Glorious Victorian Art at Yale

by James F. Cooper

One of the handsomest architectural interiors at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, is at the Yale Center for British Art. Designed by Louis I. Kahn (1901–74), its staid, box-like stone façade makes a striking contrast to the soaring, curved interior galleries and research facilities. The skylights above the entrance court afford dramatic glimpses into the interiors of all four gallery floors. Most striking is the Library Court on the ground floor. Surrounding the centerpiece—a medieval-style, gothic stone tower— is the museum’s rare book collection; the walls of the semi-circular gallery are smooth, with white oak panels, which gleam as sunlight streams down through the skylight, like a vast sundial keeping the time of the passing hours. The walls of the interior galleries, which hold many works of art, are protected with beautiful natural linen. The major interior galleries stretch the width of the building, networking with the smaller galleries. In short, Kahn’s daring design is an unexpected sensory delight. (The Center will be closed for refurbishment from January 2015 through February 2016.)

Recently, a major exhibition of Victorian sculpture was installed in Kahn’s beautiful spaces. “Sculpture Victorious: Art in the Age of Invention, 1837–1901,” which appeared at the Yale Center for British Art (September 11–November 30, 2014), travels to the Tate Britain, London (February 24–May 18, 2015). The exhibition seeks to reveal the cultural and political significance of England’s second golden age. The first, like the second, was ruled by an intelligent, gifted woman. Under the guidance of Queen Victoria (1819–1901), numerous public monuments and memorials were erected across Britain and its vast empire. Victoria herself was a gifted artist and painter. Her autobiographical travel journals, covering her sojourns through the Empire, were wildly popular. The exhibition brings together a rich array of figurative works in marble, bronze, silver and wood, as well as gems, cameos and porcelain objects. There are many portraits of Queen Victoria, including a bronze medallion commemorating her Jubilee in 1887. The stated purpose of this unprecedented exhibition is to examine the cultural artifacts, structures and inspiration for an empire that once ruled a significant portion of the world.

The elephant was a major symbol for the British Empire during the Victorian era. Sculptures of elephants first became popular in France after Napoleon replaced the royal Bastille with a statue of a triumphant elephant. Competition between these two empires came to a head during the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, when the British firm of Minton & Co. introduced an elaborately decorated eight-foot-high majolica Elephant (1889), decorated with ornate Indian tapestries, headgear, golden straps and harness, and a decorated royal passenger carriage. Celebrating English rule over India, it also testified to British prowess in art and industry. The French were outraged. Art and technology became vital in the cultural battle between Britain and France for artistic and industrial supremacy. Ironically, within twenty short years, a united Germany would be out-producing them both.

Edward Onslow Ford, <i>The Singer</i>, 1889Sometimes, it is easy to overlook the fact that the Victorian era was created by the first industrialized nation, which developed new materials and technologies. For example, the exhibition includes statues that look like marble, but are actually made of much cheaper “Parian” porcelain. The British Empire had a significant presence in Egypt, represented by many works at the Yale exhibition. Outstanding is The Singer (1889), by Edward Onslow Ford, also known as The Egyptian Singer: an adolescent female nude, decorated with Egyptian accessories, shown plucking a harp. The harp is carved in the shape of an ornately decorated golden snake with a predatory beaked-mask of a pharaoh. Historic narrative Egyptian motifs are underscored with symbolic references carved into the large, lotus-shaped pedestal. At the time, the sculptor was working on a commemorative work dedicated to the British hero General Charles George Gordon, who died in 1885 commanding a small army of loyal Egyptian soldiers defending Khartoum against an Islamic army of 50,000, led by the Mahdi Mohammed Ahmad.

The Victorians were very aware of British history. In A Royal Game (1906–11), by the sculptor Sir William Reynolds-Stephens (1862–1943), life-size figures of Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of Spain are engaged in a game of chess. The eight-foot-high sculpture is made of electroplated bronze and wood, stone, abalone and glass. The chessboard symbolizes the two warring kingdoms; the chess pieces represent hierarchical figures from both nations. The game stands for the political, religious and naval struggles of the time. Every object is highly detailed. The imperial queen is wearing her coronation ring on the third finger of her left hand, in which she holds a pendant featuring the national saint, George, slaying the dragon. The chess pieces are shaped in the form of bishops, knights and aristocrats of the realm. Landowners are represented in the form of castles, the people in the form of pawns. Reynolds-Stephens wanted to create an allegory of an imperial world, the squares themselves representing longitude and latitude. A Royal Game, he explained, was to serve as a metaphor for a new world order: “The insistence of the work’s ‘national purpose’ is central to its meaning, not only because of its historical subject, but more importantly because it underpins the patriotic ethos of the art of the time.”1 Remember, this work was created during the nineteenth century, not the sixteenth, when the events occurred.

