Peter Pan and Eros

Peyton Skipwith

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Introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Peter Pan and Eros: Public and Private Sculpture in Britain, 1880-1940 (2002), which the Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, London, has kindly shared with readers of the Victorian Web. Copyright of images and text of course remains with FAS.

Frampton's Peter Pan Alfred Gilbert's Eros and George Frampton's Peter Pan are today amongst London's best-loved monuments. The first honours the memory of one of the greatest nineteenth-century philanthropist, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, whilst Peter Pan captures the magic of a fictional child, who had won the hearts of the British public. The story of the origins, creation and presentation of these two sculptures could not have been more different. Eros (cat No 15), the earlier of the two, was the subject of a long period of gestation, numerous committee meetings and much public speculation, which lasted from the time of Lord Shaftesbury's death on 1 October 1885, until the Memorial's unveiling by the Duchess of Westminster on 29 June 1893. By contrast, the genesis of Frampton's Peter Pan (cat no 10) was a private affair between the author J.M. Barrie, who had created the character of "the boy who would never grow up," and the sculptor who was to immortalise him in bronze. Despite the fact that Frampton had exhibited Peter Pan as a plaster at the Royal Academy in 1911, it seems to have caused no comment or speculation and remained under wraps, so to speak, until the richly patinated bronze group appeared in Kensington Gardens, as if by magic, on May-day morning 1912.

There was no pre-publicity and no unveiling. Just a brief announcement in The Times that day:

There is a surprise in store for the children who go to Kensington Gardens to feed the ducks in the Serpentine this morning. Down by the little bay on the south-western side of the tail of the Serpentine they will find a May-day gift by Mr J.M. Barrie, a figure of Peter Pan blowing his pipe on the stump of a tree, with fairies and mice and squirrels all around. It is the work of Sir George Frampton, and the bronze figure of the boy who would never grow up is delightfully conceived.

Men were engaged on Monday and yesterday in placing the work of the sculptor in position behind drawn curtains. These will be removed during the night, and the children will just find Peter Pan there as if he had grown out of the turf on May morning. It was the wish of Mr Barrie and of Sir George Frampton that there should be no formal unveiling, and the Office of Works fell in with a happy idea.

A photograph of the sculpture in situ, which appeared in The Illustrated London News ten days later [11 May 1912, p. 734], shows it surrounded by grass and flowers looking, in the dry words of The Times scribe, just "as if he had grown out of the turf." Frampton's sculpture, unlike Gilbert's, caused no controversy. Barrie and Frampton had selected a leafy bower in a peaceful bay beside the Serpentine, the spot where Peter Pan had landed in Barrie's story, as the ideal setting for their sculpture; here it was intended to give quiet pleasure to nannies and their young charges as they walked passed and played in the Park. This secluded spot contrasts dramatically with that chosen nearly a quarter of a century earlier by the Shaftesbury Memorial Committee which decreed that the Memorial should "be erected on a conspicuous site in one of the most frequented thoroughfares in London" [The Times, 29 October 1888]. Despite this well publicised intention, various sites were mooted and it was not until 1890 that the selection of the Piccadilly Circus site was confirmed, by which time Gilbert had been working on plans for the Memorial for several years.

Richard Dorment gives a detailed and spirited account of the press and public's reactions to Eros. The day after its unveiling, whilst The Daily Telegraph was full of praise, a reporter on The Manchester Evening Mail made

snide remarks about "a curious kind of creature, half Mercury and half eagle, who seems bent upon self-destruction by precipitating himself straight into the Criterion Restaurant" [which] boded ill. But it was not until a Miss Sophia Beale attacked the statue not on aesthetic grounds but on moral grounds that the full fury broke.

