Thomas Bland (1798-1865)

Thomas Bland

Written by David A Cross

Occupations: Artist, Farmer and Sculptor

Early Life

Thomas Bland was baptised on 9 July 1798, at St Lawrence’s church, Crosby Ravensworth, the son of John Bland [1763-1837], a yeoman farmer of Yew Tree Farm in nearby Reagill  and his wife Elizabeth Salkeld [1767-1835], the daughter of William Salkeld [1718-1786] and his wife Barbara Parkin [1739-1791]. He was a self-taught sculptor and artist, probably ‘tutored on book illustrations and broadsheets’, who inherited the Reagill half of his father’s property in 1837, the year of the accession of Queen Victoria. The other half of the estate went to his brother William [1800-1881] at nearby Wyebourne, as their brother John [b.1802], had died young. From this point Thomas describes himself as a ‘freeholder and farmer of 250 acres’ and by 1851 he employed two agricultural workers, Thomas Lewis and Mark Bellas and two house servants, Hannah and Mary Ann Wilkinson.

Bland developed his stone carving skills in the 1820s and early 1830s. Consequently, he accumulated a variety of his own creations in stone; architectural paintings in monochrome of the ruins of Brougham Castle and Shap Abbey, and of the rebuilt Lowther Castle; in addition to numerous drawings made in the Lake Counties ‘when a wandering fit’ had seized him. During this period, Bland carved the recumbent greyhound over the doorway of the eponymous hostelry at Shap. Thomas Gibson, a member of a prominent local family who have a huge monument in St Lawrence’s church, states that the artist was usually to be found in his ‘den’ where he ‘spent aw his time wi’ his mell [mallet] and his chisel, his paintbrush, an’ canvas or sketchbeuk an’ pen.’ The London based watercolourist David Cox Jr. [1809-1885] was so impressed with Bland’s paintings when he called that he presented him with some of his own watercolours; they corresponded and Cox offered to arrange introductions to the art world, but Bland declined, as he cared nothing for fame. During his rambles in the hinterland, he also became very familiar with the local geology and Gibson recalled how he explained, for example, that ‘shells’ in local limestone had ‘been fishes some thousand years sen’. This enthusiasm clearly influenced his nephew John Salkeld Bland [1839-1867].

The Image Garden

Adjacent to the early 18thc Yew Tree Farm at the south end of the village, Thomas Bland designed a large garden, which had fine distant views and was embellished with work entirely his own. Described as the ‘Italian Garden’ [Bland] and more recently as ‘a home-made echo of some grand Italian village garden’ [Longville], it was opened to the public at no charge. With three terraces, stone steps and a bandstand [now lost], the garden was ‘richly ornamented’ [Whellan] with 80 of his sculptures [around 70 survive in an eroded state] and in stone niches and alcoves were displayed his many paintings.  At some point after the death of William IV, on 20 June 1837, he invited the villagers to see the garden and to celebrate the accession of the young queen Victoria; this occasion became an annual event. At Reagill, in future years, sometimes as many as 1400 people, many in fancy dress, enjoyed this rural arts festival, which had ‘a somewhat unique character’ [Whellan]. Bland choreographed a spectacular programme of ‘junketings’ [Darke]: a brass band to play concerts, lectures on art, dramatic presentations and dancing. His friend and neighbour Anthony Whitehead [1819-1914], the dialect poet, wrote verse about the garden and gave lively poetry readings. All the arts were encompassed and it appears that Bland created at Reagill a microcosm of the larger festivals of multiple categories of art which became so popular in the 20th century and were established first in Edinburgh [1947], Avignon [1947], Adelaide [1960] and Brighton [1967].  Bland was a century ahead of the game and deserves, like Thespis, the original thespian of the 6thc BC, to be revered in the pantheon of dynamic creatives.

