Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Introduction: Displaying Victorian Sculpture

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Introduction: Displaying Victorian Sculpture

Article excerpt

Photographed in his studio in 1883, William Calder Marshall, one of the most successful sculptors in Victorian Britain, sits among many of his works. These include a commemorative monument, the seated figure of Samuel Crompton (1862), dominating the scene; historical genre pieces, such as The Venerable Bede Translating the Gospel of St John (1869) on the trestle to Crompton's right; ideal works, like the two nudes of The Tali Players (1873) in the left foreground; and more besides. Together, these works exemplify the florescence of sculpture in nineteenth-century Britain: the increasing opportunities for sculptors afforded by national, civic and private patronage, and by a maturing market, which generated a proliferation of kinds of sculptural object.

The growth of patrons, markets and audiences also required and created new forms of display, both in public and private. Calder Marshall's most famous work, Sabrina, an ideal nude representing the water nymph from Milton's Comus, was, conventionally enough, first exhibited in plaster at the Royal Academy in 1847. In a range of sizes and materials, Sabrina then found her way into many new display forums, including a sequence of major exhibitions, from the Great Exhibition of 1851, through the Dublin International Exhibition and New York Crystal Palace, both in 1853, and the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857, to the London International Exhibition in 1862; as part of the survey of sculptural history presented at the Sydenham Crystal Palace from 1854; as one of the most popular Parian ware statuettes, distributed by the Art Union and sold by Copeland in its showrooms; in educational entertainments in London, including the Regent's Park Colosseum and the Royal Panopticon in Leicester Square; and at a conversazione, or cultural salon, held at St Bartholomew's Hospital in June 1858. Sabrina also benefited from the increase in international markets, with zinc copies made by several manufacturers in the USA and a bronze version commissioned for Amherst College in Massachusetts (now on Roosevelt Island).

What is striking here is not simply that the statue was seen by more people in more places, but that it was encountered in new ways: as part of the Panopticon's didactic spectacle, combining wonder, science and the aesthetic; alongside scholarly demonstrations of microscopy and telegraphy at the conversazione; on a mantelpiece in the parlour of a suburban villa. As the photograph of Calder Marshall reminds us, more and more images of sculpture circulated, as photographs, stereographs, postcards, prints and illustrations in the periodical press. These too constitute a particularly modern form of display.

It is surprising that, in light of this extraordinary florescence, Victorian sculpture has been more often discussed in terms of decline. Twentiethcentury taste has tended to trump nineteenth-century history. Even in the field of Victorian studies, which has provided such a rich exploration of the British nineteenth-century world in recent decades, sculpture has been largely overlooked, as if it were a marginal cultural form. Happily, more and more research is being undertaken by scholars in the academy, museums and research centres; research which reveals the ubiquity of sculpture and its importance in nineteenth-century Britain and its empire. As part of this collective bid to return sculpture to centre stage in discussion of Victorian Britain, we led Displaying Victorian Sculpture, a project that ran from autumn 2010 to autumn 2013 at the universities of Warwick and York. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and in partnership with the Yale Center for British Art, the project explored the diverse ways in which sculpture was shown and encountered in nineteenth-century Britain. Displaying Victorian Sculpture ran alongside our research for Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention, 1837-1901, the first synoptic exhibition of Victorian sculpture ever mounted. …

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