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Bronze of General Gordon signed 'Hamo Thornycroft' – £24,000 at Chiswick Auctions.

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Gordon led the Chinese emperor’s troops to victory against the Taiping Rebellion, helped suppress slavery while governor of the Sudan and met a heroically romantic – if wholly avoidable – death facing the Mahdi’s hordes in Khartoum in 1885.

Within a year, the Government gave a £3600 commission to rising New Sculpture star William Hamo Thornycroft (1850-1925) to create a 10ft 8in (3.25m) tall bronze of Gordon to stand on an 18ft (5.5m) high plinth in Trafalgar Square.

The statue, unveiled in 1887 and standing on Victoria Embankment since 1953, depicts Gordon in a crumpled army jacket, belt undone and holding a Bible rather than the conventional sword. Thornycroft wanted to show Gordon as the thoughtful humane figure he could be rather than a swashbuckling warrior.

Cast by the Thames Ditton foundry, it was hugely popular.

Reduced in size

Thornycroft produced his own reductions of the figure which were sold at £10 each in 1888 at the Royal Academy (the year he became an RA member).

Detective work by Rachael Osborn-Howard, head of European works of art and clocks at Chiswick, indicated that her 3ft (92cm) tall bronze signed Hamo Thornycroft was one of his originals.

“Small bronze reductions produced after Thornycroft’s death appear on the market quite regularly, but I could find no record of one this large size ever being sold at auction,” she said.

“I was lucky enough to find a photograph in the National Portrait Gallery of the sculptor working on the full-size monument with this reduced size figure in the background.”

Further analysis of the Victorian photograph suggested that the contemporaneous reduction was indeed the size of the Chiswick lot.

“The vendor inherited it from his father and knew nothing about sculpture,’ said Osborn-Howard, who estimated it at £20,000-30,000 for the auction on May 24.

Like most of the estimates – with the spectacular exception of the Goan tabernacle – this proved spot-on when the bronze sold to a private European buyer at £24,000.