Carved with ‘unselfconscious abandon’, the Reagill sculptures ‘have no overall iconographic scheme’ and include an eclectic range of animals ‘from a hippopotamus to Whittington’s cat’, including lions, boar, deer, dogs, eagles, devils and a sphinx. Interspersed with classical urns, some stand upon pedestals and the ensemble had the power to ‘beat Wombwell’s Menagerie hollow and flat’ [Gibson]. George Wombwell [1777-1850] established a travelling menagerie with which Bland and Gibson were familiar, as it toured British fairs in the 1820s and 1830s. On one visit, Bland drew a recumbent living lion clearly labelled ‘Wombwell Menagerie’ [Penrith Sketchbook], evidence of his own familiarity with the showman. Wombwell’s own tomb at Highgate bears a three dimensional life-sized sculpture of Nero, his own lion, upon it.  

In Bland’s ‘Image Garden’ were also martial heroes, including Julius Caesar and St George contrasting effectively with a female personification of music, holding a lute and a representation of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Among his statues of worthies appeared the writers he particularly admired: William Shakespeare [1564-1616], Robert Burns [1759-1796] and Sir Walter Scott [1771-1832], all flanked by his own bas reliefs and paintings of selected characters from their texts. Other reliefs celebrated Bonnie Prince Charlie [1720-1788], the Scottish outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor [1671-1734; ODNB], and the dramatic subject from Scott’s Ivanhoe [1819] of the Templar, Brian de Bois Guilbert, striking down the Saxon noble Athelstane. As a land owner, who welcomed William Lowther, the 1st earl of Lonsdale [1757-1844; ODNB] to at least one such event, Bland’s political viewpoint, judging by this range of more overtly disreputable figures, seems to have been rather flexible.  As a keen geologist himself, he carved a statue of the renowned Hugh Miller [1802-1856; ODNB], the stone mason, geologist, folklorist, author and editor who had raised himself ‘above the labours of an humble profession, by the force of [his] genius’ [Sir David Brewster]. Thus, Miller and Bland had two occupations in common and Miller’s profile was high in this decade, having just published his Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland [1835] two years earlier.  Both Thomas Bland and his nephew John Salkeld Bland made drawings of Thomas Bland’s Pleasure Garden [Penrith Museum; Jackson Library, Carlisle].

His Victoria Accession Monument

Following his lifetime’s theme of loyalty to the monarchy, Bland was closely involved in raising the Victoria Accession Monument, in yellow sandstone, on the hillside to the north of Shap Wells Hotel. It was completed on 30 June 1842, five years and ten days after the accession itself. The eight metre high octagonal column and its plinth were both designed by the architect James Mawson [1813-1870] of Lowther, at the behest of the earl of Lonsdale and on the top is the helmeted figure of Britannia, carved by Bland. The earl, who had previously built the hotel in 1833, hoped that the pillar would prove a further attraction to hotel residents. The plinth is decorated with ‘gutsy’ bas reliefs, also by Bland [Darke]. On the east side, a bearded seated invalid is being given healing water by Hygeia, goddess of health, a reflection of the aspirations of visitors to spa waters and to Mannex, who liked the contrast between the ‘enfeebled supplicant’ and the youthful goddess, ‘exceedingly chaste’. On the west side is a ‘British’ lion, with its paw resting on a globe, representing the Empire. This popular motif appears in three dimensions in the two 18thc lions made in lead by John Cheere [1709-1787], recently restored to the imposing South Front of Stowe House, Buckinghamshire, but originating in the older of the two Medici lions on the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, which dates from the 2nd century AD. On the north side, below a wreath of palm and olive, are the six heraldic annulets of the Lowther family. Bland, with his income from the farm, felt able to carve the statue and the reliefs quite free of charge. Later, in 1866, Mawson designed the sculpture galleries at Lowther Castle and before 1870, the castle’s Penrith Lodge, which was not built until 1877, after his death.  Four years after the erection of the pillar, which was originally surrounded by iron railings, the railway over Shap summit was opened and from that date, until 1968, passengers alighted at Shap station, for the hotel. Though there are numerous statues to Victoria in her maturity, this accession monument to her is very rare, reflecting the low reputation of the monarchy at that date, following the activities of the queen’s reprobate uncles. Bland’s drawings Shap Wells from Dudley Pike and A Carriage arriving at Shap Wells show his broader interest in the area; his modest drawing of the monument survives as an engraving [Jackson Library].

