This notable bust of Sir William Agnew was executed by the sculptor Edward Onslow Ford shortly after Agnew’s retirement from the firm which he had propelled to pre-eminence. The portrait is a penetrating study of Agnew, displaying both Ford’s extraordinary technical ability and his skill to render a likeness. The bust was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1899 and then was displayed permanently in Agnew’s imposing purpose-built premises at 39 (now 43) Old Bond Street.
Ford’s first public commission, a bronze statue of Sir Rowland Hill was soon followed by a life-sized marble portrait of Sir Henry Irving as Hamlet now in the Guildhall Art Gallery, London. From 1884 Ford came into close contact with Alfred Gilbert, who occupied a neighbouring studio in The Avenue, Fulham Road. Thanks to what Gilbert characterised as Ford’s ‘powers of assimilation’, his work began to reflect Gilbert’s style and approach. Ford assisted Gilbert in his experiments with lost-wax casting, and went on to establish his reputation with statuettes in this medium.
Ford's art related closely to the arts and crafts movement – he was a founder member of the Art Workers’ Guild in 1884 particularly when and where it crossed traditional boundaries between sculpture and precious metalwork. He was the first British New Sculptor to exhibit mixed-media works, and was thus an important precursor to George Frampton, William Reynolds-Stephens, and Gilbert Bayes. Ford's earliest and best-known work of this type is The Singer. This bronze statuette portrays an Egyptian girl wearing turquoises and garnets in her circlet, holding a harp decorated with imitation enamelling. Ford's masterpiece is his memorial to Percy Bysshe Shelley, the most ambitious Victorian figure sculpture in Oxford. Originally intended for the protestant cemetery in Rome, it proved too large for its site. Following its acclaim at the 1892 Royal Academy, it was accepted by University College, Oxford, where Shelley had briefly been an undergraduate.
The contemporary writer on sculpture Marion Spielmann admired Ford's portrait busts as much as his ideal sculptures: ‘they are speaking likenesses: in every instance the man himself (or the lady) is before you.’ Though Ford was less prolific in this area than Edgar Boehm and Thomas Brock, his busts surpassed theirs in sympathy towards their sitters' personalities and in vividness of modelling. This is particularly evident in the bust of Agnew which is rendered with extraordinary naturalism down to his facial blemishes. The directness of the portrait of Agnew is off-set by the grandeur of its conception; Ford has deliberately left the underside of the bust roughly carved suggesting the original marble block and recalling the work of Michelangelo. The conceit of the unfinished block also makes the bust appear like a fragment. The portrait is finished with a yellow marble socle, adding an element of polychromy a particular feature of Ford’s works.