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1848 Sculpture in the Basement

In nineteenth-century reviews of the annual Royal Academy exhibitions, sculpture is always discussed last. The reviews follow the order of the listings in the Academy catalogues, where sculpture also comes at the end. This was a long-standing convention and suggested a hierarchy. The notion that sculpture was last and perhaps also least was underlined by the spatial arrangement of the galleries at Trafalgar Square: sculpture was viewed last and in the least favourable space, the Basement.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, criticisms of the sculptures were invariably preceded by criticisms of the space. In the year of the 1848 Annual Exhibition, the Sculpture Room was variously described as a “cellar”,1 a “den”,2 a “wretched little Penitentiary”,3 and “a dark hole”.4 Holding more than 150 sculptures that year, the cramped, crowded, and poorly lit space was by all accounts a sight of confusion and disorder. For those who cared about sculpture, the situation was not without consequence. A tangible cause and effect was perceived to be in operation: the state of the sculptures was directly linked to the state of the room.

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Not only were sculptors perceived to be deserting the Academy and sending their best works elsewhere (such as to Messrs Graves on Pall Mall or Dickinson’s on Bond Street, as Hiram Powers and John Foley did in 1848), but worse, the work that did appear there was felt to be diminished by the space: “the art is gradually shrinking to the dimensions assigned to it—its spirit seems subdued to the narrowness of its abode.”5 Indeed, it was thought that the power of the spatial hierarchy was such that it determined the trajectory of the arts: while the “effect of privilege” meant that painting was able to “gradually strengthen itself and tend to the enactment of a monopoly,” sculpture had fallen to “a very low ebb in England”, thanks to the “evils and inconveniences of the Sculpture den”,6 a space that: “seems to have been chosen for the express purpose of crushing [this] branch of the art.”7

These accounts evoke a dim and dismal image of sculpture at the Academy. Nonetheless, it would be an exaggeration to say that sculptors were abandoning the institution. The listings for 1848 include many dazzling and ambitious works by the leading sculptors, including John Gibson and Richard James Wyatt. What might it have been like to see their carefully crafted statues in the darkened atmosphere of the Sculpture Room? In contrast to the painting hang, which thanks to a rich visual archive and comprehensive scholarship we can visualise and even recreate,8 much less has been said about the Sculpture Room. However, we do have some written records that can help us imagine the sculptural encounter.

A particularly revealing account of the sculpture at the 1848 Exhibition is given in The Rambler. The author describes the sensation of walking into the “wretchedly lighted” space to be confronted with John Gibson’s Aurora, appearing like “a star of the first magnitude in this hazy atmosphere”. The goddess of the dawn “beams upon us in all the glow and freshness of a brilliant summer morning”, her floating figure “bounding forward” towards us: “eminently superhuman, she commands our admiration at once”.9 That this was not merely an isolated fanciful reverie but a visual response is suggested by the appearance of a comparable description in The Examiner. Again contrasting the inadequate Sculpture Room and the “graceful contour, the ethereal lightness and buoyancy” of Gibson’s Aurora, the author describes a similar experience of beholding “a vision delightful as it is rare in this dim region”.10 In these short descriptions, there is a powerful sense of the tilting figure of Aurora radiating forth in white marble, physically and metaphorically rising above the disorderly space of the Sculpture Room.

When we read further, we discover that the Aurora represents an early experiment in colour. Although Gibson’s interest in colouring his work is more often associated with his famous Tinted Venus, shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851,11 the Aurora predates this experiment, and was not his first.12 The figure no longer retains obvious traces of its original colour, but the descriptions indicate that red was introduced in the edges of the drapery, and blue and red in the headdress. It is true that a few critics found the colouration of the Aurora distasteful and inappropriate to modern sculpture,13 but many more either simply overlooked it, or noted its novelty in passing. It was not, in other words, scandalous. More important in this context is the possibility that Gibson’s addition of colour highlights may have amplified his work in the context of the Sculpture Room, helping to distinguish and lift it above the dimness of the space. In this sense, perhaps we can align Gibson with the painters, or even suggest he looked to them, in the sense that he too developed strategies for marking out his work from the many others it was shown among. We might think of Aurora stepping out and forward in the way that a radiantly clothed woman in a full-length portrait by Reynolds or Lawrence might appear to be stepping forward and towards the viewer from a densely hung wall of paintings.14 

Complaints about the Sculpture Room persisted beyond the 1840s. No image of the display of 1848 has been traced, but an earlier view, published in The Illustrated London News in 1843, gives a sense of the vault-like underground space and the clustering of objects (Fig. 1).15 In 1848, there were hopes for improvements, as part of the promises written into the Vernon gift to the nation, but year after year those hopes remained unanswered. Finally, in 1861, the opening of a new Sculpture Room was announced. An image in The Illustrated London News celebrates the new room and captures the change, from the cellar-like confinement of the previous decades to a light-flooded space with high ceilings (Fig. 2).16 However, the improvements received mixed reviews and it was only later, with the move to Burlington House, that complaints about the sculpture reviews began to recede.

  1. “Fine Arts. Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 27 May 1848, 536.↩︎

  2. “Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 20 May 1848, 513.↩︎

  3. “Exhibition of the Royal Academy: Third Notice”, The Rambler, 20 May 1848, 66.↩︎

  4. “Exhibition of the Royal Academy: Sixth Notice”, The Illustrated London News, 17 June 1848.↩︎

  5. “Royal Academy: Sculpture”, The Athenaeum, 17 June 1848, 609.↩︎

  6. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 20 May 1848, 513.↩︎

  7. “Royal Academy”, The Times, 11 May 1848.↩︎

  8. See especially David H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Paul Mellon Centre and Yale University Press, 2001), and Mark Hallett, Reynolds: Portraiture in Action (New Haven, CT: Paul Mellon Centre and Yale University Press, 2014), especially Chapter 12.↩︎

  9. “Exhibition of the Royal Academy: Third Notice”, The Rambler, 20 May 1848, 66.↩︎

  10. “Fine Arts. Eightieth Exhibition of the Royal Academy [Second Notice]”, The Examiner, 20 May 1848, 325.↩︎

  11. For a recent account of Gibson’s polychromy, see Michael Hatt’s entry for the Tinted Venus in Martina Droth, Jason Edwards, and Michael Hatt (eds), Sculpture Victorious, Art in an Age of Invention, 1837–1901, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 184–187.↩︎

  12. As reviewers of the 1848 Academy remarked, Gibson’s statue of Queen Victoria, shown the previous year, had also been tinted.↩︎

  13. See “Fine Arts. Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 27 May 1848, 537.↩︎

  14. For a discussion of this kind of activated figure painting at the Academy Exhibitions, see Hallett, Reynolds, Chapter 12, esp. 384–393.↩︎

  15. “The Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 29 May 1843, 338.↩︎

  16. “The New Sculpture Gallery at the Royal Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 18 May 1861, 458.↩︎

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