She raged against this "big satire" crying that during his lifetime the Evangelical Earl of Shaftesbury had campaigned against theatres, and now here a monument to him had been erected in the middle of the theatre district....The enterprising diarist for Man of the World confirmed on 19 July Miss Beale's very worst suspicions. Interviewing a tradesman whose shop was on Piccadilly Circus, he elicited the opinion that the fountain was ła curse rather than a blessing....the scum of the neighbourhood are attracted there night and day as if we hadn't enough of the foreign ladies who promenade the streets and keep respectable people out of our shops." [pp 113-14]

Frampton was six years younger than the precocious Alfred Gilbert, but they shared ideals as well as aspects of their training. Gilbert, after failing medical exams, had entered the Royal Academy Schools prior to working as a studio assistant to Sir Edgar Boehm, after which he went to Paris to study with Cavelier at the École des Beaux-Arts and then proceeded to Rome, whilst Frampton, the son of a stone mason, also trained in both Paris and London. Andrew Jezzard, quoting from Frampton's obituary in the Glasgow Herald states that "When George Frampton 'mounted the scaffolding on the Hotel de Ville in Paris, then under construction' in 1878, he began a career in architectural sculpture that was to remain a passion for the rest of his working life" (22 May 1928). After this experience he trained with one of the firms of architectural sculptors in London, probably Farmer & Brindley, studied, like Gilbert, at the Royal Academy Schools, and returned to Paris, to continue his studies with Antonin Mercié. Despite their difference in age, they were both practitioners of what Edmund Gosse was to dub the 'New Sculpture', and were members of the Art Workers Guild, with shared ideals to promote the unity of the arts. Given this sympathy of purpose, it is not surprising that Frampton responded to a statement that the Shaftesbury Memorial was not appropriate for its surroundings with the comment that "That's the fault of the surroundings. In a more enlightened age than this, Piccadilly Circus would be destroyed and rebuilt merely as a setting for Gilbert's jewel" [Terry, p. 343].

Neither of the London casts of Eros and Peter Pan are unique. A second cast of Eros was erected in the 1920s in Sefton Park, Liverpool, which, having suffered from vandalism over the years has now been taken into the care of the Museums and Galleries on Merseyside and is to be replaced, under the general refurbishment of Sefton Park, with one of The Fine Art Society's 1987 casts. Sefton Park was also the recipient, in 1927, of a cast of Peter Pan. Like Eros, it, too, suffered from vandalism, but now, due to the collaboration between the Sculpture Conservation Department and The Fine Art Society, it is undergoing complete restoration and the missing pieces are being replaced, before being returned to its original site. Three other casts of Peter Pan exist dating from the 1920s. Frampton, himself gave one to Belgium as a war memorial, and this was set up in the Gardens of the Palais d'Egmont in Brussels in 1924; it bears an inscription in Flemish which reads "A bond of friendship between the children of Great Britain and the children of Belgium." It too is being renovated, thanks to the present initiative between Liverpool and The Fine Art Society. The following year Sir Edgar Bowring presented a cast to St John's, Newfoundland, to mark the centenary of Bowring Brothers and in memory of his goddaughter, who had been drowned, and in 1926 a further cast was erected during a Peter Pan Festival in Camden, New Jersey.

It is not surprising that the Shaftesbury Memorial should have created a controversy when it was unveiled as, aesthetically, it broke new ground and, given its very public site, could not be ignored. The young sculptors - Gilbert, Frampton, Thornycroft, Pomeroy, Drury, Onslow Ford, Harry Bates and others -- who loosely formed the group which Edmund Gosse praised in his seminal 1894 article "The New Sculpture" (The Art Journal) -- shared many ideals and common influences. A number of them had studied at Lambeth School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools, and had drawn inspiration from the work and example of both Jules Dalou, a political exile from France, and Sir Frederic (later Lord) Leighton, President of the Royal Academy. Leighton's two great works, Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877) and The Sluggard (1885) quickly established themselves as exemplars and icons of the New Sculpture. These young sculptors also admired the work of Alfred Stevens and G F Watts, and shared the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, with its artisanal approach and belief that beauty should not be pursued for its own sake, but rather that all things needful should be made as beautiful as possible. To these influences was added the experience of Paris, with training at the Ecole des-Beaux-Arts, or in the studios of the leading French sculptors such as Antonin Mercié, Rodin, P-J Cavelier and Emmanuel Frémiet.

