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European Sculpture & Works of Art

Discoveries: Two Outstanding Victorian Sculptures

Two outstanding lots in our forthcoming 19th Century sculpture sale have been consigned to Sotheby’s after enquiries submitted to our on-line valuation service.

Both are by important Victorian sculptors and both epitomise different aspects of sculpture in Britain. The 1857 marble of two children is by the Scottish sculptor Alexander Munro and a fine example of Pre-Raphaelite sculpture. The bronze Perseus is by Alfred Gilbert, the leading sculptor of the late Victorian period.

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. 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 naturalistic base.

This particular marble, signed and dated 1857, is probably Munro’s Royal Academy exhibit of that year entitled `Sisters’, its whereabouts unknown to scholars until now. The marble has been in the same family since the 1920’s, 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.

This particular cast was purchased at the Fine Art Society by the vendor’s grandfather, a collector of late 19th century British sculpture, and has been in the same family ever since.

Alfred Gilbert, was the most influential sculptor of the late Victorian period. He sculpted his plaster model of Perseus Arming in Rome in the winter of 1880-1881 and exhibited the lost-wax bronze cast at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1882. It was received with critical acclaim both in London and at the Paris Salon the following year, where it earned Gilbert an honourable mention and secured his international recognition as the foremost British sculptor of his generation. He became the leading light of the `New Sculpture’ movement, influencing Edward Onslow Ford, Alfred Drury, George Frampton and Bertram Mackennal, amongst others.

Gilbert had studied Renaissance sculpture in Florence, and his Perseus owes a lot to the bronzes of Cellini and Donatello, though he wrote that Cellini’s Perseus left him `somewhat cold’ as it failed to touch his ‘human sympathies.’ He was also influenced by Alfred Lord Leighton’s Athlete wrestling with a python, and in France, by the sculptor Antonin Mercié whose David and Gloria Victis both featured naked athletic figures that foreshadowed Gilbert’s great bronzes.

Gilbert managed to imbue his bronzes with feeling, to elicit an emotional response from the viewer, by depicting his subjects with a sense of calm and stillness. Here Perseus is shown in a moment of introspection before the challenge to come. It captures a sense of vulnerability and natural unselfconscious eloquence. It is a view of the mythological character which we have never seen before. '‘I conceived the idea that Perseus before becoming a hero was a mere mortal, and that he had to look to his equipment’, and so Gilbert quite literally depicts Perseus looking over his shoulder to inspect his winged sandal: ‘a youth vulnerable, untested, but equipping himself for the trials of life’.

Gilbert was essentially projecting and instilling his own character into the subject of his sculpture, so it became truthful rather than detached and academic. In Perseus we see Gilbert on the brink of heroic success. The next autobiographical bronze, Icarus, commissioned by Lord Leighton and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1884, was again a male figure standing still and thoughtfully before his heroic yet doomed flight to come. Gilbert acknowledged prophetically the fatal rashness that was also a part of his character and which later would bring financial ruin, ‘I was very ambitious’, he wrote, ‘why not “Icarus” with his desire for flight?’ His third autobiographical bronze followed. Entitled Comedy and Tragedy, it depicted a nude male figure holding the Greek mask of Comedy, wincing as he is stung by a bee. All three bronzes were created in his twenties and early thirties. His subjects may have been figures from classical mythology, but he had come a long way from classical Georgian and Regency idealised sculpture. His work was more naturalistic and less stylised, and captured the emotional vulnerability of his subjects.

What made the New Sculpture movement different and exciting was its aim to communicate emotion through its work, and at the same time there is an emphasis on beauty where mythological figures are depicted as athletic and young, usually nude or barely covered. In the 1890’s New sculpture becomes more sensuous and symbolist, almost stylised, anticipating the Art Nouveau movement of the early twentieth century. The movement also created a revival of lost wax casting, and indeed a general change from marble sculpture to bronze sculpture. Gilbert championed lost wax casting, something he had encountered on his travels in Florence, and although a more expensive process, the quality and definition in the casts were what Gilbert strived to achieve.

Gilbert’s brilliance was recognised with the most prestigious commission of his career, to construct the memorial to Lord Shaftsbury at Piccadilly Circus that is universally known as Eros. Other famous commissions followed including a memorial to Queen Alexandra, outside St. James’ Palace, and the tomb of The Duke of Clarence at St George's Chapel, Windsor, described as "the finest single example of late 19th-century sculpture in the British Isles". (Mark Roskill. 1968. Alfred Gilbert’s monument to the Duke of Clarence)

Always the perfectionist, Gilbert spent too much money and too much time on both Eros and the Duke of Clarence tomb, neglecting other projects, and failing to cash in on his success by casting more commercial table top bronzes, which ended in his bankruptcy and self-imposed exile from Britain. His personal life was not happy either, with divorce and financial struggles a constant theme.

In the discussion of these two lots we see how British sculpture of the nineteenth century moved from 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 and finally to the sensuousness and emotional charge found in the work of Gilbert and the New Sculpture movement.

Mark Stephen is Deputy Director in the London valuations department, responsible for online valuations with 35 years’ experience in the auction world. The variety and breadth of antique and often, not so-antique, objects and paintings sent to Sotheby’s via our online platform is an experience to see. We sift through watches, jewellery, wine, paintings from every period, silver, ceramics and objects so bizarre they cannot be categorised. The good, the bad, and the ugly of the antiques world passes through our hands on a daily basis.

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