The Black Dub Monument

As a local antiquary, Thomas Bland knew that Charles II [1630-1685] had been crowned in Scotland on January 1st 1651 and that on 8 August 1651 had ‘regaled his troops’ at the Black Dub, the source of the river Lyvennet, on Crosby Ravensworth fell, on the old Roman road to London, an event recorded in Lady Anne Clifford’s diary. As the river flows down through the villages of Crosby Ravensworth and Maulds Meaburn, finally joining the river Eden near Temple Sowerby, the walk up to the relatively nearby source would have been familiar to Bland. The young king, then aged 21, was en route to Worcester, where, on 3 September 1651 he lost the final battle against the Parliamentarians.  In 1840, in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of this event, Bland erected, near this spot, a squat obelisk with an inscription, and carved in bas relief, one upon each elevation, the head of Charles, a recumbent lion and the recognisable St Edward’s crown, somewhat roughly hewn, which had been created in 1661 for his coronation. Jo Darke observed how these ‘rough, heartfelt carvings and inscriptions signal high hopes and lost causes long past’. This monument, which was restored in 1861 at the expense of Thomas Gibson, is simpler in appearance than the original structure in Bland’s drawing [Jackson Library], though a puzzle lies in his inclusion of a large boulder nearby, which was subsequently quarried away by the local farmer.

The Addison Monument

Bland also erected the Addison monument, a simpler square section pillar with the family coat of arms and an inscription, at Hill Top, near Meaburn Town Head, Maulds Meaburn, to celebrate the achievement of Joseph Addison [1672-1719; ODNB] the essayist and his father the Rev. Lancelot Addison [1632-1703; ODNB], dean of Lichfield.  Lancelot’s brother, the Rev. Anthony Addison [1626-1719] was chaplain to the 1st duke of Marlborough [1650-1722] and another brother, Col. John Addison [1634-1706] settled in Maryland where he fought native Americans ‘with distinction’.  The inscription states that ‘On this spot dwelt the paternal ancestors of the celebrated Joseph Addison; his father Lancelot, dean of Lichfield, was born here A.D. 1632’.  Joseph, who was born at Milston, Wiltshire, was a co-founder in 1711 with Richard Steel [1672-1729] of the Spectator and in his On Westminster Abbey [1711] he describes himself musing upon monuments. The house at Hill Top resonated with memories of these and other members of this remarkable family, reaching back to the time of Henry III and there are two drawings of the pillar by Bland; in one, the scale being denoted by a pair of adult figures, it is jokily suggested that it was about twelve feet high. That Joseph is emphasised here, rather than his father, also suggests that Bland believed that literary achievement trumped church preferment. The dean’s second son Gulston Addison [1673-1709], named after his mother’s family, was very briefly governor of Madras. It is known that a statue of Lancelot Addison also appeared in the Image Garden.  Another smaller figure of Shakespeare, in a niche on a house wall at Dufton, was also probably carved by Bland.

His Drawings

Travelling on foot, Thomas Bland would make ‘rapid pencil outlines of every object of interest’, so there was ‘scarcely a relic of antiquity’ in Cumberland or Westmorland ‘that he had not visited’ [Courtier].  In a letter towards the end of his life Bland wrote of these drawings: ‘my object is not so much to make money, as to preserve at least some resemblance of objects which are fast disappearing’. This philosophy is represented by Kentmere Chapel, before the restorations of 1866 and Raisgill Hall Bridge, Orton [1847], when it still had no parapet; both structures are now vastly changed, as he anticipated.  In this awareness he echoed one of the many interests of John Ruskin [1819-1900; ODNB]. His drawing of Knock Cross, a structure formerly at Bowness-on-Solway, is another ‘lost’ object, whilst the most affecting is Mardale Chapel, a building which was demolished and then drowned in Haweswater reservoir in 1935.

