During my day out at Tate Britain, I visited a great many exhibitions including Sculpture Victorious. This exhibition looks at the development of the art form during the Victorian era. Victoria and Albert encouraged and commissioned work, as did the state, and this helped to encourage a “golden age” of sculpture.
The first section explores images of Queen Victoria herself, from Francis Chantrey’s 1839 young and sensual marble bust to Alfred Gilbert’s 1887-9 marble bust and Edward Onslow Ford’s 1897 bronze bust, made only a few years before Victoria died. Her image was familiar to all her subjects as it was dispersed throughout the country on cameos, medals and coins – some of which are displayed here, including Canadian and Indian coins, a Crimea medal and a Great Exhibition medal – as well as large and small busts. The item I found particularly interesting was Benjamin Cheverton’s 1842 bust, a copy of Chantrey’s made using Cheverton’s ingenious “reducing machine”.
The nineteenth century saw a growth of interest in Britain’s history, particularly its medieval past. This was evident in the Houses of Parliament, designed in a Gothic style, and the fascination with the “Age of Chivalry” and church history. The House of Lords was decorated with models of the Magna Carta barons by James Sherwood Westmacott, including the Earl of Winchester (d. 1219), whose model has been loaned to this exhibition. Edmund Cotterill’s Eglinton Trophy is a beautiful and intricate example of medieval-inspired design, while many medieval tombs were conserved and their casts displayed at the Crystal Palace, including that of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The classical world also inspired the Victorians, particularly the Parthenon marbles, casts and miniatures of which were sold and toured the country. Hamo Thornycroft’s bronze sculpture of Teucer (1881), a Greek archer named in the Iliad, was well received while John Gibson, a leading British neoclassicist, created Hylas surprised by the Naiades (1826-c.36) in marble. The Devonshire Parure (1856), a glorious collection of jewels, was inspired by classical style while Frederic Leighton’s bronze An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877) is particularly impressive.
The Great Exhibition showcased fine examples of sculpture from Britain and abroad. Minto & Co.’s Peacock (1873) and Elephant (1889) are attractive and bright; made of lead and tin-glazed earthenware, they exemplify the link between sculpture and manufacturing. Mid-19th century ivory sculptures from Barhampur in India are ornate and beautiful, while Thomas Wilkinson Wallis’s Partridges and Ivy (1871), made of limewood, is breathtakingly delicate and stunning. Sculptures of a Greek slave and an American slave helped to fuel the anti-slavery campaign. I was particularly impressed by Raffaele Monti’s Veiled Vestal (1847), a marble sculpture with remarkably realistic drapes veiling a young woman’s face.
The Victorian era saw the construction of more public statues than any other, designed largely for commemorative purposes. Still famous to this day is Alfred Gilbert’s 1893 Shaftesbury monument, a memorial to Lord Shaftesbury, most commonly known as the Statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. A statue of King Alfred by Hamo Thornycroft was erected in Winchester in 1901, accompanied by a carefully choreographed unveiling, and Alfred Stevens won the Wellington Commission to create a memorial to the Duke of Wellington in St Paul’s Cathedral.
The final section of the exhibition looks at individual craftsmanship, with examples including A Royal Game (1906-11) by William Reynolds-Stephens, an impressive piece of bronze, wood and stone showing Elizabeth I and Philip II of Spain playing chess. Another piece that caught my eye was Perseus and the Graiae (1877-88) by Edward Burne-Jones.
I have an interest in the Victorian period and this exhibition allowed me to learn about an area of Victorian art that I hadn’t really thought about before. Definitely recommended.