Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

We Are Not Amused; Victorian Sculpture Looks Pompous and Reactionary to Our Enlightened Eyes, but the Photography of the Same Period Retains All the Freshness and Magic of a Medium in Its Infancy EXHIBITIONS OF THE WEEK

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

We Are Not Amused; Victorian Sculpture Looks Pompous and Reactionary to Our Enlightened Eyes, but the Photography of the Same Period Retains All the Freshness and Magic of a Medium in Its Infancy EXHIBITIONS OF THE WEEK

Article excerpt

Byline: Ben Luke

SCULPTURE VICTORIOUS SALT AND SILVER: EARLY PHOTOGRAPHY 1840-1860 Tate Britain, SW1 WE LIVE in a vast exhibition of Victorian sculpture. The ambitions of the period, its imperial grandeur and moral instruction mark our journey through this city. From Hyde Park, where the Albert Memorial is London's most ecstatic, gleaming monument to empire and Victorian values, to Alfred Gilbert's Eros in Piccadilly Circus, to Trafalgar Square, where Nelson's Column is a Victorian tribute to a Georgian admiral, with Edwin Landseer's lions at its base everywhere you look in central London, the monumental evidence of Britain's most powerful age looms above and around you.

Sculpture Victorious attempts to explore and explain what it calls a "golden age" of sculpture in Britain, where booming industry, new forms of mass production, novel techniques and the phenomenon of world fairs prompted an explosion of sculptural endeavour. As well as the bronze and stone, we have silverware, electroplating, ceramics and wood carving among other things. In George Frampton's Dame Alice Owen alone there is marble, alabaster, bronze, paint and gilding. The variety of materials in the show is astonishing. Its quality and relevance, however, is another matter.

Queen Victoria herself greets you as you enter the exhibition, and in various guises, from brooches and coins to busts from various stages in her life. Alfred Gilbert's 1887 marble portrayal must, back then, have signalled solemnity and sense of purpose in keeping with her global power. Yet today, despite its intricate detailing, it looks almost satirically bulky I couldn't help thinking about that famous photograph of Alfred Hitchcock in drag.

A far more delicate, even sensual, portrayal is nearby, in Francis Chantrey's bust, again in marble, begun in 1838, where the 19-year-old Victoria's neck and shoulders are exposed. It was a hugely popular depiction of the new queen, prompting countless commercial copies using new technologies, including a version in ivory, produced by Benjamin Cheverton using a "reducing machine". We learn that at this point 3,500 to 6,000 elephants a year were dying for the production of such objects, just one of the uncomfortable imperial legacies represented here.

And the empire inevitably looms large. The remarkable two-metre-tall ceramic elephant, bedecked in Indian and Islamic finery, is an undoubted feat of artistry, intended at the Universal Exhibition in Paris to represent Britain's innovation and prowess in manufacturing. But as sculpture, it's a trifle.

There's a pride, even a smugness in so much here, of which William Reynolds-Stephens's fascinating yet ridiculous sculpture of Elizabeth I triumphantly playing chess with her great adversary Philip II of Spain, made a few years after Victoria's death, is the most extreme. The artist intended the sculpture to act as a new kind of national monument, an emblem of British naval might in the face of an empire that was beginning to unravel, amid decolonising movements and rising military powers elsewhere. With the modern knowledge that the First World War was around the corner, it seems like a monumental folly.

Reynolds-Stephens produced the sculpture using electrotyping, a chemical way of reproducing a model, into a form that looked like bronze but was often copper. But it's striking that he used it for so backwardlooking a sculpture. And that is my chief problem with the works here: new technologies were springing up everywhere, and yet Victorian sculptors were utterly immersed in the past, whether it was the medieval world, as in James Sherwood Westmacott's electroplated sculpture of one of the prelates and barons who secured the signing of Magna Carta for the new Houses of Parliament, or in the numerous neo-classical sculptures which add nothing to the works of antiquity or to the great Renaissance sculptures that were inspired by and transformed them. …

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