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1882 A "Vigorous" Year for Sculpture

Explore the 1882 catalogue

The year 1882 was a significant one in the display and reception of sculpture at the Royal Academy. The physical separation of the arts upheld particular institutional hierarchies, and sculptors had previously complained of inadequate, even detrimental, display conditions. In 1856, for example, following the success of mixed displays on the Continent, they requested that sculpture be placed alongside paintings.1 However, there was little progress until 1882, when one critic noted that: “there has not been a year, within the memory of any living critic, when the section of sculpture at the Royal Academy was so well represented, so vigorous, or so interesting as it is this year.”2 This was put down to two key factors: improvements in the display of sculpture, and improvements in the sculpture itself.

As the art critic Edmund Gosse observed, better display conditions meant that visitors could now detect new developments in English sculpture:

the placing of the sculpture … seems to have been carried out under some new and happy inspiration. The dreadful shelf which used to run round the sculpture gallery, on which the busts were arranged side by side, like so many decapitated heads, gives way this year to a series of pedestals, one for each individual work. The principal figures, too, instead of being crowded round the walls of the central hall, are placed in such isolation that they can be well seen from all sides. Sir Frederick [sic] Leighton, in addressing the guests at the Academy dinner … bade them notice that sculpture in England was waking from its long slumber.3

This quotation, from 1881, reveals a new commitment by the Academy, and its painter-sculptor President Lord Leighton, to sculpture. Moving the busts onto plinths individualised each work and encouraged a more engaged viewing experience. Sculpture was also placed at the heart of the building, replacing the flowers and shrubs in the Central Hall.4 In 1882, sculpture was even more prominently displayed. The Central Hall was devoted entirely to sculpture, its thirty-eight works largely representing idealised subjects and busts, including Mary Grant’s marble group The Tired Musicians and Charles Bell Birch’s The Last Call. The large Lecture Room, which led directly off the Central Hall, was now also devoted to sculpture. These improved displays influenced their reception, as critics noted a positive change in the younger generation of artists: 

There seem everywhere diffused among the younger men a sense of what modelling should be, an attention to the arrangement of masses, and a treatment of surface, which are quite new in England, and which should lead to the happiest results.5

This new emphasis on modelling reflected the influence of French sculpture on English sculptors. This included Jules Dalou and Alphonse Legros, who taught in London art schools from the 1870s onwards. The 117 works in the Lecture Room were particularly indicative of this shift, with its focus on architecture, medallions, medals, statuettes and bas-reliefs, and explicit references to the more French materials of terracotta and bronze. This French influence was seen as a positive antidote to the “baneful Italian influence on our sculpture” with its “effeminate and mechanical tradition”.6 French sculptors also exhibited, including Auguste Rodin’s first showing at the Academy—a bronze bust of St Jean—and six bronze medals by Legros, who as well as his teaching was significant in popularising Rodin’s work in Britain.

This renewal of British sculpture reflected recent changes in the composition of the Academy, with the election of young painters and sculptors including Thornycroft in 1881–1882. As this Punch cartoon from 1882 illustrates, this represented a changing of the guard (Fig. 1). The Summer Exhibitions took on a new urgency. They were a showcase not only of contemporary art, but also an opportunity for selecting new members and therefore of changing the composition and future direction of the Academy.

The Exhibitions were also a site of change and evolution in individual sculptures. Reviews reveal a sustained reflection on individual works across exhibitions, and a sensitivity to changes that took place between them to a given sculpture. For example, when Thornycroft’s Artemis was exhibited in 1882 in marble, it was regarded as an improvement on the plaster exhibited in 1880; “the artist has considerably improved it; the legs seem more robust, the drapery in some details more free and natural, and the neck more finely modelled”.7 His bronze Teucer was similarly seen to be an advance on the 1881 plaster, in its removal of the tree stump (Fig. 2).8 We might therefore usefully rethink the exhibition of sculpture at the Academy not as a single work in different materials, but as points in a sculpture’s history and development. This suggests that the rules prohibiting copies of any kind operated slightly differently for sculptors, for whom the Exhibition was a site for testing new work in plaster and of later displaying “improved” works in marble or bronze. The benefits of this process are clear—the 1882 catalogue notes the Academy’s purchase of Teucer through the prestigious Chantrey Bequest. The “establishment” was demonstrating its support of a new impetus in British art, and to the positive influence of international, particularly French, art, on its national school.

  1. Memorial of Sculptors to Admit Sculptors into the rooms devoted to paintings, January 1856, Royal Academy Archive /SEC/2/110.↩︎

  2. “Sculpture in 1882”, The Saturday Review, 10 June 1882, 731.↩︎

  3. Edmund Gosse, “The Royal Academy in 1881”, Fortnightly Review (June 1881): 702–703.↩︎

  4. “Sculpture in 1881”, The Saturday Review, 782.↩︎

  5. “Sculpture in 1882”, The Saturday Review, 731.↩︎

  6. “Sculpture in 1882”, The Saturday Review, 732.↩︎

  7. “Sculpture in 1882”, The Saturday Review, 731.↩︎

  8. “Sculpture in 1882”, The Saturday Review, 731.↩︎

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Explore the 1882 catalogue