Some Reflections on the 1915 Ivan Mestrovic Exhibition and the Emergence of One-Person Shows for Sculptors in Britain

By Compton, Ann | The Sculpture Journal, May 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Some Reflections on the 1915 Ivan Mestrovic Exhibition and the Emergence of One-Person Shows for Sculptors in Britain


Compton, Ann, The Sculpture Journal


Artists were among the thousands of visitors who flocked to the Victoria and Albert Museum in the summer of 1915 to see the work of Ivan Mestrovic.1 In the early 1900s one-person shows for sculptors were extremely unusual in Britain and members of the profession were working actively to create new opportunities for exhibiting their work.2 So although the published responses of practitioners, like Kathleen Scott and Charles Wheeler, focus on the aesthetic impact of the Mestrovic show, the prestigious venue and scale of the display undoubtedly would have made a forceful impression and prompted reflection on recent exhibitions of sculpture.3

One of the points most obvious to the profession would have been that, prior to 1915, Auguste Rodin was the only living sculptor to have been given a solo display in a national museum. A few might recall that the only other one-person displays mounted at the V&A had taken place some fifty years earlier.4 While many British sculptors warmly welcomed Rodin's generous gift of 18 works to the nation, they would have known that the V&A had originally displayed the works as a solution to a storage problem.5 They would also have been aware that the sculptures of the 'Southern Slav' (as he was described on the exhibition poster) had displaced the French maestro's works and also occupied an additional gallery.6 Of the few remaining solo sculpture exhibitions that had taken place previously at three of London's premier institutions - the V&A, Tate and the Royal Academy of Arts - all had been posthumous.7 Alfred Stevens's work was the subject of three of these events (a section of the RA Winter Exhibition in 1890, and two shows at Tate in 1908 and 1911), and one exhibition each had focused on the art of Godfrey Sykes (V&A, 1866), Lord Frederic Leighton (RA, 1897) and Alphonse Legros (Tate, 1912).8

The commercial sector was a more fruitful environment for solo exhibitions of living artists' works. Between 1880 and 1900 this type of show had evolved in tandem with the growth of the commercial sector to become a commonplace aspect of the exhibition programmes of many art dealers' galleries.9 However, in this initial period, almost all one-person shows were given to painters, etchers and illustrators. The few early shows of works by artists who made sculpture were largely devoted to the pictorial side of their practice. For example, Alphonse Legros had at least seven exhibitions in London dealers' galleries between c.1885 and his death in 1911. Most focused on his drawings, etchings and lithographs; only the show at the Robert Dunthorne Gallery (c.1885) specifically mentioned sculpture in its title.10 A similar emphasis on drawings and prints occurred in the solo show of Rodin's work at the Carfax Gallery in 1900, though here the emphasis was less a matter of intention than the gallery's difficulty in obtaining sculptures from the artist, which meant the organizers had to settle on showing three bronzes drawn from gallery stock.11

Between 1900 and 1914, pictorial media continued to play an important part in the rise of solo exhibition for sculptors. The typical format adopted by commercial galleries was either to exhibit work by one artist in both two and three dimensions (such as Charles Ricketts, James Havard Thomas and Jacob Epstein) or to show a sculptor and a painter or printmaker simultaneously. Examples of this latter practice include Albert Toft's exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1902 which coincided with a showing of paintings by Fred Mayor, and the pairing of works by Reginald Wells with pictures by F. Caley Robinson at the Carfax Gallery in 1908.12 Confidence in the commercial potential of sculpture exhibitions evidently increased in the early 1900s because in most years from 1906 one or two solo shows for living sculptors took place in London galleries, with momentum further increasing in 1914. As a result, by the time the Mestrovic exhibition opened, around 17 one-person shows had taken place. …

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