While Victorian painting has returned to public consciousness in a big way – witness the extraordinary interest in the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolists – Victorian sculpture is still suffering mixed fortunes. Yet during the nineteen century sculpture had a rather greater impact on public life than did painting. Just take Queen Victoria, whose effigies at different times of her life, from Chantrey’s nymph-like teenager
to Gilbert’s grave empress
grace room one of the exhibition, “Sculpture Victorious”, at Tate Britain until May 25th.
What UK town hall or square doesn’t have a memorial to the Empress of India? It’s almost as if the Queen who reigned longest over us (soon to be challenged by our present monarch this year!) becomes apotheosised in a manner similar to that adopted by Elisabeth I (as exemplified in the marvellous film starring Cate Blanchett) and metamorphoses into a semi-replacement for the mother goddess figure which Roman Catholics are so fortunate in having in the Virgin Mary. (Although, unlike Elizabeth 1st, Victoria was no virgin queen having populated, with her nine children, much of Europe with kings, tsars and kaisers)
Everywhere one goes in London and Britain’s major cities there are meetings with imposing, endearing, pompous, grandiloquent and gorgeous examples of Victorian statuary. My particular favourite in London is in the Victoria Embankment gardens: Welshman Goscombe John’s statue of composer Sir Arthur Sullivan is wept by a naiad whose derrière is one of the most sensuous ones I have ever seen anywhere (it’s modelled in Paris, of course, and represents the muse of music.)
Sculpture in Victorian times played many roles, the greatest of which was political – the glorification of the empire, the strength of its power, the progress of its scientific and engineering skills. (Hence the removal of so many fine statues in former parts of the empire by newly independent powers: General Gordon’s statue, formerly in Khartoum, is now in Gillingham, for example).
In this respect, statues themselves became virtuoso technical pieces, fusing together a variety of materials. Marble, ivory (sadly tens of thousands of elephants were sacrificed for this material – and still are today by rich Chinese), plaster, iron, polychromatic surfaces, electroplating and woods were often used together to complete a work.
Nevertheless, the highest craftsmanship was also present and, of course, classical ideals persisted. Lord Leighton, for example, did a variation on the famous Laocoon statue, found in Nero’s golden house and now in the Vatican museum, for his own version in which the giant python is defeated.
The stunningly virtuoso effect of the veiled vestal virgin by Italian Raffaele Monti is reminiscent of Bernini’s own baroque brilliancy.
Did I like the exhibition? I don’t think anyone could have disliked the porcelain elephant centering it, one of only two made by the firm Minton,
and certainly Francis Chantry’s young Victoria is both regal and enticing. But much of what I saw seemed virtuoso display rather than inspired thought, rather like a Saint-Saens’ piano concerto.
It’s only towards the end of the nineteenth, when the arts and crafts movement started making a significant impact, that I had no reservations in admiring Victorian statuary. The work of Alfred Gilbert (him of the Piccadilly Circus statue popularly known as Eros but really representing “Ante Eros” – the difference, simplistically put, between lust and love) rises literally to great heights and materials in the pioneering use of aluminium and novel poses.
(Model for “Eros”)
When we enter into the fruitfulness of art nouveau then I have few reservations left. But then this exhibition has already given rise to the most diverse reactions and so it’s really up to one to make up one’s mind about whether what one sees is early kitsch, ingenious craftsmanship or late, tired classicism.