Sculpture Victorious

A review of Tate Britain’s SCULPTURE VICTORIOUS exhibition celebrating the powerful, beautiful, and inventive sculpture of the Victorian era.

Queen Victoria, by Sir Francis Chantrey, 1841

When Parliament formally resumes on 27 May, Baron Saher de Quincy, Earl of Winchester, will not be there.

Instead of joining the peers and commons to listen to the Queen’s speech (and he’s heard a few), he will be in the Tate. In fact, it is only the second time he has ever been out of the Lords, the other being in 2000, when he went for a spot of conservation.

The occasion for the Earl of Winchester’s current furlough could not be a better one. Tate Britain is staging a celebration of Victorian England (1837–1901), evoked through a captivating collection of sculptures,

The show is not a ‘Top 100 of Victorian Art’, nor is it a ‘History of Victorian England in 100 Objects’. Rather, it is a fascinating window into a most British of periods — one in which monumental sculpture was commissioned on an unprecedented scale, and when thousands of smaller sculpted objects made their way into domestic homes as never before.

Saher 2

Saher de Quincy, Earl of Winchester by James Westmacott, 1853

With the June octocentenary of Magna Carta looming, it is clever of the Tate to pick the Earl of Winchester as one of the exhibition’s prizes. He is among the 18 barons who fill the wall niches of the House of Lords, immortalised in the upper chamber for extracting the 1215 Charter of Liberties (part of which would later become Magna Carta) from King John exactly 800 years ago. De Quincy’s personification of Magna Carta — a document seen by many as fundamental to our nation’s values — is a perfect nod to how we define ourselves via our past. It also neatly encapsulates why the Victorian era itself is still so important to us.

We tend to see the Victorians as unstoppable industrialists and engineers, building bridges and railways, riding the wave of riches funnelled into Britain from an empire on which the sun never set. But we do not spend much time on their sculpture, which — judging by this exhibition — is a great shame. Despite the temptation to think of Victorian Britain as full of clutter and knick-knackery, the Tate’s display tells a different story, opening a window onto an exuberant and sensitive period of art that galleries all too often neglect.

Take the first room, which fittingly opens with an arresting 1841 sculpture of Victoria by Francis Chantrey, whose generous endowment constituted the original purchase fund for the Tate. The monarch who greets us is not the usual elderly, billowing, buttoned up, granite-faced old empress. Instead she is a striking 19-year-old girl wearing a racy off-the-shoulder number, her face radiating intelligence and optimism. The mental double take this Victoria requires is a foretaste of the reassessments we have to make throughout the exhibition, much of which is gently hinted at in the objects immediately around the young queen.

Cheverton Reducing Machine

For example, there is an astonishing, soft, ivory miniature of the same bust, carved by the ingenious ‘Cheverton Reducing Machine’, a contraption for knocking out hundreds of precise miniatures of a larger statue. This is Victorian creativity at its most practical, bringing technology to the service of art. Then, on another wall, other busts introduce us to an unprecedented range of materials — Victoria in glass (after the repeal of the Glass Tax in 1845), in Parian ware, and in multiple metals and platings that were suddenly more widely available.

In fact, the Victorians’ gleeful obsession with metal is a constant theme in the exhibition. Even the Earl of Winchester is about this new technology. For although his muscular political presence, complete with real battle-axe, expresses volumes about the fusion of military and political power at the heart of the Victorian British Empire, he is actually made of copper-plated zinc. So in one object, we have a distillation of two major themes of the show: empire and technology.

On a social level, the exhibition also prompts questions which are surprisingly contemporary, and still challenging.

For instance, equality and its day-to-day meaning was an issue then as it is now. But no doubt inspired by the empress, artists were happy to explore the country’s rich history of female leadership.

In the Victorian gothic room, there is the replica gisant of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of England’s greatest Euro-queens, wife to two kings and mother of five monarchs (including three English kings).

There is also a reconstructed portion of Philippa of Hainault’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, a queen who earned the warm affection of the English as Edward III’s wife, and was widely respected for her accomplished rule during his numerous absences.

And, of course, there is Queen Elizabeth I, represented in the exhibition by both a funeral effigy and an astonishing vast bronze piece (actually electrotyped bronze and wood, stone, abalone, and glass) by Reynolds-Stephens, depicting Elizabeth and Philip II of Spain at a chessboard, concentrating on pieces shaped as ships. Strangely, a couple of his pieces lurk hidden beside his right foot, but fortunately a chess expert has confirmed from the state of play that Elizabeth looks set to take him to the cleaners.

