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1817 Two Schools of Sculpture

In May 1817, several critics were surprised to observe the superiority of the sculpture exhibits at the Royal Academy, both in relation to the pictorial works and to previous Summer Exhibitions.1 Given the scant attention which sculptural works typically garnered during the run of the Annual Exhibition, the recognition accorded to this aspect of the display in 1817 marks out that year’s event as something of a landmark in the fortunes of British sculpture.2 Among the seventy-one sculptural exhibits, the prominent attractions were a group of works by two sculptors, each of them acclaimed by his respective countrymen as a modern-day Phidias—the Italian, Antonio Canova, and his British rival, Francis Chantrey. Displayed alongside each other in the Life Academy, the critical commentary around Canova and Chantrey’s exhibits is indicative of a new visibility for sculpture in the second decade of the nineteenth century, following the state purchase—and display in the British Museum—of the Elgin Marbles in the previous year, and of the emergence of a focused debate around the desirable qualities of British sculpture in relation to its ancient and Continental counterparts.

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Canova submitted three works for display at the Academy in 1817, the only occasion during his lifetime when he was to exhibit there: a bust of Peace, and full-length, life-size figures of Hebe (Fig. 1) and Terpsichore—all executed in marble.3 Canova had enjoyed long and mutually beneficial, personal and professional relationships with British artists and patrons, which had recently been revived following an inevitable hiatus during the Napoleonic Wars.4 In 1815, the Academy had hosted a dinner in his honour, following his interventions in the debate over the state purchase of the Elgin Marbles, and in the repatriation of the works taken by Napoleon from the Papal collections. Canova had also supervised the taking of casts from works from the latter collection, prior to their departure from Paris; the casts were subsequently presented to the Academy by the Prince Regent.5 In 1817, all three works exhibited by Canova had been commissioned, or were subsequently purchased, by British collectors. His highly cosmopolitan career had flourished as a result of the fashionable “marble mania” which pervaded Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and which saw antique and neoclassical works brought together in countless private sculpture galleries. Such was the interest in the famed Venetian sculptor’s work in 1817 that The Monthly Magazine took the unusual step of providing engraved reproductions of Hebe and Terpsichore alongside its review for the benefit of readers who could not attend the exhibition.6

The sculptural sensation of 1817, however, was a memorial commissioned from Francis Chantrey by Mrs Ellen-Jane Robinson to commemorate the tragic death of her two young daughters, Ellen-Jane and Marianne, within a year of each other (Fig. 2). The affecting narrative behind the commission, combined with Chantrey’s ability to elicit an astonishing effect of tenderness and an approximation of nature from his rigid materials, made the work arguably the most attentively observed and widely discussed piece of exhibited sculpture since the Academy’s foundation. Visitors described their compulsive revisiting of the Life Academy to view the memorial, the pressing crowds surrounding it (tearful mothers among them), and their pervasive recollections of the sleeping children, appearing “before us in the waking visions of the night”.7 The commission represented something of a watershed in Chantrey’s career. Two months prior to the opening of the exhibition, he had been unsuccessful in his attempt to secure full Academician status; the reservations voiced by those who opposed his election concerned the prevalence of portrait busts in his practice.8 Although the work now known as The Sleeping Children did not belong to the category of poetic, idealised sculpture that the Academicians had in mind for their Diploma-holders (and his other exhibits that year were, indeed, bust sculptures), its importance lay in the way in which it reconfigured the discourse around sculptural aesthetics, securing for Chantrey his desired election as a full Academician in the following year.

Canova’s mythological and allegorical exhibits in 1817 were generally admired for their classical grace and for the technical dexterity with which he handled his materials. Hebe’s eternal youth seemed especially well expressed, not only through Canova’s immortalising materials, but also in his expressive handling of them to denote qualities repeatedly recognised by critics in terms of pleasing effects of “lightness”, “elegance”, and “delicacy”, capable of capturing fleeting movement and varied surfaces. His “artist-like” finish was compared with the “rasping and filing of the mechanics who finish for our English sculptors, Chantrey … excepted.”9 The exception was telling; Chantrey emerged in 1817 as an English rival—and counterpoint—to Canova, his concept and execution offering a singularly British approach to sculptural practice. For some, Canova’s technical mastery appeared to betray a lack of creative sensibility, The London Literary Gazette noting that his:

genius and classical study … are important objects in the exhibition; but with all their large share of merits, there is at least as much mechanical excellence and necessary compliance with received rules, as in fine feeling or novelty of expression in them.10

Comparing the two sculptors, critics repeatedly articulated their respective approaches in terms of sets of oppositions: art versus nature, coldness versus feeling, the mythological versus the domestic, elite cosmopolitan patronage versus appeal to a wide British public, and emulation of the ancients versus originality. It was Chantrey who triumphed, offering viewers an experience that went far beyond the detached admiration with which they habitually viewed successful sculpture exhibits: his monument to the Robinson children attracted wide admiration because it “not only exercises a supreme dominion over the heart, but it awakens the most lively and pensive images of fancy, through the medium of our sensibilities”.11 One final set of oppositions emerged to characterise the differing approaches of Chantrey and Canova: British versus foreign. Above all, Chantrey’s novel approach to his sculptural commission, and his privileging of pathos and domesticity over established sculptural conventions such as classicism and allegory marked him out as a “truly British sculptor,—as a sculptor in whom the most precious characteristics of the British nation dwell in all their purity and vigour.”12

  1. See, for example, The Morning Post, 3 May 1817; and The Monthly Magazine 43 (June 1817), 444.↩︎

  2. On the fortunes of sculpture at the Royal Academy’s exhibitions, see Alison Yarrington, “Art in the Dark: Viewing and Exhibiting Sculpture at Somerset House”, in David Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 173–187.↩︎

  3. His Danzatrice (Dancing Girl)—the version now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and commissioned by Sir Simon Houghton Clarke of Oak Hill, Hertfordshire—was exhibited at the Academy in 1823, shortly after his death.↩︎

  4. See Christopher M.S. Johns, Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe (London: University of California Press, 1998), particularly Chapter 6.↩︎

  5. The casts had been ordered by the pope as a gift to the prince.↩︎

  6. The Monthly Magazine, 43 (June 1817), 444.↩︎

  7. The Literary Gazette, or Journal of Belles Lettres, Politics and Fashion, 28 June 1817, 359. See also The Gentleman’s Magazine, 2nd series, 7 (January 1842), 101; and Joseph Jean M.C. Amédée Pichot, Historical and Literary Tour of a Foreigner in England and Scotland, 2 vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1825), vol. 1, 84.↩︎

  8. Joseph Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington, Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave (eds) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1984), vol. 14, 4961–4965, passim.↩︎

  9. Annals of the Final Arts 2 (1817): 66–67.↩︎

  10. The London Literary Gazette, or Journal of Belles Lettres, 28 June 1817, 358.↩︎

  11. The London Literary Gazette, 28 June 1817, 358.↩︎

  12. The New Annual Register, or General Repository of History, Politics and Literature for the Year 1817 (London, 1818), 72.↩︎

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