'The Progress of Civilization': The Pedimental Sculpture of the British Museum by Richard Westmacott

By Bryant, Max | The Sculpture Journal, September 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

'The Progress of Civilization': The Pedimental Sculpture of the British Museum by Richard Westmacott


Bryant, Max, The Sculpture Journal


In April 1851, the architect then in charge of the construction of the British Museum, Sydney Smirke, wrote to the sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott to say how glad he was 'to hear that the pediment will be peopled this month'.1 This was in reference to the addition of figurative sculpture to the triangular tympanum space over the museum's Ionic portico. 'Peopling' the pediment was the last task to be completed in the construction of the southern entrance wing, itself the last phase of the three-decade-long project. The sculpture was titled The Progress of Civilization, and it was Westmacott's final major work (fig. 1).

Despite its prestigious authorship, prominent siting and sheer scale, The Progress of Civilization has not been critically discussed in any depth by architectural or sculptural scholarship. Commentators who refer to it are mostly repelled by the extreme severity of its classical style, and what is taken to be the conventional nature of its allegory. The most thorough modern account of the museum, by David M. Wilson, described it as 'an elaborate and deep carving which has a meaning of considerable convolution', but does not go into detail about what that meaning is, or what perspective it suggests about the museum.2 Accounts of Westmacott's work have been written without any mention of his largest single design.3 In her monograph on the sculptor, Marie Busco wrote of it as 'expressing little more than solemn dignity', and even as 'the dead end to which neoclassicism could lead'.4 However, if it is considered in the context of comparable works of the same era, and if Westmacott's stated intentions are taken into account, The Progress of Civilization emerges as a work of considerably greater interest than this critical consensus would suggest.

Westmacott was given the commission without any competition or selection process as a result of his close involvement with the museum over four decades. He was an unofficial advisor on matters of arrangement and purchase of sculpture, and with Robert Smirke had designed, in 1816, the timber rooms in Montagu House that had displayed the Elgin and Phigalian marbles from their arrival until 1831. Although best known for public statuary commemorating the Napoleonic Wars, Westmacott had also been closely associated with architects throughout his career. His debut at the Royal Academy in 1797 was with a bust of William Chambers intended for the boardroom of the Office of Works. Other work in collaboration with architects included that with John Soane for the Pitt cenotaph at the National Debt Office (1817-19), James Wyatt for, inter alia, the staircase hall at Ashridge Park (1815-23) and John Nash for reliefs on Marble Arch and Buckingham Palace (1828-32).

The design of the southern entrance front to the British Museum was by Robert Smirke. We do not know his original intentions for how the pediment would have been decorated, but those of his other executed porticoes, such as that of the General Post Office, were intentionally left empty. However, two decades passed before construction even began on this part of the museum, and in 1842-44 a revision of the design showed sculpture in the tympanum. A lithograph was published in 1844 which also showed 'colossal statues ... to surmount the pediment', with copies of the Laocoon group and Uffizi Wrestlers on each side of the portico steps.5 However, no action was taken regarding the sculpture before Smirke's departure from the project two years later. The architectural responsibility for erecting the southern entrance front fell to his much younger brother Sydney, who had been working at the museum since 1823. The latter had a much more decorative sensibility: the exterior ironwork was to his design, as well as the Round Reading Room, with its projected plan of sculptural embellishment by Alfred Stevens.

A design for the pedimental sculpture was ready to be approved by the trustees of the museum in August 1848.6 In October 1850, The Critic reported that the sculptures had begun to arrive at the museum from the sculptor's workshop. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

'The Progress of Civilization': The Pedimental Sculpture of the British Museum by Richard Westmacott
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.