here has been a great deal of controversy amongst scholars as to what exactly constitutes Pre-Raphaelite sculpture in the first place, or whether it is even a useful or legitimate term. There were a number of sculptors associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood including not only Thomas Woolner, one of its seven founding members, but also Alexander Munro, John Hancock, John Lucas Tupper, and Bernard Smith.
Sculptors have been considered as Pre-Raphaelite in their work for a number of reasons, but the principal question is what are the “specific Pre-Raphaelite values that can be applied to sculpture?” (Barringer and Rosenfeld, 2012, 12) One criterion that has been suggested is a similarity with the P.R.B. painters in terms of inspiration, with subjects taken from sources like the Bible, Dante, Chaucer, or Shakespeare. An example would include Alexander Munro’s Paolo and Francesca of 1852, which is the three-dimensional equivalent of D. G. Rossetti’s early watercolours on this subject taken from Dante. Another value linking these sculptors to the “hard-edge” initial phase of Pre-Raphaelitism is the stylistic affinities of incorporating intense detail related to “truth to nature” in their work. This is exemplified by the superbly detailed accurate foliage depicted in the base of Munro’s Young Romilly of c.1863, while another example would be Tupper’s statue of the naturalist Carl Linnaeus for the great hall of the Natural History Museum at Oxford. Such intense naturalistic detail included in sculpture was not a totally radical departure, however, and could also be applied to the work of certain other Victorian sculptors not working within the orbit of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Left: Paolo and Francesca. Alexander Munro (1825-1871). Wallington, Northumbria. Photograph courtesy Wallington, the National Trust. Right: Linnaeus. John Lucas Tupper (1824?-1879). 1856; repaired by Tupper 1862. Marble. Natural History Museum, Oxford University [Click on images to enlarge them.]
To be truly considered a defining work of Pre-Raphaelite sculpture it would have to be the three-dimensional equivalent of the characteristics that marked the paintings and drawings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in its early years from 1848-1851. Early Pre-Raphaelite drawings by the P.R.B., in their severe naïve awkward and angular “medieval style”, could definitely be compared to Tupper’s sculpture of Beryn and Syrophanes Playing Chess. It may therefore be pertinent that Tupper’s sculpture dates to 1851. The relief certainly shows features in common with these early drawings, including its detailed severe outline and its stiff awkward gestures, probably even more than it shows similarities with early Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It is therefore no wonder that W. M. Rossetti specifically singled out Tupper’s sculpture as being “the introductory sample of the P.R.B. system in sculpture.”
Beryn and Syrophanes Playing Chess John Lucas Tupper.1851, plaster relief, 54 x 69.5 x 5 cm, Dennis T. Lanigan collection.
In his sculpture of Beryn and Syrophanes Playing Chess Tupper has carried his Pre-Raphaelite principles to the extreme. Like his colleagues amongst the Pre-Raphaelite painters, Tupper refused to accept the prevailing conventions of his time. With the sculpture’s jarring stiffness, awkward gestures, and a lack of the grace normally seen in the neo-classical sculptures of the period, it is hardly surprising that this work was rejected by the Royal Academy. Tupper’s sculpture is thus not merely a rediscovery but a revelation because of what it contributes to the debate as to whether Pre-Raphaelite sculpture actually existed. After studying Tupper’s relief there can be no doubt that it is indeed on the “extremest edge of P.R.Bism” and for the time “a perfect sculpturesque heresy.” It is certainly the only known example of what truly constitutes Pre-Raphaelite sculpture in its earliest phase.
Barringer, Tim and Rosenfeld, Jason. “Victorian Avant-Garde”, in Barringer, T., Rosenfeld, J., and Smith, A. Pre-Raphaelites Victorian Avant-Garde. London: Tate Publishing, 2012.
Lanigan, Dennis T. “John Lucas Tupper’s Beryn and Syrophanes Playing Chess, a rediscovery: sculpture at the extremest edge of P.R.Bism,” PRS Review, 29 (Spring 2021): 47-53.
Rossetti, William Michael (Ed.). Praeraphaelite Letters and Diaries. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1900.
Last modified 10 April 2021