1902 Encyclopedia > Sculpture > English Sculpture - 19th Century.

Sculpture
(Part 11)




English Sculpture - 19th Century.

During the first half of the 19th century the prevalence of a cold lifeless pseudo-classic style was fatal to individual talent, and robbed the sculpture of England of all real vigour and spirit. Francis Chantrey (1782-1841) produced a great quantity of sculpture, especially sepulchral monuments, which were much admired in spite of their very limited merits. Allan Cunningham and Henry Weekes worked in some cases in conjunction with Chantrey, who was not wanting in technical skill, as is shown by his clever marble relief of two dead woodcocks. John Gibson ^ (1790-1866) was perhaps after Flaxman the most success-ful of the English classic school, and produced some works of real merit. He strove eagerly to revive the poly-chromatic decoration of sculpture in imitation of the cir-cumlitio of classical times. His Venus Victrix, shown at the exhibition in London of 1862 (a work of about six years earlier), was the first of his coloured statues which attracted much attention. The prejudice, however, in favour of white marble was too strong, and both the popular verdict and that of other sculptors were strongly adverse to the " tinted Venus." The fact was that Gibson's colouring was timidly applied : it was a sort of compromise between the two systems, and thus his sculpture lost the special qualities of a pure marble surface, without gaining the richly decorative effect of the polychromy either of the Greeks or of the mediaeval period. The other chief sculp-tors of the same very inartistic period were Banks, the elder Westmacott (who modelled the Achilles in Hyde Park), B. Wyatt (who cast the equestrian statue of Wellington, lately removed from London), Macdowell, Campbell, Mar-shall, and Bell.

During the last hundred years a large number of hono-rary statues have been set up in the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Hall and Abbey, and in other public places in London. Most of these, though modelled as a rule with some scholastic accuracy, are quite dull and spiritless, and, whilst free from the violently bad taste of such men as Bernini or Boubiliac, they lack the force and vigorous originality which go far to redeem what is offensive in the sculpture of the l7th and 18th centuries. The modern public statues of London and elsewhere are as a rule tamely respectable and quite uninteresting. One brilliant exception is the Wellington monument in St Paul's Cathe-dral, probably the finest plastic work of modern times. It Stevens, was the work of
Alfred Stevens (1817-1875), a sculptor of the highest talent, who lived and died almost unrecognized by the British public. The commission for this monument was given to Stevens after a public competition; and lie agreed to carry it out for £20,000,—a quite inadequate sum, as it afterwards turned out. The greater part of his life Stevens devoted to this grand monument, constantly harassed and finally worn out by the interference of Government, want of money, and other difficulties. Though he completed the model, Stevens did not live to see the monument set up,—perhaps fortunately for him, as it has been placed in a small side chapel, where the effect of the whole is utterly destroyed, and its magnificent bronze groups hidden from view. The monument consists of a sarcophagus supporting a recumbent bronze effigy of the duke, over which is an arched marble canopy of late Benaissance style on delicately enriched shafts. At each end of the upper part of the canopy is a large bronze group, one representing Truth tearing the tongue out of the mouth of Falsehood, and the other Valour trampling Cowardice under foot (see fig. 8). The two virtues are represented by very stately female figures modelled with wonderful beauty and vigour; the vices are two nude male figures treated in a very massive way. The whole is composed with great skill and largeness of style. The vigorous strength and sculpturesque nobility of these groups recall the style of Michelangelo, but they are far from being a mere imitation of him or any other master. Stevens's work throughout is original and has a very distinct character of its own. He also designed an equestrian statue of the duke to stand on the summit of the monument, but in its present cramped position there is not sufficient room for this. Owing to the many years he spent on this one work Stevens did not produce much other sculpture. In Dorchester House, Park Lane, there is some of his work, especially a very noble mantelpiece supported by nude female caryatids in a crouching attitude, modelled with great largeness of style. He also designed mosaics to fill the spandrels under the dome of St Paul's. The value of Stevens's work is all the more conspicuous from the feeble-ness of most of the sculpture of his contemporaries.





FIG. 8.—Bronze group by Alfred Stevens from the Wellington monument.


In the present generation there are some signs of the development of a better state of the plastic arts. A bronze statue of an Athlete struggling with a Python, by Sir Frederick Leighton, is a work of great merit, almost worthy to rank with the best examples of any period, and remarkable for a profound knowledge of human anatomy (see fig. 9). Unfortunately the real cire perdue process for metal casting is seldom practised in England, and this statue, as well as all other bronze works produced in England, suffers much from the disagreeable surface which results from the rude method of forming the moulds in sand. The colossal bronze lions in Trafalgar Square, designed by Sir Edwin Landseer, are a melancholy example of this.


Footnotes

561-1 Gibson bequeathed his fortune and the models of his chief works to the Royal Academy, where the latter are now crowded in an upper room adjoining the Diploma Gallery. See Lady Eastlake, Life of Gibson, London, 1870.

561-2 The great merit of this work can now only be seen at the South Kensington Museum, which possesses Stevens's models and (on a small scale) his design for the whole monument.

562-1 On English sculpture, see Carter, Specimens of Ancient Sculpture, London, 1780 ; Aldis, Sculpture of Worcester Cathedral, London, 1874 ; Cockerell, Iconography of Wells Cathedral, Oxford, 1851 ; Stothard, Monumental Effigies of Britain, London, 1817 ; Westmacott, "Sculpture in Westminster Abbey," in Old London (pub. by Archaeological Institute), 1866, p. 159 sq. ; G. G. Scott, Gleanings from Westminster, London, 1862 ; Colling Art Foliage, London, 1865, with good examples of mediaeval decorative sculpture ; W. B. Scott, British School of Sculpture, London, 1872; W. M. Rossetti, "British Sculpture," in Frasers Mag., April l861 ; many good illustrations of English mediaeval sculpture are scattered throughout the volumes of Archaeologia, the Archaeological Journal, and other societies' " Proceedings."





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