The search for a new interpretation of naturalism had become increasingly prevalent since the 1840s, when Pugin and other leading architects of the Gothic Revival had encouraged their sculptors and carvers to turn their backs on the out-worn and lifeless examples of their immediate predecessors, and to start working once again from living models; flowers, foliage and animals were taken into the carvers' workshops, with the result that there was a new, young generation of architectural sculptures ready to continue their training at Lambeth and South Kensington, and ultimately at the Royal Academy Schools and in Paris. Thus architectural carving became one of the key attributes of the New Sculpture, and some of the greatest buildings of the late nineteenth century resulted from the close collaboration between architect and sculptor. One only need cite the Institute of Chartered Accountants (Belcher, Thornycroft and Harry Bates), Lloyd's Registry of Shipping (Colcutt, Frampton and Frank Lynn Jenkins), Holy Trinity, Sloane Street (J D Sedding, Henry Wilson and F W Pomeroy), all in London; Kelvingrove, Glasgow (J W Simpson and Frampton) and Sheffield Town Hall (Mountford and Pomeroy).

The quest for a new naturalism combined with an interest in Symbolism, especially among those sculptors who had trained in Paris, and, as an extension of this, the experimentation in the use of colour, was a vital impulse driving these young sculptors. The incorporation of ivory, semi-precious stones, abalone shells and mother-of-pearl into small bronzes was an especial feature of the eighteen-nineties, and both Gilbert and Frampton, in addition to being sculptors, were also accomplished jewellers and enamellers. Whilst Gilbert was devising the Shaftesbury Memorial, he was simultaneously creating the elaborate silver, gilt and rock-crystal épergne, which was presented to Queen Victoria to mark her Jubilee, and the elaboration of detail on the fountain-basin is almost certainly a direct result of the cross-fertilization between these two concurrent commissions. These common interests lead naturally to the study of the works of Donatello, Della Robbia and Cellini, and I have in my possession a copy of Lord Balcarres's The Evolution of Italian Sculpture inscribed from Frampton to Gilbert Bayes as "a souvenir of admiration." C R Ashbee described Henry Wilson, architect, jeweller and sculptor, as "coming nearer than any Englishman to those Florentine jewellers who had their little shops on the Ponte Vecchio, and turned to necklaces, frescoes, or cathedrals indiscriminately" (unpublished notes, Masters of the Art Workers Guild).

The English are a literary and literal race with a deep distrust of fancy ideas; none more so than the late-nineteenth-century Victorian bourgeoisie. So it is not surprising that there was a large and vocal public ready to see the symbolism of Gilbert's Shaftesbury Memorial as highly contentious. Figures of the virtues which had been vital in the hands of Flaxman had by the end of the century become so hackneyed as to be no longer symbolic, so the advent of the glistening silver figure of Eros or, to be accurate, his younger brother, Anteros, the ancient symbol of selfless love, in the centre of Piccadilly Circus, was a very public confrontation between accepted tradition and the new art. The fact that the figure of Eros, apart from his wings, was modelled on that of a beautiful and scantily-draped sixteen-year-old Italian model, was particularly shocking to those, like Sophia Beale, who were prepared to take offence at the slightest provocation or none, and were only too anxious to find a cause which would allow them to continue to proclaim the virtues of the "Evangelical Earl." However, Gilbert had not arrived at his solution without very considerable thought, and his familiarity with quatrocento Italian, and contemporary French sculpture, is abundantly evident in the design and composition of the completed Memorial. The fountain, itself, in a city in which pure drinking water was still a luxury for the poor, was itself symbolic of Shaftesbury's bounty, though the drinking-cups which were chained to it were soon stolen, whilst the winged figure, far from being a "big satire". represented selfless love or by extension, Christian charity. A noble and fitting tribute to Lord Shaftesbury, rendered by a young sculptor-jeweller who was able to envisage fountain and figure as a single unit, and had conceived it as a crescendo of colour rising from the green bronze of the fountain basin, through the deep golden bronze of the central portion to the silver figure of Eros, alighting, almost weightless, at the pinnacle. Originally intended to be in gun-metal, the figure of Eros is in fact cast in aluminium, and was the first public sculpture to be so made; one of The Fine Art Society's casts of Eros has been touring America in the exhibition Aluminum: Jewellery to Jets, which exemplifies the extraordinary and rapid transition of that metal from a rarity prized beyond gold, to the everyday component of jet aircraft and household goods. Gilbert's part in that story was every bit as important as his contribution to the new language of sculpture in England at the end of the nineteenth century.

