European Sculpture & Works of Art

Discoveries: An Outstanding Victorian Sculpture

By Mark Stephen

This marble group was consigned to Sotheby’s after an enquiry submitted to our online request an estimate service. It was later sold in the December 2018 19th & 20th Century Sculpture sale.

Created by the important Victorian Scottish sculptor Aexander Munro, the 1857 marble of two children is a fine and comparatively rare example of Pre-Raphaelite sculpture.

Alexander Munro’s first patron was Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, who brought him to the attention of the architect Charles Barry. Barry in turn introduced him to John Thomas, and Munro travelled to London to work with Thomas on the new Houses of Parliament, so was at the heart of the British Gothic revival movement inspired by the designs of Pugin. He subsequently took up studies at the Royal Academy schools where he became friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, the leading painter of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He later became acquainted with John Ruskin around 1855 when, together with the Victorian sculptor Thomas Woolner, he began teaching at the Working Men's College in Great Ormond Street. Ruskin, who championed the Pre-Raphaelite movement, believed in the commitment to naturalism, painting nature in fine detail, and you can see this in Munro’s attention to detail in the ivy and in the foliage worked into the naturalistic base.

This particular marble, signed and dated 1857, is probably Munro’s Royal Academy exhibit of that year entitled Sisters: its whereabouts was unknown to scholars until now. The marble has been in the same family since the 1920s, being acquired soon after the First World War and handed down from grandparents to parents as a wedding present, and finally to our vendor. The marble group is beautifully carved and its idealised subject of loving sisters typical of Pre-Raphaelite ideals. The sisters forever joined together in love by the strands of creeping ivy, with the technical skill of the beautifully observed curled hair contrasting with their smooth faces and creased dresses. Imbued with sentimentality, the work is a contrast to the restrictive classicism of the first half of the century when portrait sculpture was based on classical Roman ideals, but by the mid-19th Century, it had become rather dull and uninteresting in its ubiquity. We should therefore consider Munro, influenced by the ideals of Ruskin and Barry, as an innovative sculptor who brought a naturalism to his work not encountered before.

His most famous work is the marble group of Paolo and Francesca of 1851-2 at the Birmingham city museum and art gallery. It has a strong Pre-Raphaelite flavour, both in its poetic subject matter and its mood of restrained but intense eroticism. Then in 1857 Munro carved a relief of King Arthur and the knights of the round table on the portico of the Oxford Union building based on a design by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He also executed a number of portrait busts and genre works similar in theme and mood to the paintings by his friend Arthur Hughes, another Pre-Raphaelite associate. Sadly Munro’s career was short lived. In 1865 he developed cancer and he died in 1871 at the age of forty five.

Munro was one of the pioneers of British sculpture who helped influence a move away from the academic classical marble sculpture of the first half of the century, generally lacking in emotion, to the early Victorian naturalism and sentimentality of the Pre-Raphaelites. He then planted the seeds of what was to follow when Alfred Gilbert in the 1880’s became the leading light, influencing a new generation of sculptors known as the New Sculpture movement, and sculpture was to become more sensuous, imbued with an emotional charge.

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