A good number of Bland’s pencil drawings survive in the Jackson Library, Carlisle and others are at Penrith Museum. Although his main interest is in architecture and ancient monuments, as a countryman he was effective in capturing the characters of different species both of farm animals and trees. Small figures of top hatted men, with a few women and children, populate his compositions and there are also a few carriages, carts and mounted figures.  Appleby Castle clearly shows the horses cantering, whilst Swindale Chapel has a small flock of sheep, a shepherd and his collie. There are also several larger scale drawings of cattle and horses [Penrith Museum]. Bland chooses his viewpoints well, in general, and though his quality of composition is variable, he has a good sense of topography, as shown in Helsington Laithes, Kendal and captures a few fells, including Wallow Crag, Haweswater and Dufton Pike. He is keen to depict large rocks or distinctive trees in the landscape, such as the Goblin [now Goggleby] stone at Shap and the huge Stable Stand rock, also at Shap. Chosen trees include the wind blasted Shap Thorn and poignantly, an ancient oak, The Last of the Craik Trees, probably those which stood near Crake Trees, a ruined tower house in his parish. 

Bland’s general awareness of local history is manifest in his choosing to depict the houses of local worthies such as The birthplace of Bishop Edmund Gibson [1669-1748; ODNB], the bishop of Lincoln and London and the probable ancestor of his friend Thomas. More dramatically, he recalled both the Jacobite skirmish at Clifton, with General Honywood’s Oak and the depredations of the border rievers, with his trio of mounted Stormtroopers carrying spears. His antiquarian subjects include Gunnerkeld stone circle, Mayburgh Henge, Dunmail’s cairn, Asby Holy Well, the effigy of Sir Richard Lowther and the armour of George Clifford [1558-1605], 3rd earl of Cumberland, the father of Lady Anne Clifford [1590-1676]. His castle drawings show Cockermouth, Hayton, High Head, Rose and Sizergh and the ruins of both Pendragon and Lammerside. Gentry houses are represented by Askham Hall [then the rectory], Crosby Ravensworth Hall, Kentmere Hall and Levens Hall. There are views of many churches, including Crosby Ravensworth, Edenhall, Gilcrux and Great Salkeld and carved details such as a blocked Norman doorway at Torpenhow, enhance the interest. A few bridges complete the portfolio: Lune Old Bridge, Park Bridge at Thornthwaite Hall and the rather picturesque Maulds Meaburn footbridge. Like his near contemporary JMW Turner, Bland was intrigued by the arrival of railway engines and drew one as a cloud of steam crossing Gelt Bridge.

His Character

Bland’s work is ‘naïve and unsophisticated but has the virtue of simple honesty’ [Longville, cited Cross]. As a ‘romantic self-taught mason-sculptor’ his work could be compared to that of the Scots sculptors Robert Forrest [1790-1852; ODNB] or James Thom [1802-1850; ODNB]. Being a farmer with broad interests, many visitors came to Reagill to see him but he would not sacrifice time or convenience to ‘an admiring bore’ [Bland].  People showing idle curiosity were sometimes met with a terse and sudden rebuff, since, according to Whitehead, his ‘wit [was] like the ‘lectric flash’. He deliberately set up, as a test, a large oleograph of Giuseppe Garibaldi [1807-1882], a print textured to look authentic, and was deeply scathing of those who admired it as one of his own works. On the other hand, anyone whether ‘a beuk-learn’d beggar’ or a belted earl, was accorded equal respect [Whitehead].  He was an ‘eccentric’ bachelor and although this may be a simple mis-reading of his unusual gifts and vigorous originality, Whitehead states that Bland was ‘an auld antiquary cramful o’ queer notions’ whilst Gibson adds that Bland ‘was crack’d, that’s a certainty out o’ aw question’. Nonetheless, he evidently had a sense of humour and was esteemed by his neighbours as having ‘a warm heart and kindly disposition’. In 1861, aged 63, he was living in Reagill with his farmer neighbour Matthew Alderson [b.1825] and his childless wife Isabella Fallowfield [1811-1884], describing himself as a ‘landed proprietor’. He died aged sixty seven, on 18 September 1865 and was buried in the churchyard of St Lawrence, Crosby Ravensworth, under a large horizontal tombstone decorated with a cross flory, an artist’s palette and brushes, a hammer and a compass, collectively ‘the tools of his genius’ [Cross].  The compass suggesting that he had availed himself of early published maps, though the Ordnance Survey publications, notionally after 1801, appeared very late for the northern counties.

