he uncovering of Mr. Thornycroft's statue of General Gordon, in Trafalgar Square, contributes a very notable addition indeed to the sparse sum of the works of art that open-air London can boast. It is the outcome of a vote by Parliament in 1885 — the year of Gordon's death — when, acting on the counsel of Sir Frederick Leighton, Sir John Millais, and Mr. Watts, Mr. Plunket, the First Commissioner of Works, commissioned Mr. Thornycroft to execute the monument.
It will doubtless be of general interest if Mr. Thornycroft's own account of the statue, written in a private letter to the Editor of The Magazine of Art, be first presented to the reader.
[“Thornycroft's Own Account”]
At first it was proposed that the statue should he placed as a pendant to that of Havelock — the statue of Napier to be removed further back in the square to make room. To this removal there proved to be some serious opposition. This I did not regret, as the task of making a pendant to the Havelock monument did not fill me with delight; for I am strongly of opinion that the scale of this statue is entirely wrong, and detrimental to the effect of the Square. I preferred rather having a site farther back in the Square for the Gordon, where I could have a freer hand and could aim at making a statue whose scale, at any rate, should he in proper proportion to those buildings around most worthy of consideration, namely, the National Gallery, which is really a beautiful building, the Church of St. Martin's [in the Fields], and the College of Physicians.
That portrait-statues in public places should have a relation to the buildings in their own neighbourhood, and not to abnormal structures, such as the Nelson Column, is, I think, not to be questioned. We have removed one monster to the wastes of Aldershot, and there are still others which might, at any rate, be reduced in scale, if we beautify London. It is a vain hope, perhaps, but I should like to live to see smaller copy of Foley’s [67/68] Prince Consort placed under the golden canopy in stone, in Kensington Gardens in lieu of the gilded Colossus now there.
The Gordon monument consists of a bronze statue of the hero, ten feet six inches high, and a lofty decorated pedestal, containing on two sides of the shaft bronze panels in low relief. The subjects are allegories the one ‘Fortitude and Faith,’ the other ‘Charity and Justice.’
Gordon appears as an English Staff- Officer, wearing a patrol jacket, but without belts, sword, or weapon of any kind, except his famous short rattan cane, or ‘Wand of Victory’ as it came to be called during his celebrated China campaign. Weapons he never wore, even in his most daring undertakings. His arms are almost in the folded position, but the right hand is raised up to the chin, while the left firmly grasps a Bible beneath his right elbow. Slung at his hack is a binocular field-glass. He stands firmly on the right foot, the other is raised on a broken cannon. Thus latter I introduced to give a military environment to the figure, and at the same time to express his dislike to bloodshed and war — if, so to speak, he would wish to put his heel upon it. The whole aspect of the statue I wished to be resolute, solitary, but not sad.
I have had the advice and assistance of Mr. Waterhouse in the design of the pedestal. This is composed of hard Derbyshire limestone, known as Hopton Wood stone, which, unlike the depressing, interminable, never-changing grey granite all around, lends itself to the sculptor's chisel, so that the cap, or cornice, of the pedestal is here carved with appropriate ornament and scroll, giving the names of Gordon's famous campaigns and victories. The upper pedestal, or sub-plinth, to the statue, is enriched with bronze wreaths and festoons of honour to the man above. The proximity of the high terrace at the back required that the pedestal should he high, so that the whole monument measures twenty-nine feet in height.
Thus far Mr. Thornycroft. He naturally confined himself to description in writing his letter, leaving criticism to those who felt themselves called upon to offer it. With respect to the work, we are happy to recognise in it a charming simplicity and naturalness of pose — somewhat similar to that of the statue of Lord Herbert of Lea outside the War Office, but considerably more lifelike — that add an unassuming dignity to the qualities the sculptor sought more particularly to produce. The pedestal is finely designed, and, to a certain extent, original. But we confess ourselves altogether opposed to the accepted orthodox notion of a high pedestal at all. To place the bronze or marble effigy of a man on the top of a huge block of decorated considerably higher than the man himself is repellent, in a certain degree, to the logical mind that has not become habituated to the idea through convention. In this matter there may be two extremes ; that in which, as in the ease of the Duke of York, we elongate our pedestal ad absurdam, and get our hero out of the way by sticking him on the top of a column a hundred and twenty feet above us, with a spiky lightning-conductor through his head, where we cannot see him; and the other when the portrait is so fine and lifelike that the effigy almost ceases to become a conventional representation of a man, and we begin to ask ourselves why this poor art's victim should remain up there to brave the wind and weather. In either case the rigid lines of the base invariably clash in spirit with the lines of the figure above, and defy all the attempts of the artist to decorate them away. Why must we always have these apologies — however ample they may he — for something better? Statues there are — Tabaccchi’s monument commemorating the completion of the Mont Cenis tunnel is a fair example of the principle — which are raised to the required level by means of a picturesque treatment of the base, whereby the enforced idea of a pedestal is altogether eliminated. It is surely high time that some variety should he introduced into our public monuments
Left: Charity & Justice, Right: Fortitude & Faith . [Click on images to enlarge them.]
But if anything could reconcile us to the idea of a pedestal if is the graceful design of Mr. Thornycroft and Mr. Waterhouse, embellished as it is with the two exquisitely-imagined reliefs by the former artist. They represent, as has already been said, the distinguishing "cardinal virtues'" of General Gordon. In the western panel the symbolical figures of Fortitude and Faith stand side by side; Fortitude, calm and resolute, with her sword and buckler, which bears the legend, "Right fears no Might;" and Faith, with uplifted hands and eyes, draped from the head, and wearing a cross upon her bosom. In the companion panel the composition is more elaborate. Charity here hears a nestling English child upon her arm, while with the other hand she draws close to her a little Soudanese hoy whom she has taught to read, and whose naked shoulders she covers with the folds of her own gown. Beside this lovely group stands Justice, blindfold, bearing her usual attributes, the sword and scales. We know not where to look in out-door London for such a union of grace and beauty of composition and line, charm of feeling and of sentiment, of elegance and skill (especially in the arrangement of draperies), that combine here to render these plaques masterpieces in sculpture design. The public and the artist are equally to be congratulated, for Mr. Thornyerofl's triumph is the people's gain. M. H. S.
“The National Statue to General Gordon.” The magazine of Art. 12 (1888-89): 67-70. Internet Archive version of a copy in the Robarts Library, the University of Toronto. Web. 16 May 2019.
Last modified 2 January 2012