Alfred Gilbert received the commission for the Shaftesbury Memorial in 1886. Anthony Ashley Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury had been one of the most respected philanthropists of his generation. Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, the favourite sculptor of the Royal family, had originally been offered the commission, but he recommended his young friend Gilbert who had been his pupil. Boehm warned the committee that Gilbert would be unlikely to produce anything in ‘the coat and trousers style’. True to form he eschewed the traditional portrait memorial choosing rather to embody Shaftesbury's charitable life in the winged figure of Eros above a whimsical fountain base. He used his studio boy, Angelo Colorossi, as his model.
Frustrated by interfering committees and financially crippled by fundamental changes in his agreement with the authorities, Gilbert's imaginative concept for a public memorial was ahead of its time and destined for controversy. At first it received a qualified and slightly puzzled approval. The inadequacy of the fountain was the first aspect to be widely criticised; feeble squirts drenched drinkers when the wind blew and forced the traditional flower girls to hold up umbrellas. But soon a barrage of hurtful comments focused on the figure of Eros itself. Shocked Victorians protested that the nude figure, situated as it is still in a theatre district, was the very antithesis of the respectable Lord Shaftsbury’s life and work. Eventually, however, the distinctive memorial became a London landmark and sparked the strong affection which continues today.
In 1984 Gilbert's Eros was removed from Piccadilly Circus for restoration during the planning of a new traffic scheme. The restoration committee went to the Victoria and Albert Museum for advice and it was at this point that the original plasters were re-discovered stored in a packing case in the museum. These plasters had suffered from the ravages of use in the foundry and a private benefactor offered to sponsor the restoration. The same benefactor was inspired to have a new edition cast of London's favourite statue. In 1987 a limited edition of ten casts was taken from Gilbert's original plasters of the 19th Century Eros. Once the edition was completed the moulds were destroyed.
The Fine Art Society was the natural organisation to publish the edition as it had been the principal promoter of the New Sculpture, in particular Leighton, Gilbert and Thornycroft around 1900. The Society's managing director Ernest Dawbarn had been Gilbert's dealer from 1919 until the sculptor's death in 1934.
The casting was carried out by the distinguished foundry Morris Singer at Basingstoke, who had cast various works for Gilbert during his lifetime. The process was overseen by George Mancini (1904-1989), whose father Frederico Mancini (1866-1943) had worked with Gilbert, and who had been responsible for a casting of the Eros for Sefton Park during the artist's lifetime (and with his cooperation). The lost wax process, which had so fascinated Gilbert inspired by the Italian Renaissance master Benvenuto Cellini, was used. From the original plasters a new wax model was made for each cast. A stainless steel armature was used in the supporting leg and torso to take the weight of the figure.
The 1987 edition consists of ten casts, nine in aluminium, and one in bronze (the latter made at the request of an American collector). The original casting of the Piccadilly Eros in aluminium was the first time this metal had been used for a major public sculpture, so it was logical that this modern edition should also be cast in aluminium. Of the nine aluminium casts one went to the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; another was urgently needed to replace the 1928 figure for Sefton Park, Liverpool; one is in the Chi Mei Museum in Taiwain; another was a gift to the town of Lowestoft by a local benefactor. The remainder went into private ownership. The present lot is a rare re-appearance of the 1987 limited edition, and as such presents a unique opportunity for collectors.
I. McAllister, Alfred Gilbert, London 1929, pp. 103-113; S. Beattie, The New Sculpture, New Haven and Yale, 1983, pp. 162, 214, 217-8, pl. 218-9; R.Dorment, Alfred Gilbert, New Haven and Yale, 1985) pp. 100-3, 108, 112-15, pl. 53-7; R. Dorment, Alfred Gilbert: Sculptor and Goldsmith, exhib. cat. The Royal Academy of Arts, London 1983, pp. 36-8, 135-43, pl. 37, 136-7
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