Many Londoners are familiar with Alfred Frank Hardiman's statues over the door of County Hall on the South Bank. Or C. Sargeant Jagger's Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park. But who today recalls the model who posed for these monuments? The body behind the sculptures was a man called Stanley Hallam Rothwell, and his story reminds us of the forgotten labours behind artistic genius.
I have walked by Hardiman's sculptures above the door of County Hall many times, but it was in Austin, Texas that I first encountered the extraordinary man now immortalised in marble. I was conducting research on fitness culture and the performance of masculinity at the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas at Austin, when I discovered Rothwell's archive. Here, catalogued into six cardboard boxes, was the entire life of this extraordinary body, a body that captures so much 20th century history, and has almost been entirely forgotten. Included in the papers are an unpublished autobiography, The Roads That Lead from Wigan Pier, from which I have gathered much of this story.
Rothwell was born in 1904 in Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire. He worked in the mines in his late teens, and took up physical training with his friends during the 1921 miner's lock-out. He built his physique through hand-balancing (partnered acrobatics), wrestling, and weightlifting. Rothwell did not excel at school — in fact, he calls himself a 'dunce' and a 'backward child.' But he also detested the mines. He enrolled at the Wigan Mining and Technical College to gain qualifications that would enable him to find different work, yet upon arrival at the College, he found himself heading to the art master's office. "I want to paint", he told him. Despite facing prejudice at the art school against his working-class background, Rothwell persisted and became a skilled draughtsman and painter. He came to admire the physiques of Greek statues his class studied, and to connect artistic practise and physical culture in his mind. Outside the college, Stan and his friends practiced the 'snatch' and the 'bent press' and admired performers like bodybuilder Eugen Sandow and strongman Samson (Alexander Zass). In class, Stan studied the Discobolos of Myron and its perfect proportions.
However, when it came time for the end of term exhibition, Rothwell's canvases were rejected by the art master, and he was told he had no talent. Feeling 'trapped for life in the pits', in 1928, Stan moved to London. He got his first job at an Islington pub when he impressed the landlord by lifting an iron table. "I placed my hand under it and heaved it over my head," Rothwell writes, "'Coo!" [the landlord] said. 'You’d be a handy man to have around here.'" Stan was hired as a bouncer, or, as it was known then, a 'chucker-out.' Another customer suggested he wrestle, so he did, touring the country. Eventually he became a physical education instructor, and his physique was impressive enough to compete in one of the first bodybuilding competitions in France, Le Plus Bel Athlète du Monde (1939). For a time, he performed with a music hall gymnastics act, the Quo Vadis Bros. Rothwell wrote numerous articles on physical culture and philosophy, as well as one book of history entitled Lambeth at War, published by the SE1 People's History Project in 1981.
How did Stanley Rothwell become the body for some of London’s most famous landmarks? One year after moving to London, Rothwell encountered his old art master outside Central St. Martins on Charing Cross Road. After listening to Rothwell recount the struggles of London life, the art master told him 'with a figure like yours, you could earn a better living as an artist's model.' Thus began a series of engagements with the Royal Academy and Slade, where he met sculptors including Jagger, Hardiman, and Josephina de Vasconcellos.
In a 1950 manuscript entitled The Art of Physical Culture, Rothwell writes: "Physical Culture can be likened to the works of fine arts, and one who practices it to an artist, in so far that his work is creative and demands an aesthetic appreciation of form with grace of movement." Rothwell saw his pursuit of perfection in the body as part of the same project that led the ancient Greek sculptors to pursue in their marble principles of harmony with nature. Even though he posed in the near nude, Rothwell did not see posing as objectification— it's a dynamic, active practice, and a painful one at that.
When I look at the image of Rothwell posing as the Discobolos of Myron, I see someone who is performing, taking pleasure in making his body into art, fulfilling the Greek concept of arete, or excellence. Posing is a form of creative labour, which should remind us of other forgotten labours in artistic practice: the assistants, the students, those who clean the studio and make the tea.
After the second world war, Rothwell settled down with his wife Cecilia in Norbury, and had three children. He died in 1986. In the later part of his life he took several odd jobs, including work as a cleaner at the Daily Mirror. In 1968, a journalist at that paper published a profile of him under the title Stan Sought Physical Perfection. This seems to be the last mention of Rothwell in the media. But though his story has been forgotten, his body is not. "I think that truly I have made my mark on London", he writes in his autobiography, "for other figures and statures I posed for adorn many buildings and I have served London well enough to claim it to be my home, and to be called a Londoner."
By Broderick D.V. Chow, an artist-scholar and lecturer at Brunel University London, currently researching physical culture and the performance of masculinity, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.