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1837 Sculpture and the Classical Ideal at Trafalgar Square

The year 1837 was pivotal in the history of the Summer Exhibition. It was the first to be held at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Until its move to Burlington House in 1869, the Royal Academy occupied the East Wing of the building, which was designed by William Wilkins from 1832 and finished in 1838.

Visitors to the 1837 Exhibition entered through the central portico under a temporary wooden awning. Installed amid columns of peachy Siena marble, “newly whitewashed” casts of the Farnese Hercules, the Laocoön, Apollo Belvedere and other ancient relics greeted the crowds as they poured in from the street.1 To access the room allotted for sculpture one walked straight through the lobby, past the steps leading to the paintings in the main exhibition rooms and the two ante-rooms featuring watercolours, drawings, miniatures, architectural designs and models, and into a semicircular chamber. Facing the entrance, the sculpture room had a low ceiling and light coming in through the lobby windows as well as from a skylight.2

Although the cross-lights were not ideal, the space was a significant improvement from the Model Academy at Somerset House, where sculpture had previously been shown. Throughout the first quarter of the nineteenth century, there was a general consensus that the conditions for exhibiting sculpture at the Academy were nothing short of an embarrassment. Shabby, dim, and far too small for its motley contents, the room was known as a “black hole”, a “dark closet”, a “little cabinet”.3 Prior to the Exhibition of 1811, there had not even been a specific apartment for sculpture; busts, tablets, groups, and single figures were lumped together with architectural models, drawings, watercolours, miniatures, flower paintings, and other miscellaneous objects. 

But while the Sculpture Room in Wilkins’ new building was less dingy, the cramped arrangement of the works continued to be an issue. A total of 129 objects were stuffed into the room, making for a frustrating kinaesthetic experience. One critic lamented that:

There is not room for even one small party so to place themselves as to see each object in the light the sculptor would have chosen for it … there is not space for a single block in addition to the present collection.4

Another complained that “the closeness of (the objects’) juxtaposition distracts the eye and renders it unable to judge fairly the merits of the separate works.”5 This author suggested the implementation of screens “to individualize” the different sculptures, such as could be found at the Glyptothek in Munich.6 William IV was rumoured to have pronounced the room “a nasty little poking hole”.7 Even the catalogue betrays the overcrowding; a note at the end of the list of works states that, due to spatial constraints, the Committee were not able to include a number of sculptures accepted that year. Evidently, they squeezed in as many as possible.

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As historians of sculpture have long observed, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries marked a turning point for the viewing of sculpture. With Antonio Canova at the helm across Europe, the art had steadily been garnering a newfound autonomy in relation to both painting and architecture. In the post-Napoleonic period, this was fuelled by the re-accessibility of Rome, where artists could live, learn,  and create what was termed “poetic sculpture”—fictional figures in marble intended for indoor display—without having to churn out portrait busts to survive. These more imaginative productions could find homes back in Britain: in aristocratic sculpture galleries such as Chatsworth House or Woburn Abbey, or in the homes of an emergent industrialist class hungry for novel objets d’art.

The Academy was not up to speed with the increased attention paid towards the display of sculpture. Although these particular objects were not grouped together, this selection of eight works exhibited in 1837 gives a sense of the claustrophobic feel of the installation (engravings have been substituted for untraced works) (Fig. 1). Each falls under the category of “poetic sculpture”. Such works were laborious and expensive to produce, even in Rome where several of the artists were based. Their very appearance is an index of the growing status of the genre and modern British sculpture at large.

From Richard Westmacott’s Euphrosyne to John Gibson’s Love Disguised as a Shepherd, William F Woodington’s Spring to Edward Hodges Baily’s Maternal Affection, each of these works appear to represent a classical ideal of beauty that, rooted in relics like the Apollo Belvedere, served as a paradigm for both sculptors and history painters. In the years leading up to the 1837 Exhibition, the idea was questioned that this paradigm stood as the most authentic version of Hellenic beauty. Since the arrival of the Elgin Marbles to London in the first decade of the century, practitioners, critics, and connoisseurs had been wondering: if these newly arrived sculptures were in fact from the workshop of Phidias, the leading sculptor of Periclean Athens, then why do they deviate so starkly in form from works like the Apollo? With their visible and apparently accurate anatomy, the fragmentary figures of the Elgin Marbles cast new light on the smooth, generalised surfaces of the sculptures formerly christened ideal. They revealed that works such as the Apollo are probably not only Roman copies of Greek originals, but that the lost originals themselves date from a period of alleged decline.

In subtle ways, the sculptures exhibited in 1837 express the lack of certainty over what actually constituted the classical ideal. One critic, for example, attacked the indefinite musculature of Richard James Wyatt’s A Nymph at the Bath: “in aiming at ideal beauty”, they proclaimed, “the artist has sacrificed truth: the nymph has no blade-bones—her shoulders are cushions.”8 The work, like others in the room, is “still too much in the modern conventional style.”9 By modern, they mean Roman; these sculptures are described as belonging to the “petty-classic or Roman-Greek style.”10

The uncertainty around what actually constituted the classical ideal opened up a new space in British art. By the 1820s, the painter William Etty was one of the most prominent artists in the country; while many of his works possess the grand scale and elevated content traditionally associated with history painting, they substitute the flesh of living models for the sculptural paradigm. Also exhibited in 1837, his The Sirens and Ulysses is a quintessential specimen of his oeuvre (Fig. 2). Notice the discrepancies in bodily shape between each of the Syrens, or the bulge of the middle Syren’s thigh as she kneels. As one critic commented, Etty’s “Syrens … are Academy models, whose personal defects the painter has not corrected … to attain the ideal of female beauty.”11

Yet, despite challenges to their supremacy, the formerly ideal sculptures continued to appeal. As their authority over contemporary artistic practice dwindled, they still managed to evoke the cultural capital forever linked to both Greek and Roman antiquity. This is affirmed by the fact that, at the 1837 Exhibition, casts after the Apollo Belvedere, Laocoön and the Farnese Hercules, not the Elgin Marbles, greeted visitors in the lobby.

  1. The Spectator, 6 May 1837, 19.↩︎

  2. The Spectator, 6 May 1837, 19.↩︎

  3. For a history of the exhibition of sculpture at the Royal Academy, see Alison Yarrington, “Art in the Dark: Viewing and Exhibiting Sculpture at Somerset House”, in David H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 173–187.↩︎

  4. The Atlas, 1837 (undated), Academy Critiques for 1837, no. 79, Royal Academy Archives, London.↩︎

  5. The Monthly Magazine or British Register 24, no. 139 (July 1837): 101.↩︎

  6. The Monthly Magazine or British Register 24, no. 139 (July 1837): 101.↩︎

  7. The Spectator, 6 May 1837, 18.↩︎

  8. The Spectator, 6 May 1837, 20.↩︎

  9. The Spectator, 10 June 1837, 20.↩︎

  10. The Spectator, 10 June 1837, 20.↩︎

  11. The Spectator, 20 May 1837, 20.↩︎

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Explore the 1837 catalogue