Symbolism and the advancement of technology were also at the heart of Frampton's Peter Pan. In the late 1870s, when Frampton first worked in Paris, Frémiet's great fountains, with their exuberant representation of the flora and fauna of far-flung outposts of the French Empire, were amongst the recent sculptural wonders of the City. For the tree-stump setting of Peter Pan Frampton eschewed Frémiet's exuberance, but by combining semi-tame animals of the English countryside -- rabbits, squirrels, mice and snails -- with delicate-winged fairies, he achieved an effect that was equally exotic, but in a very English and under-stated manner. The technical advances in casting that had been made by Singer's and Burton's, the two leading foundries in Britain, enabled Frampton to be as radical in his conception of base and figure as an integral unit, as Gilbert had been in his use of aluminium for the figure of Eros. Distinct from their individual appeal, Eros and Peter Pan marked technical milestones in the evolution of public sculpture, whilst both Gilbert and Frampton played key roles in transforming the language of sculpture.

Gilbert and Frampton were, of course, not alone in this transformation. Hamo Thornycroft, as we have already noted in passing, designed and sculpted the great frieze on Belcher's Institute of Chartered Accountants building, but he had already created two works destined to enter the pantheon of New Sculpture icons: Teucer, (cat nos 5 & 26) exhibited at the RA in 1881 and the Mower (cat no 27), shown there four years later, both of which were represented in The Fine Art Society's ground-breaking 1902 exhibition of Statuettes, and are shown again here. Thornycroft also created, amongst other public works, the memorials to General Gordon, now in Embankment Gardens and Gladstone in the Strand, whilst Thomas Brock, sculptor of the grandiose Queen Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, created the Henry Irving monument in the heart of theatre-land. Such public sculptures were not confined to Britain. those of the New Sculpture generation benefited greatly from the Imperial connection; Onslow Ford's famous figure of General Gordon mounted on a camel, now at the Gordon Boys School in Woking, used to grace Khartoum whilst a further cast of Thornycroft's Gordon is in Melbourne; Sydney has Gilbert Bayes' two splendid equestrian statues, Offerings of Peace and Offerings of War; Frampton's Queen Victoria sits proudly in front of the Queen Victoria Memorial building in Calcutta, whilst John Macallan Swan's great lions mount guard on the Cecil Rhodes memorial on Table Mountain. The Boer War, and then again the First World War, provided an extraordinary and and energetic impulse to the creation of public statuary, from which many sculptors benefited.

Important as public sculpture is, no sculptor can live by that alone, and it is now exactly a hundred years since The Fine Art Society's pioneering exhibition Statuettes, which included works by Gilbert Bayes, Louis Deuchars, Onslow Ford, George Frampton, Alfred Gilbert, Edouard Lanteri, John Macallan Swan, Hamo Thornycroft and Albert Toft, to name just those included in the present show. M H Spielmann, who wrote the catalogue introduction, Sculpture for the Home, started by saying "It is surely a reproach that no exhibition of Sculpture 'for its own sake' has before been held in London, and that the elder of the two arts of sculpture and painting has in recent times aroused little enthusiasm in the bosom of the collector." During the century that has passed since that exhibition, The Fine Art Society has continued to champion the creators of the New Sculpture, whilst, at the same time, promoting their successors; Memorial Exhibitions of the work of both Thornycroft and Gilbert were held at The Fine Art Society, and the 1968 exhibition British Sculpture 1850-1914, curated by Lavinia Handley-Read, was hailed as a turning-point in both taste and the appreciation of an unduly forgotten aspect of Britain's artistic heritage. Since then, casts from The Fine Art Society's edition of Eros, with which George Mancini, the last of Gilbert's foundry-men, assisted, have found new venues in places as far flung as Adelaide, Taiwan and Vermont. An enduring tribute to the lasting and universal appeal of the New Sculpture.

Related Materials


Balcarres, Lord . The Evolution of Italian Sculpture. John Murray, 1909.

Dorment, Richard. Alfred Gilbert. Yale, 1985.

Jezzard, Andrew. Unpublished MA thesis, Leeds U.

Terry, Ellen. The Story of My Life. 1908.

Last modified 1 May 2019