Materials for Sculpture

Bronze and other metals

The traditional materials for sculpture have always been bronze and marble, since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Still in Victorian times, most of the free-standing monumental statues were made in these two materials. Bronze outdoor statues in London are almost invariably black, painted protectively in that colour, though originally just blackened with soot. A popular source of the bronze was captured cannon from defeated enemies, usually the French.

Of course by Victorian times a range of metals became available - lead had often been used for smaller statues from the 18th Century, and examples survive. But more importantly, with the Victorians introducing iron and then steel for large-scale building, their love of ornament brought cast sculptural ornamentation in these materials. Street lamps especially showed an astonishing variety of ornamentation - good examples in London are the dolphin lamps along the Victoria Embankment and the even more ornate ones at Trafalgar Square. Railway stations are also particularly rich in foliated designs in iron.

Aluminium became low enough in price in the latter 19th Century to be usable for sculpture, and the most famous statue of this material is of course the Eros at Piccadilly Circus.


As noted, marble was always the stone favoured for statues. But to be able to carve a stone, the necessary requirements are that it be hard, and a freestone - that is to say, a stone that can be cut in any direction with equal facility and strength. While marble is ideal, and beautiful, both limestone and sandstone can be used, though their softer nature makes them subject to weathering. The cure for this is to protect the sculptural work in niches, or with eaves, as is done on church sculptural work.

Many marble statues have suffered in recent years due to acid rain from modern pollution. Limestone suffers similarly (the problem is that the acid rain attacks the calcium carbonate) and so many previously fine works of art have been worn badly in the last few decades. Cheap statues were made in low-quality limestone, easily worked but easily worn away just by the weather, and many provincial towns have much-decayed statues for this reason - even in London, one has only to see the portrait busts in Leicester Square to see how mistaken it is to leave soft limestone statues in open spaces. The Gothic style of architecture however lends itself ideally to niches and corners where sculptured features are protected, and this is seen on the Houses of Parliament, where even though the stone is not of the hardest, the statues of beasts and men survive well.

Terracotta sculpture was popular in mid and late Victorian times, as for instance the plaques made by Tinworth for Doulton and in the impressive Birmingham law courts (see the Walk there).

There were numerous attempts at making artificial stone, and these materials were of course used for sculpture. Undoubtably the most successful was Coade Stone, an invention of pre-Victorian times which survives widely. It has the advantage of being acid-resistant, so that examples today have a crispness of cut that distinguish them from their marble contemporaries. And the weather-resistance of Coade stone meant that it could be used for free-standing pots and statues on the very tops of buildings without crumbling away.

The twentieth century saw new materials for sculpture. Most notably, modern machine methods meant that modelling the ultra-hard stones such as granite became much more widespread than had been seen since the ancient Egyptians. Many Edwardian and later buildings have granite heads and decorations incorporated in them.

Top of page

Background information // Sculpture pages // Building materials