Pandora, byHarry Bates, 1891

There are non-royal women, too, and here we meet more challenging ideas. The best is perhaps Henry Bates’s sad Pandora, the first woman on earth. The statue’s marble is unpolished, giving an eerie warmth and lifelike look to her skin as she gazes at the intricate ivory, bronze, and gilt box from which she is about to release all the world’s evils, before slamming it shut in time to save hope. She is pretty in a Victorian way, but her overwhelming sense of mournful destiny goes far beyond the vacuous frothy titillation of many of the previous century’s nudes.

Death Crowning Inocence, by Mary Seton Watts

Behind Pandora is perhaps the exhibition’s must powerful piece: a foreboding dark bronze funeral panel in which a nurturing yet terrifying female winged death cradles a child in her suffocating, womb-like wings. This is the work of a female sculptor, Mary Seton Watts, and it brings us directly into contact with the dreadful rawness of personal grieving.

Back in the gothic room, the centrepiece is a reminder that we also share with the Victorians a society in which the distribution of wealth is at times shocking. We know all too much about their slums, workhouses, and debtors’ prisons, of Jack-the-Ripper alleyways, and gin-drenched despair,

The Eglinton Trophy, by Edmund Cotterill and Garrard, 1843

So visitors are required to think hard when looking at the Eglinton Trophy — a vast 4’8” tall 100 lb gothic silver sculpture made to commemorate a joust re-enactment held by the 13th Earl of Eglinton in 1839. It is manifestly the product of immense metallurgical skill, and is clearly from the same romantic culture that was busy devouring neo-chivalric romances like Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, but there is a dreadfully out-of-touch pointlessness about its monumental burnished excess.

As we move beyond the gothic, we come face to face with the Victorians’ parallel love of the classical world, which was introduced at the entrance to the exhibition in the striking 7’5” high cast iron ‘Eagle slayer’. Victoria’s early reign was, of course, still in the age of the Grand Tour, and British travellers worshipped at the altar of the classics, sending members of the Society of Dilettanti and other learned groups far and wide to copy and also bring home the treasures of the ancient world.

They idolised Roman antiquities, but these were relatively familiar, not least because Britain has its fair share of Roman archaeology. But when the Parthenon Sculptures arrived in London in 1806, British artists went into a frenzy of Hellenism, luxuriating in the sheer sinewy vitality of Greek bodies, which the Romans had copied but not matched.

One Victorian who became obsessed with the Parthenon Sculptures was John Henning. His replica of the frieze still stares down on Londoners from Pall Mall’s Athenaeum Club, and the exhibition has acquired his tiny slate intaglio moulds, which he laboured over for 12 years, to stamp out two-inch high and 24 feet long plaster cast replicas of the frieze for domestic enjoyment. Sadly, intellectual property laws were not up to much, and counterfeiters promptly made cheaper and lower quality pirated moulds from his casts, resulting in his eventual financial ruin.

Parthenon Frieze, by John Henning

On a more personal level, Victorian society ostensibly created an age of tightly laced moral prudery, although the widespread parallel flourishing of all shades of prostitution showed that they could no more control sex than we can today with our endless debates about the desired degree of civil and religious acceptance of people’s sexualities.

An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, by Frederic, Lord Leighton, 1877

In this Victorian moral pressure-cooker, Greek-style sculpture provided an outlet. The result was often bold, impressive, and arresting, even if not always artistically convincing. Thornycroft’s imposing 1881 bronze statue of Teucer the archer aspires to the classical tradition, but the mix of eroticism with a strained and clenched decorum just makes for an unmilitary mincing with none of the easy masculinity of an original Greek piece. Similarly, next to it, Lord Leighton’s 1877 ‘Athlete wrestling with a python’ depicts an over-muscled hero grappling with an immense snake which writhes from between his legs. It is an absurdity, with the pumped athlete straining to flex every muscle in his body while simultaneously looking profoundly thoughtful. Yet as we think of the Victorians’ appetite for these rather affected soft-porn images, we cannot escape the fact that the staples of today’s advertising and entertainment industries are not much different.