The Advocacy of his Nephew and the Image Garden Today

His nephew John Salkeld Bland was the son of Thomas’s brother William [1800-1881] and his wife Elizabeth Moss [1814-1839]. Another scholarly man with artistic skills who had been stimulated by the local surveys of his uncle, he drew a geological map of the district and submitted it successfully to the Manchester Geological Society in 1862. The next year, John made a drawing of the Addison pillar with its inscription, as he had done of the Image Garden itself.  Following a journey to America c.1864, he painted a hundred species of wildflowers, in watercolours, now in a volume dated 1866 [Jackson Library]. However, his most significant achievement was the manuscript of The Vale of Lyvennet, its Picturesque Peeps and Legendary Lore, which remained unpublished in his lifetime. John died in 1867 and was buried next to his uncle, under a similar stone monument. His sister Agnes Dufton [b.1836] retained the Lyvennet manuscript until it was published in 1920, as a monument to both her uncle Thomas and brother John.  A sketchbook of his work was sold at Sotheby’s on 12 April 1963.  

The Image Garden gradually deteriorated after Thomas’ death and the sculptures themselves became eroded with time; several of them ‘disappeared’ and by the 1990s they were described as ‘crumbled and lichened, [but] oddly impressive in a Westmorland mist’ [Welsh]. Many of the paintings were lost or destroyed, the last one being removed in 1907 [Foster], but the garden was restored c.2000 and was the venue for a Millennium celebration. It is Grade II listed and is included in the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens by Historic England.  Thomas Bland’s sketchbook in Penrith Museum includes his only known photograph.


  • Peter Bayne, The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller, 1871
  • John Salkeld Bland, Manchester Geological Society Transactions, vol. iv, 44
  • John Salkeld Bland, The Vale of Lyvennet, 1910 [ed. FHS Parker]; ms volume in the Jackson Library, Carlisle, A813
  • Robert Courtier, Sketches of Kentmere Chapel [by Thomas Bland], The Journal of Staveley and District History Society, Winter 2017-18, 3-6
  • David A. Cross, Public Sculpture of Lancashire and Cumbria, 2017, 33, 183 and 196
  • Jo Darke, The Monuments Guide to England and Wales, 1991, 214
  • R. Foster, Landscape Pieced and Plotted: A History of Gardens in Cumbria, exhibition Tullie House, 1985
  • Thomas Gibson, Legends and History: Notes on Places in North Westmorland, 1887
  • Marshall Hall, Artists of Cumbria, 1979
  • Matthew Hyde and Nikolaus Pevsner, Buildings of England: Cumbria, 2010, 336 and 615
  • B. Jones, Follies and Grottoes, 1979
  • Tim Longville, A Terrier at History’s Rabbit Holes: Thomas Bland and his Image Garden, Cumbria Gardens Trust occ. Papers, vol.2, 2004, 85
  • P.J. Mannex, The History, Topography and Directory of Westmorland, 1849
  • Frank Welsh, The Complete Guide to the Lake District, 1997, 50
  • William Whellan, History of Cumberland, 1860
  • Anthony Whitehead, Westmorland Legends and Other Poems, 1856
  • Cumberland and Westmorland Herald, 14 August 1999
  • Cumberland and Westmorland Herald, 8 July 2000
  • Cumberland and Westmorland Herald, 30 August 2003
  • Daily Telegraph, 29 January 2000, The Figures Speak for Themselves, 
  • Manchester Guardian, 2 May 1955
  • Westmorland Gazette, 20 December 2014
  • has several relevant pedigrees and censuses
  •   see East Ward [W]
  • includes all his drawings from the Jackson Library, Carlisle
  • has entries for the Image Garden, and the Shap Wells and Black Dub monuments, all Grade II listed
  • ‘Robert Forrest’, Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851-1951, University of Glasgow History of Art and HATII onlinedatabase
  • Robert Salkeld Bland, portfolio of wild flower drawings, Jackson Library, E194
  • Whitehead mss  WDSO 101, Kendal CRO