MODERN ENGLISH SCULPTURE.*
READERS who have within the last few years visited Oxford may have been conducted to Mr. Gilbert Scott's new library at University College. If so, they will recollect a colossal portrait group, representing two famous members of that society, Lord Eldon and Lord Stowell, which fills a recess at the end of the building. Wretchedly lighted as the architect's arrangements have permitted it to be, it is a group not likely to be forgotten. The two great brothers sit side by side, as it were, Minos and Rha- damanthus, upon a single throne of judgment; the one, whose nature was more of the earth, earthy, looks straightforward with a fixed air of meditative severity ; the fingers of the left hand are gathered together as if the mind were counting upon them the steps of the judgment which the Chancellor is deliver- ing; the right (pointed downwards) appears to announce that the decision has been internally framed, with its irrever- sible nature. His noble-souled brother, a man of less massive and resolved features, looks upward ; one hand holds a volume of time-consecrated precedents ; the left, again, indicates a concurrence in Eldon's judgment. These dramatic points strike one at once. Nor are the heads and the attitudes, full of life and characteristic as they appear, alone worthy of careful • The Life and n'orka of M. L Watson, Scuts:40r. By H. Lonadale, MD. With Illwarationo. London: Rontledge and Sono 1666.
observation. The draperies, whilst following in their detail the antique dress of our high legal officers, are singularly noble and varied in their lines and masses, and are arranged with a know- ledge of effect and a recklessness of labour in attaining it of which the "Macaulay," of Trinity College Chapel, by Mr. Thomas Woolner, is the only other conspicuous modern example known to us. Altogether this is the greatest work of sculpture in Oxford ; the only things that can come into competition with it there in point of quality being the well known " Bacon " and "Prince Albert" which shine like things of life amongst the rubbish which peoples the new Museum. And we are sure that readers who may not have seen the group, should they visit the University, will find few of its many objects of interest better worth a careful examination.
The visitor will not, however, find any record of the artist's name upon his work. Nor, if he should learn it, so ignorantly has Fame awarded her praise to English sculpture, is the name very likely to arouse any associations. Yet it is hardly needful to go beyond this noble work for proof that Musgrave Watson was the ablest and the most gifted sculptor whom we have had during the second quarter of this century. If further proof be desired, the beau- tifully illustrated volume before us will, however, supply it, in the bas-relief of " Sarpedon's Body borne to Burial," the poetical figure of "Chaucer," and the admirably humorous sketches of "Two Monks" and of the "Chimney-Sweep." There are other things of merit also in Dr. Lonsdale's book ; but we select these not only as the most striking, but because the enumeration of them may indicate to the reader the singular range of Watson's genius. The bas-relief is in the same style of poetry as Flaxman's famous "Mercury and Pandora," and in all respects appears worthy to be ranked as its companion. The " Chaucer" really accomplishes that most difficult of tasks in portraiture ; it gives one a clear and fresh image of the great poet ; it seems to add to our knowledge of a man so long passed away, and of whom hardly any contemporaneous like- ness exists. The two humorous works are specimens of what we think Mr. Ruskin called the "noble grotesque," and are the more remarkable because the academic habits and general conventional deadness of modern sculpture have rendered this style very rare, although even the photographs which Dr. Lonsdale gives are enough to show how powerful and attractive it may be in com- petent hands.
Watson did not always come up to this high level, as, for example, in his relief at the base of the Nelson column. It is true that the casting of this and the three companion bronzes is said to have been indifferently managed ; but Watson's design appears rather stiff and empty, and is hardly entitled to more than the merit of being the one work of art upon that unfortunate pedestal. Yet the examples quoted above are only a fair selection from a num- ber of meritorious things in clay or stone which he left, and which, taken altogether, justify the opinion of that admirable judge, Samuel Rogers, that Watson was the sculptor of his time. " Ah, Sir I " said the poet, after the artist's death, in 1847, "I have been preaching to the people for years that they had a great man among them. They will find it out now he is gone." Perhaps Dr. Lonsdale's book may lead to this result ; but the reader who first hears of Watson through it may naturally wonder why, if the artist was such in natural gifts and personal ability as we have here described him, the discovery should have been so long deferred.