Reynolds-Stephens took a keen interest in the affairs of the British Empire. He was vice president of the Royal British Colonial Society of Artists and chairman of the Imperial Arts League. He was also an influential member of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, which championed the recognition of sculpture as a vital influence on national policy. In a report titled “A Plea for the Nationalization of Our Sculpture,” Reynolds-Stephens wrote that British sculpture should be formed by “the embodiment of British thought.”2 Twentieth-century modern art—with its emphasis on abstract qualities of form, aesthetics, color, line, technique and style—rejected, in general, the introduction of history, religion, spiritual virtue and tradition into art.

Sir Williams Reynolds-Stephens, <i>A Royal Game</i>, 1906-11

In 1877, a remarkable change in British sculpture occurred. Lord Frederic Leighton, better known as a painter but also a sculptor, exhibited An Athlete Wrestling with a Python at the Royal Academy. The robust muscularity of an idealized, curly-haired youth wrestling with a python (representing evil) evoked the idealized virtues of classical antiquity. Not only was the statue awarded the Gold Medal at the Paris International Exhibition of 1878, but Leighton was elected president of the British Royal Academy. It is a remarkable, bold piece of work. Leighton’s Athlete broke with convention in two important ways, setting a new direction, soon to be labeled the New Sculpture. The changes wrought by the New Sculpture are both formal and narrative. The twisting contrapposto of the Athlete evokes comparison with Michelangelo’s sculptures (and paintings). Leighton’s figure is symbolic, intended for general public edification. In contrast, Michelangelo’s work, whatever its public role, is always introspective and deeply personal. The connection between the two artists is an aesthetic one. Another obvious model from the past is the Hellenistic sculpture Laocoön and His Two Sons (c. 200 BC ), by three Greek sculptors. Laocoön, assailed by a giant sea serpent sent by the god Poseidon, was aided in his fatal struggle by his two sons. Instead of selecting a specific hero or a historic leader for his public art, Leighton focused upon an abstract ideal of virtue. For the next twenty years, under the leadership of Leighton at the Academy, the best of English art was devoted to themes of virtue, patriotism and courage.

Lord Frederic Leighton, <i>An Athlete Wrestling with a Python,</i> 1877<br/>COURTESY TATE BRITAIN LONDON

Overnight, Leighton’s breakthrough in the realm of public sculpture attracted the attention of a new generation of talented British artists and sculptors yearning to create a new aesthetic for the Empire. One of his first pupils, Hamo Thornycroft, wrote that Leighton was an inspiring master.3  Thornycroft had studied Greek art at the British Museum before joining Leighton’s class at the Royal Academy. Within two years, the young sculptor was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. They were soon joined by Sir Alfred Gilbert, the creator of Perseus Arming (1882), now at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Gilbert’s masterpiece, Icarus (1884), is installed at National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. Once again, the figure is that of a muscular young hero, this time with feathered wings, with which the mythical hero attempted in vain to reach Mount Olympus, where the gods dwelt. Unlike the vulnerable boy of mythology, Gilbert’s Icarus is depicted as supple, elegant and curvaceous—more reminiscent of Donatello (his favorite Renaissance master) than Michelangelo. 

Gilbert’s St. George (1891–96), one of the few pieces by Gilbert in the Yale exhibition, stands only 21 inches high. The figure was originally conceived for the memorial to Prince Albert Victor, Queen Victoria’s grandson, at Windsor Castle. The memorial is one of the great British works of the era. The statue, with its strikingly detailed armor, was influenced by the gothic quality of the chapel’s dark interior. Many copies of St. George were cast and sold as independent pieces. St. George is shown standing upright on a reptilian, crustacean-like base, holding an oversized decorative sword, which doubles as a crucifix to denote the warrior saint. It symbolizes Britain’s patriotic and Christian core, but it is also a remarkable and original work of art, one of the touchstones of Art Nouveau.  

