Sculpture Victorious @ Tate Britain

Victorian art

I’m reading Christopher Wood’s coffee table history of Victorian painting which makes a number of obvious but important points:

The Victorian period was very long (1837 to 1901) – equivalent to three 25-year generations, so should be divided into at least three periods. It saw an unprecedented number of artists, using an array of new channels and media, to reach a larger audience than ever before. It was popular art in every sense: exhibitions were immensely well attended, the most famous paintings went on national and even international tours (I like his point that, along with much else, the Victorians invented the ‘blockbuster’ exhibition). Popular pieces were copied as engravings or lithographs which sold by the thousands, were printed in magazines and newspapers and could be bought in the new breed of art shops which opened in all the major cities.

More people than ever before could afford to buy some kind of art, or an affordable copy of art, and therefore artists were incentivised to cater to a wider range of tastes than ever before.

Which explains why the subject matter was popular and accessible: thousands of Victorian paintings tell a readily understandable story, focus on a dramatic moment or point a heavy moral – they are novels in frames or sermons in oil. Never have art and literature been closer. The ‘higher’ art might choose incidents from classical myth or medieval legend, which required a modicum of education to ‘get’; but plenty of other artists depicted scenes from ‘popular classics’, such as Goldsmith’s the Vicar of Wakefield or Don Quixote or Shakespeare, or straightforward scenes from contemporary life, typified by William Powell Frith’s astonishing panoramas Derby Day and The Railway Station, or the countless moral ‘tales’ warning of the perils of adultery or gambling.

Sculpture Victorious

The above is meant to give an indication of the sheer abundance of Victorian art, the variety of subject matter, the scope for specialisation, the widely varying levels of skill of its practitioners, and the differing audiences, from the aloofest cognoscenti to aspiring working class families who could afford a threepenny print.

This exhibition has been quite harshly criticised in some quarters for its eclecticism and incoherence (see the reviews below) but I thought it managed to reduce a huge and confusing range of output over a long period of revolutionary social and technical change and aimed at various levels of a newly stratified society, into some kind of order.

George Frampton, Dame Alice Owen (1897) © Dame Alice Owen’s School

George Frampton, Dame Alice Owen (1897) © Dame Alice Owen’s School

Introduction to Victorian sculpture

The show begins with the premise that the Victorian period was a Golden Age for British sculpture and it began at the top: Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, directly commissioned a wide array of work. Images of Victoria were set up in every city as well as in cities around the world as the British cemented control of their Empire. Sculpture was used to celebrate famous military victories, whether contemporary or from the more legendary past. And scientific developments made it easier to cast statues, to create them in new materials, and to run off multiple copies for sale and distribution. Boom times.

Room 1. The image of Victoria

More images of Queen Victoria were produced than of, probably, all the preceding British monarchs put together. From vast ceremonial statues to tiny, delicate brooches and profiles, as well as innumerable medals and coins. (I did wonder why coins and medals and brooches were featuring in an exhibition of sculpture but – as when the same question arose later, decided to just relax and enjoy the sheer variety of artefacts on display.)

This room featured an illustration of Benjamin Cheverton’s ‘reducing machine’ designed to allow a craftsman to make multiple copies of an existing sculpture – just one example of the numerous ways the means of manufacturing, copying and disseminating sculpture exploded in this period.

Room 2. The presence of history

From start to finish one massive thread running through Victorian art and sculpture was an obsession with the Middle Ages, with idealised images of Chivalry and Romance. Bolstered by the massive popularity of the novels of Sir Walter Scott (d.1832) and underpinned by the theoretical writings of art critic John Ruskin, the ideas were made flesh in the hyper-medievalism of the new Houses of Parliament (1850-60), popularised by the pre-Raphaelites (est. 1848), becoming a dominant architectural style, a pattern for countless statues, fake medieval friezes, tombs and monuments up and down the land.