Some explanation of this public apathy will be found in Dr. Lonsdale's volume. A full comprehension of it could only be given by a detailed history of our sculpture during the last hundred years. A slight outline may, however, be of use as an introduction to Watson's life, and this the more because the English mind, not quick to entertain new ideas upon art, though capable of strong feeling about it when once fairly roused, has never been awakened to sculpture as during the last sixty years it has been to painting. Yet there seems no natural reason why this should be so for ever. What we did in the Gothic ages is enough to show that a true faculty for this art has not been denied us ; but sculpture was one of the things which died out completely between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was reintroduced by Nollekens, Banks, and their contemporaries a hundred years since, under unfavourable aus- pices. The patrons and fine gentlemen of the day, who could believe in no native painter, but looked to the Continent to fill their galleries with the trash which roused the wrath of Wilson and Gainaborough, carried the same idea into sculpture, and indeed are hardly yet free from the superstition. Hence our school was from the very first injuriously affected by that swarm of Italian adventurers who, from the time of the charlatans satirized by Hogarth, even, as some insular critics have maliciously alleged, to Baron Marochetti himself, have imposed their flimsy wares (under the most fashionable patronage) upon that patient Issa- char, the British public. Seriously, these practitioners, impudent, intriguing, profuse of flattery, and greedy of gain, from first to last have abused the forbearance which we pay to foreigners; plun- dering John Bull and laughing at him, and must be regarded as one of the standing impedimenta to our natural progress in art. A second and more respectable hindrance has been the mythological, allegorical, and pseudo-classical character which the temper of the last century, owing to a vast number of curious causes, im- pressed upon sculpture. The numbing effect of this style has been often noticed. It was impossible that the art should be re-estab- lished and obtain a real hold upon the nation when the highest object of ambition was to produce a Venus, or join the head of Chatham to the body of a Roman Emperor. Hence, even although this style was at one time supported by the practice of Flaxmau, on the whole probably the most gifted nature who has illustrated sculpture since the sixteenth century, it took no root ; it was never loved and sought after by the mass of spectators ; it was treated as a learned thing, reserved for classical scholars and noblemen, fit for Bowood and -Caine, but totally beyond the understanding of the profanum vulgus. But the art which is too much above the uninitiated crowd to speak a language com- prehended by the people will never flourish,—no, not even in that ethereal atmosphere where gods sit together, careless of mankind. Taste soon loses its fineness, and becomes a mere exercise of favour- itism, at the service of the most skilful flatterer, when it does not venture to breathe the rude but strengthening air of the world at large, to hear the voice of plain-spoken criticism. Pericles may commission a Phidias, but it is the spirit of the Athenian people who create him ; and we are not aware that this century, at least, has produced its Pericles. Hence, even when the classical school found so exquisite an exponent as Flaxman, the rich and the titled, with two or three honourable exceptions, passed him by in favour of Chantrey, an artist whose works show him to have been one of the most poorly endowed with mind and skill, originality and power, among those who have made great fortunes in this country, but who, like some of his successors in sculpture, had in an admirable degree the art of conciliating patrons. Chantrey's unscrupulousness in grasping (of which his appropriation of Stothard's design for the "Sleeping Children" at Lichfield is now a well known example) receives further illustration from Dr. Lonsdale's book. It throws light upon his work as an artist, as all points of character do ; but it is of most importance to us, because to the low tone which his style, sometimes picturesque, but essentially flimsy, weak in the forms, and sacrificing the truth and sharpness of nature to easy expedients for effect, ren- dered fashionable among his patrons and his pupils, we must ascribe no small portion of the deterioration in our sculpture, par- ticularly that of the monumental or public order, which has since prevailed. But our failure in this respect is so generally confessed that it needs no more than an allusion. Every new addition, though by hands which have never yet given anything of life or spirit, is successively hailed as "dignified, easy in the attitude," and the like, on the day of its display, and then passes into deserved contempt and sootiness.
Si monumentum quxris, circumspice we may say to the citizens of London, Manchester, Edinburgh, or Glasgow, quoting here only the names of Messrs. Noble, Theed, Durham, Bell, Brodie, Steill, Marshall Wood, and the two gentle- men of the name of Adams, whose works are so equally indifferent that it is hard to discriminate between them.
This is not a consoling piece of history, and we cannot expect that, at the best, it will be accepted as truth under some fifty years. The example of Banks' fate in the last century and Flaxman's in this shows that although public taste does justice at last to the true man in art, and rejects the manufacturers of tricks or clumsiness, yet it defers the recognition until the artist is no more, and neither the country nor the art can benefit by the tardy crowns laid upon the grave of genius. Yet it is well that the history should be told, were it only that the triumph of ignorance may be checked by the knowledge that there are spectators undeafened by the trumpets, and undeceived by the tinsel. Nor even in Philistia are those wanting who are willing to be wise in this matter before it is too late. Our sketch will have been ill told if it leaves the impression that English sculpture is a thing to be despaired of. So far from being without natural power in this noblest form of art, few countries have, within the same space, produced greater men, or men more distinc- tively and honourably national in their style. It is true that such men have not been, and never can be, numerically frequent. We
have no right to expect more than one Flaxman at a time ;— although that which has been wanting, sense, and taste, and courage to discover and to employ him, would, no doubt, have raised many among those whose art is now good for little to a sounder position. Watson's Life supplies an excellent illustration of these remarks, and may be rendered more intelligible to readers by them. We have hence thought even this brief sketch, in the absence of any proper history of our sculpture, preferable to an analysis of Dr. Lonsdale's book. This, however, those who care for art or for a story of tragic interest will do well to read. The author tells his tale with much spirit and cleverness, and the illus- trations are so numerous and so good as to make it one of the beat gift-books of the season, whilst they raise the regret that a process less evanescent than photography was not employed. Our leading points are all successively exemplified in Dr. Lonsdale's volume. The career of the honest, gifted, and trained sculptor, in contrast with that of his rivals, could not be more clearly and impressively set forth. It is a contrast, indeed, old as the hills ; wealth, and fashionable applause, and public honours, and the caresses of society on the one hand ; on the other, abilities which could obtain no chance of employment, life cut short by consciousness of neglect and dishonest usage, and the man himself, like Epic-
tetus, "poor and sick in body, and beloved of the Gods." Which would any of us rather be, a Chantrey or a Watson ? There will, of course, be but one reply : but which is the lot most frequently chosen cannot be doubted by any one who impartially reviews the present condition of English sculpture.