The works on view in “Sculpture Victorious” evince a high level of craft, wealth and beauty. Yet the real story of the British achievement lies not in this impressive exhibition, but in the works installed in palace courtyards, public gardens, parks, memorials, monuments, civic institutions, cathedrals, bridges, gateways, tympana, museums, universities and public squares spread across England and its territories. Seek not at Yale University for these great English civic works as expressions of Lord Nelson’s heroic admonition: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” Every nineteenth-century Englishman knew what Nelson meant. Despite historic wrongs—including the immolation of Joan of Arc, the 800-year repression of Ireland, the suppression of the American colonists, the Treaty of Versailles, the righteous mutiny by the crew of the barbarous Bounty—the British understood the importance of civic virtues.  

Works of public art can promote a philosophy of civic virtue, while also celebrating high aesthetic values. The idea was important not only in Britain but in the United States, during the American Renaissance era. We see it in such still-resonant works as Daniel Chester French’s statue of Lincoln (1920), in the Lincoln Memorial, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Shaw Memorial (1897), in Boston. Saint-Gaudens, a cosmopolitan artist, spent time in England and exchanged ideas with Thornycroft and Gilbert.4 Like Gilbert, Saint-Gaudens (who apprenticed as a cameo-cutter) treated metal as a supple, almost jewel-like material. The bronze relief of the Shaw Memorial is exquisitely detailed. It is also a moving tribute to the 54th Regiment, made up of African-American volunteers. Saint-Gaudens fuses patriotism with sophisticated artistry.

The New Sculpture, the dream of Lord Leighton to create a national art, succumbed to an often aesthetically vigorous modernism, fueled by the disappointment and sorrow felt by both the “victorious” Allies and the “defeated” Central Powers of the “War to End All Wars.” The statue of Valour and Cowardice (designed 1857) by Alfred Stevens for the Wellington Monument in St. Paul’s Cathedral (model, Victoria and Albert Museum) would be impossible to erect today in the public square of any large American city, certainly not on the sacred soil of the National Mall.

Sir Alfred Gilbert, <i>Icarus</i>, 1884<br/>NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFFOver one hundred years later, in 1977, a young American artist, Frederick Hart (1943–99), had a dream similar to Leighton’s. He wanted the nation’s capital, particularly the National Mall and Washington National Cathedral, to express the highest ideals of what it meant to be an American. Hart died young, but not before he had created Three Soldiers, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and The Creation Sculptures, for the main entrance of Washington National Cathedral. Richard T. Feller, Clerk of Works of Washington National Cathedral, had unusual authority over all sculpture and interior works. In 1972, Feller wrote to the Board of the Cathedral: “Remember Lord Kenneth Clark’s statement in his Civilization series, to the effect that Protestantism has never made a major contribution to the arts. Mindful of this, the Cathedral Building Committee must be totally committed to a major statement of our age in plastic imagery, symbolism and non-verbal communication.”5 After several years, he chose an unknown clerk who worked in the cathedral mailroom. Hart had privately shown Feller some of his work and expressed his vision for the cathedral. The theme he suggested to Feller was “Creation.”

In 1961 a young student, recently arrived from Atlanta, Georgia, stood in a large crowd in Washington National Mall and listened to a new, young president thrill a crowd with these words: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Nelson said: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” Is it too soon to ask what America expects…? Hart remembered thinking.  The contrast between the works at the Yale Center for British Art and the inspirational works embedded in the soil of England is remarkable. Although there was some English history to be learned from the Yale exhibition, the New Sculpture was about individual virtue—courage, honor, valor, nobility, spiritual strength, patriotism and love of homeland. These qualities should be celebrated in our public spaces. Still, the Yale exhibition went some way toward making us more aware of Victorian sculpture. The catalogue, with solid scholarship, gives us a broader understanding of the achievements of a group of talented and morally ambitious artists.  


1. Sculpture Victorious: Art in the Age of Invention, 1837–1901, edited by Martina Droth, Jason Edwards and Michael Hatt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 409.  

2. Ibid., p. 410.  

3. Benedict Read, Victorian Sculpture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 291.  

4. See Thayer Tolles, “ ‘Mingled Feelings’: Augustus Saint-Gaudens, American Sculptors and Britain,” Visual Culture in Britain, vol. II, issue 2 (2010), pp. 219–37.  

5. Richard T. Feller, Clerk of Works, Washington National Cathedral, Letter to the Building Committee, 1972. 

 American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2015, Volume 32, Number 1