Introduction to Sculpture

Victorian sculptors are, by and large, much less familiar to us than Victorian painters, or even illustrators. A moment’s thought suggests several reasons – from the fact that a glance in any bookshop is likely to reveal several images from Victorian paintings on the book covers, to the point that sculpture includes a high proportion of portraits, where we tend to concentrate on who is being shown and how much they look as they ought, to the exclusion of who made the artwork. Having said that, the most well-known sculptures are iconic and familiar – for example Nelson on his column and the lions below in Trafalgar Square and the Eros in Piccadilly, London.

Where to start with sculpture then? It is convenient to divide it into several groups. The first group has to be portraits –commemorative portrait statues and busts in public spaces - see the list of places on the sculpture page and the walks – and their counterparts indoors in museums and great houses, and in cathedrals and churches in more mournful setting – see the list of these on the background pages. Though the most ubiquitous and familiar group, portraits can be hard to get to grips with – either you are interested in the actual person depicted, or they can tend to be rather easy to dismiss.

What should we look for in a portrait sculpture? Characterfulness in the face, and the hands, and of course a good likeness if we are familiar with the individual. As with any portrait, character tends to be revealed more satisfyingly with the increasing age of the sitter. Portrait statues often have accoutrements relevant to the deeds of the subject, or he (rarely she, unless a Queen) is depicted at some key moment in their life. The plinth on which the statue stands may have further sculpture in the form of plaques showing important incidents from the subject’s career, or allegorical free-standing sculptural groups. Regarding clothing, earlier statues tend to follow the example of Roman civic statues, and wear cloaks or togas or occasionally armour; from around the 1840s there is a switch to contemporary clothes, which gives rather less scope interest, though a heavy cloak is often used in lieu of the dignity of Roman costume. Portraits of familiar figures may also be a feature of architectural sculpture, on the fronts of buildings – poets and writers for libraries, local statesmen and clergy for town halls, and so on. Examples in London include the series of two-dozen artists, architects and craftsmen on the front of the V&A, the various statesmen on the Foreign and Colonial Office in Whitehall, and the 169 great men on the Albert Memorial frieze.

Of course portraiture was where the commissions tended to come from, and what many sculptors had to do with most of their time, but I think that they tended to feel the restriction of being tied to portraiture – perhaps this is why statues of great men sometimes manage the introduction of an ideal girl or two as an accoutrement, to liven up an otherwise unimaginative composition. This brings us to our second group – the ideal figure. This is much closer to the heart of these pages, and more likely to catch the imagination of those who enjoy the work of the Pre-Raphs and their allies in painting. Such statues are most common in the galleries (see the list of London and out-of-town galleries) rather than outdoors, which means that they may not be on display when one goes to visit. Tombs and monuments in churches and cemeteries also offer good opportunity for ideal and allegorical mourners, and decorative statues may also be found in gardens and town squares.

Looking at an allegorical or ideal work, we want first to work out who is being shown – difficult if faced by an unclad figure – the nude is much more central to sculpture than painting, and a figure of Hope might be indistinguishable from a Truth or an Echo, an Atalanta, a Venus or just a nymph without some label. However, in many cases we can of course work out who we are looking at because the figure is holding or wearing or accompanied by something pertinent (e.g. Diana with her bow and dog, Justice blindfolded or bearing scales or a sword), or doing something characteristic (e.g. Courage killing some serpent or beast). In some cases this may be taken to extremes, with a figure surrounded by heaps of accoutrements, with extra things on the base of the statue by the figure’s feet.

Much more than the portrait statue, which tends to be of simple composition and designed to be looked at from the front, ideal and allegorical works may have compositions which need to be seen from more than one vantage point, or have narrative content which can only be appreciated by walking around the statue. This is especially true of more complicated groups, which may be baroque in their intricacy. The sculptor often has an eye too for the silhouette of the work, if it is to be seen against the sky, or along a road – all assuming that the position was anticipated, and the work has not been moved or its surroundings changed.

As noted above, statues in churches and cemeteries are relevant in this context, for the many angels and typical mourning females – wives, daughters, figures of Faith, Hope and Charity, Time and Death, and so on. This note largely avoids chronology, but it is particularly relevant here – works of earlier times than Victorian can give much more variety in figures of Death, demons etc. Eighteenth and early Nineteenth century figures tend to be very classical, with the girls having characteristic round faces, and conventional poses, often lounging nonchalantly against a bier, leaning on an elbow, legs comfortably crossed, or staring melodramatically skywards. Victorian figures, especially later in the period, are much more striking and sympathetic, and there are a number of very intense examples from the Art Nouveau period. A difference from secular allegorical sculpture is that there is almost no opportunity for the nude, but this is to some extent circumvented by many sculptors through the use of the semi-draped statue, and the use of very light drapes that serve to emphasise rather than conceal the figure.

