[Click on images to enlarge them. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs come from the exhibition press release or catalogue.]

The enormous Minton elephant that graces both the poster for Sculpture Victorious outside the Yale Center for British Art and the cover of the exhibition catalogue seems entirely appropriate for this major exhibition: it's enormous, it's beautiful, and it's not the kind of object that comes to mind when one thinks of Victorian sculpture.

Fig 1. The poster for Sculpture Victorious near the entrance to the Yale Center for British Art. Fig 2. The catalogue's bookjacket.

The first work the visitor to Sculpture Victorious encounters, Westmacott's Saher de Quincy, is another such amazing object, one that effectively conveys some of the show's principal characteristics and themes. First of all, as Michael Hatt explained (Fig. 4), this statue usually resides in the House of Lords and has never before left, so our having the opportunity to see it at all represents quite a coup. More important, Saher de Quincy, an obviously imagined portrait of one of the twelve earls who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, shows the political functions of much Victorian sculpture; in this case it emphasizes a particular form of government, the constitutional monarchy. But as advertisers on late night television exclaim, “But wait! There’s more.” Westmacott's sculpture, it turns out, is not, as it might first seem, gilded and polychromed bronze. However medieval revivalist its subject might be, Saher de Quincy has a very modern, very Victorian composition of electroplated zinc. Thus, this first work we see effectively communicates the show's major points, that a good deal of Victorian sculpture, which ranges greatly in size and media, uses old and new technology to display matters of political, often imperial, power.

Fig 3. Sir Albert Gilbert's bust of Queen Victoria, which he characteristically completed several years after the 1887 Jubilee for which it had been intended. Fig 4. Benjamin Cheverton's sculpture reducing machine (or 3D-pantograph). c. 1825.

Size also matters, as we see in another major work in the first room of this exhibition — Sir Albert Gilbert's three-foot-high marble bust of Queen Victoria, the largest of the many portraits of her in Sculpture Victorious. Edward Onslow Ford's nearby twelve-inch bronze bust of the Queen in her late years, originally a study for a colossal monument in Manchester, reminds us that like the Roman Imperium of Cæsar Augustus, the far shorter-lived empire of Victoria also projected imperial power by means of images of the ruler. These sculptural images of Queen Victoria ranged in size from massive civic monuments to small coins, and any prosperous citizen could afford a portrait bust — a point made clear by a series of them beginning with Francis Chantrey's 1840 marble bust of the young Victoria from the Royal Collection and a smaller ivory copy made possible by Benjamin Cheverton's sculpture reducing machine. The Victorian invention of Parian Ware, also known as statuary porcelain, made possible the much less expensive portraits of Queen Victoria manufactured by Minton. Bas reliefs (Fig. 5), coins, and medals bearing her portrait (Fig. 6) provided the widest possible dissemination of her image, and this introductory chamber of the exhibition displays a large number of them.

Fig.5 Medallion Commemorating Queen Victoria’s Jubilee of 1887. Anton Scharff. 1887. Fig 6. First Class Badge of the Order of Victoria and Albert. Tommaso Saulini and R. & S. Garrard. Cameo 1862, mount 1864. Fig. 7 Plaster cast medallions after Bertel Thorvaldsen from “Opere di Thorwaldsend.” Studio of Pietro Paoletti. c. 1865.

The organizers of Sculpture Victorious — Martina Droth, Jason Edwards, and Michael Hatt — faced the major problem that so much major Victorian sculpture takes the form of objects they couldn't move to Yale or the Tate, because it takes the form of either monuments like the Albert Memorial and the Wellington Monument in St. Paul's or architectural sculpture, such as that on the Institute for Chartered Accounts or the Metropolitan Life Assurance building. How then to give visitors to the exhibition an idea of the accomplishments, say, of Henry Hugh Armstead (1828-1905) whose major work appears in the Albert Memorial and on the façade of the Foreign and Colonial Office? The organizers solved that problem in the version of Sculpture Victorious at the Tate Gallery by including his six-foot long marble bas relief, Hero and Leander; the Yale version represents him by another “amazing object” — the silver, gold, and damascened steel Outram Shield, which “features a central high relief surrounded by six low relief scenes around the perimeter, narrating episodes from the career of Lieutenant General Sir James Outram, an Victorian imperial hero most known for his part in relief of Lucknow” (289) during the 1857 Indian Mutiny. Like so many objects in the exhibition, the Outram Shield extends our notions of Victorian sculpture while embodying political history by means of superb craftsmanship in unusual materials.

Fig. 8. A Royal Game by William Reynolds-Stephens. The sheer scale of the work can be seen in this photo of your reviewer standing next to it, his head just reaching the job of Philip's heel.

The largest room in the exhibition contains most of what I have termed the Amazing Works in Sculpture Victorious. These include several examples of multimedia sculpture, such as Sir George Frampton's Dame Alice Owen (Fig. 9), Harry Bates's Pandora (Fig. 10), and William Reynolds-Stephens's enormous A Royal Game (Fig. 8). The organizers brilliantly demonstrate the great range of Victorian sculpture by several times pairing very different works by the same person. Thus, in addition to Reynolds-Stephens's enormous A Royal Game, we find in the same room his Happy in Beauty Life and Love and Everything, a wood-framed bas-relief of a woman in a medieval costume that stands almost six-feet high on its bronze pedestal. In the same room we find Ford's The Singer (Fig. 17) and St. George and the Dragon Salt Cellar (Fig. 18), a sculptural example of decorative art created from silver, marble, ivory, and lapis lazuli that contrasts markedly with his small bronze bust of an aged Victoria. Perhaps the most dramatic contrast between two works by a sculptor appears when we come upon Gilbert's magnificent Art Nouveau St. George (Fig. 11), a work of fantasy and myth that so differs from the large marble bust of a worldly wise Victoria (Fig. 3) that greets the visitor upon entering the exhibition.