Not only was the new Palace of Westminster (rebuilt 1840-70 after the previous building burned down 1834) a Gothic fantasia carried to extremes by architects Barry and Pugin, but a competition was held to fill it with medievalising statues. This led to a set of 18 statues of the Magna Carta barons, commissioned from nine contemporary artists. One of them has been brought from Westminster to feature in the show:

Characteristically of an age which combined a deeply nostalgic backward-looking art with a fascination for the latest ground breaking technology, this statue is made of zinc, electroplated with copper in a new technique, and highlighted with gilt.

The centrepiece of the room was the stunningly elaborate silver trophy, made to be awarded at a full fancy-dress medieval tournament held at Eglinton Castle, Kilwinning, North Ayrshire in 1839.

Room 3. Art and the antique

But what makes the Victorian period so confusing is that, running alongside the medieval Gothic strain was a just as powerful fascination for the classical world of the ancient Greeks and Romans and (as the century progressed) ancient Egyptians. (The difference in mood at the exhibition is signaled by the way the wall of the medieval room was painted a dark blood red, whereas the classical room was painted a lovely, light, duck-egg blue.)

All the classicists were influenced by the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon which went on display at the British Museum in 1816 and inspired successive generations of artists with their vision of human perfection (some of which can be seen up close and personal in the current exhibition of Greek sculpture at the British Museum.) However, I was struck that the musculature of the Leighton piece seemed to be harsher, more like a muscle-builder, than the Greek statues at the BM, which are smoother. For example the vein on the athlete’s neck is really standing out, and the musculature of the calves and shoulders seem more defined and developed than in a comparable Greek statue.

I felt the same about the statue which dominates the room, the Teucis of Hamo Thorneycraft, one of the superstars of Victorian sculpture. (Typically, in various interviews he mentioned a trip to the BM to see the Elgin Marbles as the moment when he decided to become a sculptor.)

As with the Leighton, I felt this had a more acute and angled feel for the male body than you’d get in the Greek original: the line of the pectoral stretching across to the bicep, the muscle above the shoulder, the small hollow above the ribcage and the archedness of the toes, all these gave it a more modern feel than the graceful smoothness of the Greeks, or of earlier Victorian nudes.

That kind of milky perfection of the human form was represented by:

Room 4. Great exhibitions

Everyone knows about the Great Exhibition of 1851, organised by Prince Albert and housed in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. It showcased Britain’s art and industry to the world, and to its own citizens, and included numerous sculptures and statues made for the occasion using a variety of up-to-the-minute techniques and materials. Usually the images of the Exhibition you see are paintings which give it a warm glow. One of the most interesting exhibits here was a normal-sized photo of the event (by Philippe Delamotte) which made it look like a lot of statues had been shoved higgledy-piggledy into a disused greenhouse.

I was slightly confused to see that most of the contents of this room weren’t from the 1851 exhibition but were made for the various other international exhibitions held in Paris or the USA later in the century. Thus one of the highlights of the show, the stunning man-high porcelain sculpture of an elephant rigged up in Indian-style ornamental howdah and trimmings, was made for the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889. It was designed by Thomas Longmore and John Hénk and manufactured by the successful porcelain manufacturer, Minton.

Thomas Longmore and John Hénk, Elephant (1889) © Thomas Goode & Co. Ltd., London

Thomas Longmore and John Hénk, Elephant (1889) © Thomas Goode & Co. Ltd., London

Is it art or is it horrible Victorian kitsch? I liked it and felt it depicted what it set out to depict with great flair and style. Unlike the just as large but revolting Peacock (1873), also made by the firm of Minton, and designed by Paul Comolera. Something about the silly hillock the bird is standing on and the twee ivy leaves and toadstools is revolting.

Typically for the age, both objects were made in numerous copies which could be not only sold to multiple buyers but were sent to be displayed at locations around the UK and abroad.

An unusually modern feel came from a large wood sculpture Partridges and Ivy by Thomas Wilkinson Wallace (1871) which uses a dilapidated wooden gate as the frame over which to drape festoons of ivy all framing dead partridges tied up by their feet. The ivy (and the tiny snail at bottom right) are done with bewitching realism, but I liked it because it felt like all the 20th century art works I love which use ‘found objects’, particularly rough, industrial or non-traditional materials.