We may separate out War Memorials as a further group. In some cases what we see is simply further examples of the allegorical figure; others include soldiers in characteristic uniform. The Boer War gave rise to some of the best war memorial sculpture, and the First World War memorials were often the work of older Victorian artists rather than those of a new generation of sculptors. I have no knowledge of military uniform, but for those who are interested there is much to be appreciated in the details of war memorial sculpture. These pages have almost nothing to comment on the subject, and tend to concentrate on the examples with allegorical figures, angels and so forth.

A fourth group is architectural sculpture – strictly not simply a statue stuck on the top of a building, but something more integral by way of surface decoration, often in high relief rather than in the round, which enhances and complements the architecture. Again, very much of interest to these pages, and tending greatly to the allegorical figure, the descriptive panel and the ornamental. Indeed, for these pages, architectural interest is largely confined to the surface decoration. All of the walks round towns listed on the sculpture page focus on architectural sculpture. The allegorical figure on a building tends to be different to that which is free-standing – a different range of allegory, with less of the emotions and character traits (Love, Peace, Death) and more of suitably civic figures, such as Justice, Education, Government, and Commerce. Because there is a background and surround to the figure, there is much more opportunity to show their accoutrements, or a scene or narrative story across the piece. Conversely, unlike free-standing works, architectural sculpture is generally designed to be seen from only one viewpoint, straight in front, and often from below. It is fair to say that much architectural sculpture was conceived without much appreciation of the scale of the building it was to decorate, or its setting, or the setting has since changed, so may appear disproportionate (typically the sculpture looks too small and fiddly rather than too large) or simply impossible to see properly because it is too high up and can only be seen at too oblique an angle. But though an architect might disagree, this should not stop Victorians such as ourselves appreciating the sculpture for its own sake.

Portraits on buildings are surprisingly common. A library, for example, may have portraits of Shakespeare and Chaucer, a commercial building might show its founder, and almost any civic building might include a small bust of the monarch and their spouse. Alternatively, portrait busts may be typical rather than specific – for example a trading company’s building might include typecast portraits of people of other cultures. And churches and cathedrals were richly decorated in Victorian times with their principal saints, bishops and other clergy – some holding miniature copies of their building.

A further group, rather small, is animal sculpture (not counting horses). A few sculptors specialised in this genre – J. M. Swan is one; other sculptors were happy to introduce the odd animal where appropriate, particularly in the allegorical frieze. Lions are common – Landseer’s ones in Trafalgar square were the only important venture into sculpture by this famous animal painter; Alfred Stevens did the little ones reproduced on the railings of the British Museum; Keyworth did big ones for Leeds Town Hall and Simonds a huge one for Reading. Bunnies and other animals with children appeal may be familiar from the Peter Pan monument by Frampton; Blunden did something similar for New Zealand; Australia House has its sheep and kangaroos by Harold Parker; the Albert Memorial has the Continents groups with a camel, elephant, buffalo and so forth. More exotic, for instance, is a discrete hippo on the front of the Foreign Office, and a variety of half-human half-animal classical gods, for example on the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. Oddly, only a few sculptured animals are in London Zoo. Some good extinct ones, akin to gargoyles, are on the front of Waterhouse’s Natural History Museum, and the interior, where not covered by modern displays, has beautiful extinct and living lifeforms sculpted on the pillars and walls. And for a sculptor minded to do so, any fountain is excuse enough for some marine life – a good example being the fountain in front of the Commercial Rooms, Bristol (see the page), which has not just fish but also an octopus, starfish, turtle, and seasnails.

These pages do not particularly concern themselves with purely ornamental sculpture which is neither human nor animal, for example the decorative scrolls and shields, garlands and pots on Baroque buildings and the humbler sort of tombs, or the widespread use of shell designs in buildings in port towns. Usually these are only mentioned where the work is by some sculptor we are interested in for their figurative work.

As those familiar with other parts of this website will be aware, ‘Victorian’ is generally taken in the loosest sense, the spirit rather than the date, drifting back to the 1830s, and straying forwards past the turn of the century (‘the century’ is always the 19th one!) to the Art Nouveau period. However, within the sculpture pages, when exploring churches and towns, note is also usually made of both more modern work, and of 18th C and earlier sculpture. This reflects my own view that sculpture is more of a unity than the graphic arts, and that the same kind of person who is attracted to the hero and winsome girl of Victorian painting and sculpture, will also tend to find an interest in the sculpture of preceding and later periods. A few bios of the later artists are briefly noted here, though I pretend to only a largely uneducated interest in this era.

To end then, these pages include a fairly wide sample of Victorian sculptures – probably a better coverage than either the painters or illustrators. The sculpture walks are some of my own personal favorite perambulations. Those who, like me, started with an interest in paintings and drifted by accident into other arts, will find that most of the larger towns in England offer much pleasure in their sculpture too – where larger towns are not listed, it is probably because I don’t know them well enough rather than because they have no sculpture to see.

Key links:

sculpture pages // Background information // architecture pages

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