he composed a long and dignified poem on the death of another old friend. The locals fitted him out with a new set of clothes and he went on his way. But he never managed to get his life back on track.
Tragically Neville Northey Burnard died alone in a workhouse in Illogan near Redruth on the 27th November 1878.
Unwept, unhonoured and unsung
The Western Independent newspaper reported an account of the life of Neville Northey Burnard in 1929. The following is a rather moving, contemporary description of the great man’s funeral taken from that article.
At the end of November 1878 a pauper funeral arrived at the graveyard from Redruth workhouse. At the time the church was undergoing some restorations. A number of stonemasons were working on the decorations. As the curate met the hearse at the gate he called out to the workmen, told them the corpse he was going to bury was that of the man who had made the Medallion and said that if they stopped work and bore his coffin to the grave, they would be paying just tribute to one who had been a distinguished master of their craft. They dropped tools and took up the coffin. So was Neville Northey Burnard buried in an unnamed grave. Unwept, unhonoured and unsung except by the kindly curate and the astonished workmen.