Another pointed similarity the exhibition throws up between then and now is multiculturalism. Commentators may hawk the term around now as if we have only just discovered it, but British multiculturalism was in many ways a Victorian creation, as most of the nationalities that now make up the British family do so because of the Victorians’ indefatigable empire building. As a direct result, Victoria’s age had an inbuilt taste for the eclectic, and we have inherited it.

Elephant, by Thomas Longmore and John Hénk, 1889

Heading into the next room, which is strongly empire themed, the centrepiece is perhaps one of the most delightful in the exhibition. It is a riotously colourful eight-foot high majolica elephant, complete with vibrant green and gold howdah. But look closely, and you’ll see the jarring mutilation of its docked and capped tusks. From here on in this room, we start to encounter the darker side of empire.

On the near wall are intricately carved ivories, but their beauty palls alongside knowledge of the senseless cull of 3,500 to 6,000 elephants a year for these unnecessary trinkets and the other ivory luxuries the age hungered for.

The cost of empire, of course, went beyond elephants. A nearby display has the immense and bizarre solid silver shield presented as a retirement present to Lt General Lord Outram of the East India Company. It shows, with elaborate and delightful silverwork, but alarming graphic brutality, the slaughter involved in imperial rule. It is a sobering reminder that back then wars were not dressed up as beneficent acts of democratisation, but often fought openly for trade and economic benefits.

Greek Slave, by Hiram Powers, 1844

Perhaps the most troubling part of this room is a pair of female statues. The first, the Greek Slave, was carved by the American sculptor Hiram Powers in 1844. From afar it is a traditional female nude, not unlike the hundreds filling the western world’s museums and public parks. That is not surprising: the piece is based on the Venus de’ Medici. However, look closer, and you will see that the naked woman is cuffed with manacles. It is shocking at first, until you think that there are probably buses passing outside the Tate plastered in Fifty Shades of Grey film posters featuring Dakota Johnson similarly handcuffed as an object of desire.

Closer inspection reveals that the figure is discretely holding a small cross in her right hand, and the card explains that she is a chaste and virtuous Greek Christian being sold in a Turkish sex market (supposedly during the Greek revolution of 1821–32). For whatever reason, the statue was a tremendous hit when exhibited around Europe and the USA and, in a quite surreal experience, you can pop on a pair of headphones beside the statue and listen to a jaunty ‘Slave Girl Waltz’ composed in her honour (one of a number, apparently).

American Slave, by John Bell, 1853

At the time, slavery was still rife and unchecked in the southern states of the USA, and some contemporaries noticed the uncomfortable contrast of Americans enjoying the Greek Slave while there were unfree people on their own plantations. It became an issue, and in 1853 the British sculptor John Bell came out with a hard hitting response, which in this exhibition — for the first time ever — stands uncomfortably side by side with the Greek Slave. Bell’s ‘American Slave’ is dark bronze not white marble, nude, very young, and African, with shiny earrings and gleaming silver manacles, leaving no doubt of the sort of life she led. While some are quick to dismiss this statue as yet more erotica, it is a manifestly angry statement, pointedly using the commonly understood lexicon of female nudes to challenge American slavery openly. This is bare-knuckle Victorian politics, and it has a modernity that can still shock.

Wandering back through the thoughtfully chosen, elegantly lit, and airily spaced exhibits, I again bump into the Earl of Winchester, still on guard. I notice then, opposite him, a medieval bishop’s crozier, finely tooled in multiple textures of silver, and studded with enamel and jewels. It is quite exceptional craftsmanship, and could almost fit into the British Museum’s or Louvre’s collections of high medieval metalwork. After all the other pieces, it seems as if it is from another age. And, in a way, it the perfect object to consider last, because after the intense variety and experimentation on display, it is a suitable enigma — an unashamedly pre-Reformation piece of traditional religious art: further proof that the Victorians, just like us, recognised the nation’s multiple identities and cultural connections.

Victorian sculpture is not exhibited very often. Perhaps its reputation for disposable kitsch makes it too unworthy for our attention. Maybe its strong ties to empire render it politically unpalatable. Perhaps, even, its occasional forays into erotica seem too close for comfort in our age of widespread sexual imagery. Whatever the reasons for burying Victorian sculpture in the basement, this exhibition (previously shown at Yale, September to November 2014) convincingly redresses the balance. It gives us back a captivating world that is closer to our own than we think, and one which exudes an unabashed relish for the Victorians’ technological ingenuity, sense of beauty, and sheer exuberance.

Sculpture Victorious, Tate Britain, until 25 May 2015

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