Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Encountering Victorian Sculpture: Recollections of Objects, People and Publications

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Encountering Victorian Sculpture: Recollections of Objects, People and Publications

Article excerpt

Rebecca Wade in conversation with Ben Read

RW: I would like you to talk about the exhibitions and publications that have advanced our understanding of Victorian sculpture, beginning with the work of the Fine Art Society and their 1968 exhibition British Sculpture 1850-1914, which you've often cited as an important turning point.

BR: I think here I would want to pay tribute to Peyton Skipwith. Dealers always have their agenda but one or two, like Peyton, have been genuinely scholarly and interested. I think Lavinia and Charles Handley-Read were similar as collectors. Between them they had begun collecting the New Sculpture in particular and had a legendary collection. Alan Bowness knew about it and would ask them if they would take in select students who were interested in that field, so I went there with John Christian, the Victorian art scholar, who used to work for the Art Fund. We were two young scholars and our eyes popped out of our heads because here were things we had read about but rarely seen. In those days collections like the Tate that had the objects rarely showed them so here was the opportunity to see original works of the New Sculpture. Lavinia published a number of pioneering articles and Charles did some other articles on mid-Victorian sculpture, on the Albert Memorial, for instance and things like that for instance, as well as writing on Wyndham Lewis.1 Part of the collection, through Lavinia's brother, went to Bedford where it is still.2 Of course, they had architectural things as well including William Burges relics - Charles was an early Burges enthusiast. There was a commemorative exhibition at the Royal Academy of the Handley-Read collection before it was dispersed, so this was a formal recognition, but Peyton Skipwith getting it into the Fine Art Society was the crucial breakthrough.3 I went to the exhibition and was dazzled by it. It was such a good collection because Lavinia knew exactly what everything was and she wrote about it with a critical intelligence, which is still in a way unsurpassed.

RW: Would you say that this encounter with the objects set in motion the ideas that you would eventually publish in your book Victorian Sculpture in 1982?4

BR: I was already into Victorian sculpture then, which is why Alan sent me along. Unknown to most of the scholarly world, I'm really a paintings person and my PhD was originally going to be on the neoclassicists like Leighton and Watts, but I was also very keen on John Gibson, because I'd been to Liverpool. I think it was the Holman Hunt exhibition that was on there and the Tinted Venus got there later.5 It had come up for sale at Sotheby's Belgravia and I was already into Gibson by then and so I went to see it.6 There were only two of us there, the other person was an elderly military gentleman. We persuaded the guards to switch off the lights so that we could see it - because there was a top light of some sort - and we just sighed in amazement. But in a way a crucial figure was Timothy Stevens, who then worked at the Walker and I got to know him over the years. Through him, Liverpool has now got this amazing sculpture gallery full of Gibsons and other things. Being at Liverpool he decided that he should take an interest in things of local interest. But it was very funny, he knew that there were a lot of Gibsons in North Wales country houses and his remark more or less was: you have to watch out for the deaths of the grandchildren. Grandchildren will still retain an interest, but once they die what the great-grandfather bought will be of no interest at all. So he kept a very careful eye on that and got some wonderful things for, I imagine, next to nothing. I can't remember what the Tinted Venus went for, again it was next to nothing - and there it now is. There was a follow-on from that because when they installed the sculpture gallery, it was actually one of my Courtauld students, Martin Greenwood, who was engaged as a research assistant on it and helped write the introductory booklet, so for me there's always been an ongoing connection. …

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