Fig. 9. Dame Alice Owen (detail). Sir George Frampton. 1897. Fig. 10. Pandora. Harry Bates. 1890. Fig. 11. St. George. Sir Alfred Gilbert. 1891-96. This last photograph is courtesy of Robert Bowman and is not from the catalogue.

The part of the exhibition in which the Outram Shield appears contains more examples of the appearance of sculpture in unexpected forms, such as the silver Eglinton Trophy (Fig 16.) and J. D. Sedding's magnificent Pastoral Staff for the Bishop of St. Asaph. Sculpture Victorious also has sections on the Wellington Monument and the major influence of the middle ages and ancient Greece on Victorian sculpture.

Fig. 12. The Greek Slave. Hiram Powers. 1851. Fig. 13. View in the East Nave (The Greek Slave, by Power [sic]). 1851. Fig. 14. Zenobia in Chains. Harriet Goodhue Hosmer. 1859. Fig. 15. The American Slave. John Bell. 1853.

One unexpected demonstration of the political valences of nineteenth-century English sculpture appears in the emphasis placed upon an American rather than a British work — Hiram Power's The Greek Slave (Fig. 12), which was a sensation at the first world's fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851. Sculpture Victorious contains not only a version of The Greek Slave sent from England (the one in the Yale Art Gallery is apparently too fragile to cross Chapel Street!) but also another American work, Harriet Hosmer's Zenobia in Chains (Fig. 14) to which is contrasted John Bell's The American Slave (Fig. 15). The rather heavy emphasis upon this American work is carried through in multiple lithographs (Fig. 13), daguerrotypes of it in the 1851 Exhibition and elsewhere, even a quilt or coverlet.

Fig 16. The Eglinton Trophy. Edmund Cotterill. Fig 17. The Singer. Edward Onslow Ford. St. George and the Dragon Salt Cellar. Fig 18. Edward Onslow Ford (posthumously completed by John Seymour Lucas). [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

The Yale version of Sculpture Victorious has works by some but not all of the best known English sculptors of the Victorian years, such as Armstead, Bates, Chantrey, Ford, Frampton (best known for Peter Pan), Gibson, Gilbert, Marochetti, Birnie Philip, and Reynolds-Stevens. Conspicuously absent are E. H. Baily, Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, Thomas Brock, Aimé-Jules Dalou, William Goscombe John, Frederic Lord Leighton, Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal, William Calder Marshall, Matthew Noble, Frederick W. Pomeroy, Sir W. Hamo Thornycroft, Francis Derwent Wood, Thomas Woolner, and a host of others. The Tate version of Sculpture Victorious, in contrast, contains major pieces by Thornycroft (Fig. 18), Leighton (Fig. 19), Raffaele Monti plus additional works by Bates, Bell, Frampton and Gilbert, and adds some unusual work, such William Coombe Sander's Frame Resembling Carved Wood with Lobster and Crab Motif made, the catalogue tells us, of “sheepskin, on a carcasse of deal” (285). Whereas the effect of the organizers' rigorous selection of works to include has produced an exhibition containing many of the high points of nineteenth-century non-architectural sculpture, the emphasis upon contextualization that accompanied such rigor shows how these works participated in Victorian ways of thinking and feeling about beauty, power, and their relations to real and imagined pasts.

Fig 18. Teucer. Sir W. Hamo Thornycroft. Fig 19. Athlete Wrestling with Python. Frederic Lord Leighton. 1877. [Neither of these photographs come from the catalogue.]

The massive catalogue (Fig. 2), whose weight makes it difficult to read when holding it in one's hands or resting it on one's lap, does a fine job amplifying some of the exhibition's main themes, particularly those concerned with the relation of Victorian sculpture to local and imperial politics, culture, and technology. For example, the lavishly illustrated 50-odd pages of the section entitled “Sculpture and Ceremonial” that discusses the location and ceremonial unveilings of statues of Victoria throughout the empire could well function as a brief book on the subject, which could also include the closely related section entitled “Sculpture and Commemoration” that concentrates on the Wellington's funeral cortege and monument in St. Paul's Cathedral. “Craft and Art,” the catalogue's eighth and final section, “focuses on sculptures that were made with a purposeful ethos of craft, bringing a decorative idiom to bear on all facets of sculptural work” (370). These works, most of which date from the late nineteenth century, often combine multiple media in interesting ways. Sculpture Victorious the book is obviously necessary reading for anyone interested in British sculpture of the nineteenth century; Sculpture Victorious the exhibition is a “must see,” both in New Haven and London. I'm going to try to see both.

Related material


Sculpture Victorious: Art in the Age of Invention, 1837-1901. Eds. Martina Droth, Jason Edwards, Michael Hatt. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014.

Last modified 18 September 2014