Stroking

Nicholas Penny

  • Victorian Sculpture by Benedict Read
    Yale, 414 pp, £30.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 300 02506 8

The paths which wander so bewilderingly through the densely-planted hills of the old section of the Père Lachaise cemetery eventually give way to the monotony of straight and level streets tightly packed with the ornate stone homes of the dead bourgeoisie of the Belle Epoque. It is there that you will eventually come, with a shock, across Victor Noir. He is flat on his back on a slab and we look down at him, as at someone who has fallen dead on the pavement. His top hat has rolled beside him. His shirt has been opened. There is a bullet hole in his chest.

Dalou, the sculptor, was not averse to rhetoric and the prosaic presentation has a special explanation. Victor Noir was a handsome young journalist shot after a quarrel by Prince Pierre Bonaparte. The Prince was acquitted of murder, but the Republicans ensured that the plain facts were recorded in bronze. The work has been taken as an extreme example of a tendency in 19th-century sculpture akin to the so-called ‘photographic’ salon painting of the same period. It enjoys a certain reputation, and not only among art-historians.

When you look down at Victor Noir you are unlikely to have any company save that of the ubiquitous and silent cats. But others have been there before. The boots are shiny, as is the rim of the hat. So too – and I doubt if this has ever been recorded in print – is his crotch. No wonder the tomb is not marked on the official map. These signs of continuous popular attention are unlikely to commend the work to the serious lover of serious art. To stroke, or to desire to stroke, the curvaceous surface of a sculpture by Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth is of course an entirely proper response to stone or bronze. But to feel, furtively, because we half-believe, and wish to tease ourselves that we do believe, that the bronze hat, or boot, or whatever, is real, or the marble nude yielding and warm, although a reaction which Pliny or Vasari would have respected, is not one which is now regarded as respectable.

Shudders and giggles remain the sophisticated reactions to the facsimiles of expensive haberdashery in Northern Italian cemeteries and to the marble hands of deceased royal children at Osborne House, but there may also be a growing fascination with the mixed feelings which such art stirs in us and some curiosity as to the consolations which it once provided. For the artists who created these things – unlike the modern sculptors who appear to have a similar interest in reproducing the ‘real’ – did not mean them to disturb. Sculpture now has very few of its old commemorative functions. The tombs of the great compete in modesty and have no effigies. Few of us who have political heroes would seriously propose erecting bronze statues of them.

To discover how, when and why these functions fell into disrepute must be one of the ambitions of the serious student of 19th-century sculpture. There exists no general introduction in English to what was produced in Germany or Italy. France is a different matter. Much of what was made between Houdon and Rodin has actually been admired for many years now: for instance, La Dance, Carpeaux’s festive group of girls with darting eyes and flashing teeth and flying hair and dimpled flesh on the front of the Paris Opera, has, at least since Kenneth Clark’s The Nude, been exempt from the usual brisk damnations of Second Empire entertainment art; and Rude’s earlier Departure of the Volunteers on the Arc de Triomphe must be almost as famous an image as Delacroix’s Liberty.

Although Rude’s great relief depends for its impact on its colossal scale (and effigies such as Dalou’s Victor Noir would hardly be very impressive if they were not life-size), much French 19th-century sculpture, even when intended for the town square or for the gallery of the plutocrat, was also designed for the more modest drawing-room: that is, with a reduced bronze edition in mind, Paris then being the world centre for bronze casting, whether on an industrial scale or in limited ‘de luxe’ form. A consequence of this is that exhibitions of French sculpture can be mounted relatively easily and can even travel from city to city, as did the ‘Romantics to Rodin’ show in the United States last year. The catalogue for this provides the first good general discussion of French 19th-century sculpture in English yet published, unless one counts the excellent but very much shorter piece by Ruth Butler (then Mirolli) in the catalogue of the similar but smaller exhibition held at the J. B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, in 1971.

Poetic sculpture in Victorian England was sometimes reproduced on a reduced scale in parian ware or (especially at the end of the century) in bronze, but no comparable exhibition of English 19th-century sculpture could ever be assembled, so we must be doubly grateful for this spectacular volume. Considered only as an anthology of nearly five hundred photographs of the highest quality, judiciously selected and juxtaposed, it changes our knowledge of the subject overnight. But Read’s text is admirable. It provides, among other things, a thoroughly documented exploration of how sculptors were trained, how they organised their studios, divided their labour, attracted attention and, by puffing and jobbery as often as not, secured public commissions. This is the first-ever serious survey of Victorian sculpture. There have been dozens of surveys of Victorian painting which fail to present this sort of basic information on the painters.

