Exhibitions: Sculpture Victorious

By Gayford, Martin | The Spectator, February 28, 2015 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions: Sculpture Victorious


Gayford, Martin, The Spectator


Sculpture Victorious

Tate Britain, until 25 May

Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860

Tate Britain, until 7 June

In the centre of the new exhibition Sculpture Victorious at Tate Britain there is a huge white elephant. The beast is not, I should add, entirely colourless. On the contrary, it has a howdah richly decorated in gold and green, and numerous trappings, and tassels covering its pale grey hide. Its whiteness is entirely proverbial. After all, what can you do with a porcelain pachyderm, standing over seven feet tall?

The Victorian period, a text on the wall proclaims, was 'a golden age for British sculpture'. This is perfectly true, in the sense that a colossal amount of the stuff was turned out during Victoria's reign. But, as the exhibition unintentionally demonstrates, there was a lack of clarity about what to sculpt, with the exception of the monarch herself (numerous statues of whom were distributed around Britain and the Empire).

Sculpture Victorious is like a 19th-century department store, containing little in the way of major art, but cluttered with entertainingly barmy objects. My favourite, for its almost surreal dottiness, is 'A Royal Game' (1906-11) by William Reynolds-Stephens: a massive representation in electro-typed bronze of Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I, playing chess but using models of Armada-era ships instead of the conventional rooks and pawns. The artist intended this as 'a suggestion for a new form of National Monument'.

It turns out the elephant was one of a pair, modelled by Thomas Longmore and John Hénk and made by Minton & Co to display at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. In other words, it was a bit of advertising. Or, as the catalogue more grandly puts it, Minton's elephants were 'the standard bearers of British artistic skill and industrial might in this intense international competition'. One hopes the French were impressed; although the Minton elephants faced formidable rivals for attention in the freshly completed Eiffel Tower and, among the other sculptures on view, Rodin's 'Kiss'.

Stylistically, Victorian sculptors veered between implausible evocations of the Middle Ages and pastiches of classical antiquity. 'Greek Slave' (1844) by the American Hiram Powers is a weak imitation of classical nudes stretching back to the Venuses of Praxiteles, made in the traditional medium of marble but with a contemporary political spin. This was not supposed to be a goddess, but a modern Greek woman who had been captured in the recent War of Independence and displayed naked and in chains in an Ottoman slave market. …

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