The other dominant sculptures were a pairing of two naked women in chains. The wall label explained that Greek Slave (1844) was done by Hiram Powers, and is ostensibly about a Greek woman taken into slavery by the Turks during the former’s war of independence. In line with the Victorian means of distribution, copies of the statue were shown at venues around the UK and US and it became one of Powers’ most famous and most popular works. So much so that it inspired the suggestion that someone create a similar memorial to slaves in the southern US where slavery was, of course, still legal. Which led the sculptor John Bell (a significant contributor to the Albert Memorial) to create The American Slave (1853), which happily combined cashing in on the success of Powers’ statue and impressing everyone with its strong moral, anti-slavery purpose.

Room 5. Commemoration

The Victorians were obsessed with death which, despite all their marvellous inventions, continued to be a close presence in every large family, and they commemorated loved ones with countless mausoleums, cemeteries, gravestones, headstones, sarcophagi and funeral statues. The Albert Memorial is probably the most impressive, but the exhibition throws in a one minute video on a huge screen of a short silent piece of very early film footage of the unveiling of a huge statue of Victoria just after her death in 1901. As it happens, I recently watched City Lights by Charlie Chaplin which opens with the comprehensive ridiculing of just such a formal, ceremonial statue unveiling.

Heroes ancient and modern were celebrated by, for example, the stirring statue of Alfred the Great erected in Winchester High Street, the famous staue of Eros atop the Shaftesbury memorial in Shaftesbury Avenue, and the memorial to the Duke of Wellington which got caught up in bureaucracy and wasn’t finished until the 1920s.

Supporting the importance of the new scale of reproduction and distribution of artworks, was the fact that the lion sculpted to sit on top of Alfred Steven’s Wellington monument was advertised as being available from the Coalbrookdale Iron Company in a range of sizes and finishes. It was a thoroughly commercial age.

Room 6. Craft and art

This final room makes the unexpected jump to the end of the Victorian period and the flourishing of the Arts and Crafts movement, a reaction against the mass production of horrible tat – as railed against by William Morris in his numerous essays on art – with an emphasis on showing the hand of the maker. Thus many of the objects in this last room were signed by the artist or had detailing which was a little rough or asymmetrical, distancing itself from the complete fluency of the Leightons and Thornycrofts.

Wonderfully weird and kitschy was the St George and the Dragon Salt Cellar by Edward Onslow Ford – designed to stand on your dining room table, the salt to go in one of the dragon’s wings, the pepper in the other! There’s something to be noted about the late Victorian cult of St George which rose up, buoyed by the increasing enthusiasm of the late Empire, but also the sheer weirdness of combining such a sublime – and beautifully crafted – image with such a banal function.

Again, stretching the time period was the final artefact in the show, this huge and extraordinary sculpture of King Philip of Spain playing chess with Queen Elizabeth I of England, with chess pieces made from the galleons and barques used by both sides in the invasion attempt of the Spanish Armada. Again high, giddy English nationalism is combined with an almost surreal incongruity of purpose. And, dated 1906-11 it is quite obviously Edwardian not Victorian. But I’m glad it was there. It’s one of the coolest set of chess pieces I’ve ever seen, up there with the Lewis chessmen.

Sir William Reynolds-Stephens, A Royal Game (1906-11) © Tate

Sir William Reynolds-Stephens, A Royal Game (1906-11) © Tate


As with other recent shows at Tate Britain (Ruin Lust and British Folk Art) the curators have chosen a vast subject with the result that entire aspects of it are represented by one or two works, that ideas are introduced then vanish, that great leaps are made from one decade to another, from one artist to something completely different, there is rather a sense of randomness.

That said, I thought it gave a good flavour for the amazing technical achievements of Victorian sculpture and showcased breathtaking individual works of stunning grace and beauty. Taken together, though, seen en masse in a rather unrelenting sequence, they did have a rather cloying and overwhelming affect. It’s a relatively small show but I’d had enough before the end.

And it helped me realise that’s how all those Modernists on the cusp of the Great War must have felt about the Victorian period, too.

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