In characterising the sculpture Read scrupulously avoids specious categorisation. He gives the same careful attention to the firms which turned out architectural embellishments as he gives to the leading academicians, and indeed he consistently raises interesting questions concerning the distinctions between craft, industry and art. He announces in the preface that he is not concerned to evaluate Victorian sculpture, adding, however, that it is possible that he has ‘nonetheless’ not ‘entirely succeeded in concealing personal sympathies’. In the concluding sentence of one chapter he writes, of the mediocre Myddleton memorial fountain in Islington, that ‘amidst the tangle of London’s traffic the work still stands in testimony to the sculpture of its age.’ He was most probably toying with making some grander claim. As for the sculpture on the west front of Lichfield Cathedral, he is sure that it is prejudice which hinders general recognition that it is as impressive ‘in its way and for its date’ as that of Chartres and Wells. But to dispel the prejudice those qualifications need explanation, and more sympathy should be permitted expression. On the whole, however, he is right in the strategy he has adopted, which is simply to put us in a position where we are bound to question our own assumptions about what sculpture should be.

‘The sculpture I admire,’ wrote Gaudier-Brzeska in 1914, ‘is the work of master craftsmen. Every inch of the surface is won at the point of the chisel – every stroke of the hammer is a physical and mental effort. Not mere arbitrary translations of a design in any material.’ This is a passage quoted with approval by Benedict Read’s father, Herbert Read, in championing the art of Henry Moore and the ideal of direct carving which has had so potent an influence on 20th-century sculpture. It is certainly the case that many prominent sculptors from Thorvaldsen to Rodin were not ‘master craftsmen’ at all, or at least not carvers, but left their models to be translated into marble by a specialist marble-cutter (in France known as a praticien), usually an Italian, or into bronze by an independent specialist founder, without supervising the finish, and without even modifying the character of the original model with an eye to its eventual appearance in a different colour and material. However, the first reactions against this situation in England predate the discovery of African carving and contact with Brancusi, and belong to the history of Victorian sculpture.

We do not find in late 19th-century sculpture an emphasis upon the limitations of the hard block from which the forms have been hewn with effort. There was no distrust of the versatility of Carrara marble. But there was a great concern to display its special qualities, a fastidious interest in finish, and in making stimulating contrasts with other stones and with the character of the object represented. A good example of this is Onslow Ford’s haunting Snowdrift in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight. A bony, pre-pubescent, nude girl (a subject quite unknown to Classical art) sleeps in a feverish attitude upon a bed of snow which floats upon a glassy block of pale-green banded onyx. The tight and silky surface of the skin is contrasted with the soft powdery texture of the snow, which is itself varied, becoming in parts icier and smoother. The fur of Queen Victoria’s favourite collie in Boehm’s fine portrait, or the medals and the whiskers of Lord Cardigan in the same sculptor’s striking tomb effigy, are a different matter, but the argument that the imitation of such things in marble is in some way false does scant justice to the subtlety of the imagination – after all, we can be impressed simultaneously by the feelings expressed by a character in a play and by the skill of the actor’s performance.

The even more obvious pleasure taken in terracotta and in metals in Late Victorian sculpture is well discussed and well illustrated in this book. A fascination with the technology of casting, experiments with new alloys, and an exploitation of the full range of finishes and patinations (from bronze as dull and dark and broken as a ploughed field for a wrinkled academic to bronze honey-coloured and satin-smooth with volatile highlights for a bacchante), are characteristic of this period. And it may be that no sculptor has ever been more imaginatively engaged by the special qualities of metal than Gilbert. His Perseus, Icarus and Eros, and the works by Pomeroy, Frampton or Goscombe John of a similar character, are exercises in the precarious balance, slender support, open pose, complex silhouette and brittle projection which are either impossible to achieve, or ineffective if achieved, in stone.

What of the narrative element in sculpture which modern artists have repudiated? Was this taken by 19th-century artists to a point where a reaction was inevitable? In France there was the sensationalism encouraged by the need to attract attention at the Salon. Flicking through the ‘Romantics to Rodin’ catalogue, we find pythons consuming gnus, jaguars biting out the bowels of crocodiles, a snake sliding inexorably up the tense legs of an Indian woman towards the child she holds above her head, a smaller snake knotted around a nude woman’s ankle. Another nude victim rolls on a flower-bed (it was the notorious Madame Sabatier, cast from life by her former lover, or so those who flocked to the Salon to admire her thighs eagerly whispered to each other), and Angelica, strapped to a rock and lapped by foam, awaits, in a still more voluptuous attitude, the biggest reptile of them all. One woman is carried off screaming by a centaur. Another is in the arms of a gorilla (Professor Janson provides a learned note on the myth of gorilla rape) and one even (to the intense excitement of Baudelaire) submits to the amorous advances of a decomposing corpse. Towards the end of the century women start getting their own back. Some of them even begin to turn into reptiles.

There is very little sex with violence in Victorian Sculpture. In England the exhibition piece tended to melt the heart rather than race the pulse. If we leave aside the modesty and tenderness of numerous nymphs finely calculated to compensate for unholy ideas prompted by their state of undress, it is of course the children who pose the greatest problem for us today. What do we make of Woolner’s Constance and Arthur (also known as Brother and Sister and Deaf and Dumb)? It inspired Browning and it was highly esteemed by Palgrave, who, as Read observes, had no trouble resisting Child’s Play, Maternal Joy and Child Asleep in the same exhibition. The fact that Woolner’s group must now be inspected in Tunbridge Wells Borough Cemetery makes our response to its sentiment even more difficult – indeed, the commemorative function endows with sentiment even art which has no narrative content. That haberdashery in Northern Italian cemeteries or the children’s hands at Osborne embarrass us. It is one thing to sleep in an old bed, another to sleep in one in which we know someone to have died.

With public as distinct from private commemoration we are more at ease, because we are sure that less serious emotions were involved. Perhaps arrogantly, we suspect that people did not feel the need for a statue of Cobden or Richard Coeur de Lion, but felt that they (and, above all, that others) should feel the need. It is noteworthy that despite the concern with commemorating worthies such as King Arthur and Francis Drake in 18th-century England none of the national heroes commemorated in the 19th century excited a fraction of the popular sentiment, or the artistic ability, associated with Joan of Arc in France. It is also the case that political and patriotic abstractions in Victorian sculpture are banal. Britannia was quickly appropriated by iron foundries and insurance companies, but even before this she had been replaced in the popular imagination by John Bull, who, like Uncle Sam, is too low a subject for sculpture. Marianne, the embodiment of the French Republic, on the other hand, is far more lively: she was conceived in the Revolution and when living underground she had been very familiar with her admirers, as Maurice Agulhon demonstrated in Marianne into Battle. There is nothing like Rude’s Marseillaise or Dalou’s triumphant Republic in London. One problem was that there was no opposition rhetoric in English sculpture to invigorate officialese, or rather to retain its vigour after it had been officially adopted, which was perhaps the case with these French examples.

After Sir Robert Peel’s death in 1850 over twenty public statues were erected of him. This, Read acutely suggests, marks the point at which the practice of commemorating nonroyal public figures in this way (which had begun very early in this country with Nelson and Fox) really took off. The demand was astonishing and unstoppable, and before long, according to Carlyle, ‘almost anybody much heard of in the newspapers and never yet convicted of a felony’ could qualify. Most of the statues are dignified but dull. They hardly ever attempt anything heroic for fear of looking foolish. Towards the end of the century there are some lively allegorical accessories, fewer heavy cloaks and scrolls, and real pleasure is taken in the details of contemporary dress and ceremonial costume as well as in the idiosyncrasies of physiognomy, but the great problem remains of making someone who seems to belong on a tall pedestal also look interesting. The political impact of the effigy of Victor Noir becomes clear when we try to imagine a statue of him (or better still, one of Prince Pierre Bonaparte) in a public square.

Sculptors desperately needed these commissions for public statues, but they must often have hated the work. Gilbert convinced the committee established to commemorate the philanthropic seventh Earl of Shaftesbury that a fountain should be erected to him in Piccadilly and then cleverly frustrated all their attempts to put the Earl’s likeness on it. Perhaps he deceived himself into believing that his beautiful aluminium Eros was an apt emblem of selfless love, but this is hard to believe, and it is impossible to accept, as we admire the wet bronze reliefs of wild boys and dolphins and the swirling cartouches and the mouldings, swelling and tightening, that all this is a metaphor for the overflowing charity of a Christian nobleman. Art here emancipates itself from prosaic duty and, paid to commemorate a worthy old man, celebrates the irresponsible dreams of youth.