1899 St. George Triumphant
Poised at the intersection of sculpture and decorative art, tradition, and innovation, George Frampton’s polychromatic statuette, St. George, featured prominently among the works on display at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1899 (Fig. 1).1
A.C.R. Carter, by contrast, lauded St. George, writing: “Mr. Frampton’s well-known gifts of decorative sculpture have tempted him to produce a statuette of ‘St. George’. This is, in every way, an achievement of great merit.”2 Rather than standing triumphantly above a slain dragon, as St. George is often portrayed, the English patron saint instead perches atop a striated orb of polished chalcedony.3 Set against an engaged mother-of-pearl plaque that frames his armoured body and isolates the figure from its surroundings, the diminutive, gilded saint holds the pole of an unfurling banner clasped in his right hand. In his left hand, he grips an enamelled shield that bears his emblem, the red cross, which is set against a background of leaves and branches rather than the more typical plain white field. His head is encircled by an enamelled disc evoking a halo and decorated with intertwining rose vines. Although the connection was not remarked upon in the press at the time, St. George was adapted from one of Frampton’s most prominent public sculptures, his monumental figure of Queen Victoria commissioned in 1897 for Calcutta, India, then the capital of the British Raj (Fig. 2). Exemplifying the ethos of the New Sculpture movement, Frampton’s St. George nonetheless defies easy characterisation. At once incongruously historicist and thoroughly modern, intimate in scale and monumental in scope, rebelliously avant-garde and staunchly imperialist, the St. George statuette reveals vital trends in British sculpture at the turn of the century.
Critical consensus surrounding the Academy Summer Exhibition of 1899 was overwhelmingly discouraging. The paintings, in particular, were disparaged as dull and unexceptional, with no single work emerging as the undisputed star of the year.4 By contrast, the sculpture on view proved strikingly exhilarating.5 The Introduction to Royal Academy Pictures 1899, having despaired at the lacklustre paintings on view, reserved high praise for the sculpture, writing, “It is the one power in the art world that seems irresistible, and its influence is daily becoming more convincing.”6 According to The Studio, a journal that actively promoted ground-breaking approaches to sculpture and the decorative arts, painting was on the wane in contrast to the vitality of the plastic arts, stating, “It is in the field of sculpture and applied art that the greatest evidence of progress is to be gathered.”7Artists associated with what was termed the New Sculpture movement adopted experimental techniques, unconventional materials, and imaginative, non-mimetic approaches to allegorical subject matter that tested the traditional definitions of the medium.8
Indeed, Frampton was widely acknowledged at the time as a leading light among this group of British sculptors.9 Elected Associate of the Academy in 1894, Frampton was a frequent participant in the Summer Exhibitions, eventually named a full Academician in 1902. Additionally, Frampton contributed to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, the Art Workers’ Guild, continental Symbolist exhibitions, and international expositions.10 St. George was undoubtedly indebted in part to Alfred Gilbert’s contemporaneous statuettes, but also represented the continuation of a pioneering approach to ideal sculpture that Frampton had begun several years earlier with works such as Mysteriarch.11 An evocative riddle in sculptural form, this female bust rendered in plaster with gilding is notable for its use of polychromy, as well as the integration of decorative framing devices.12 An engaged architectural backdrop rises behind the bust, with a golden disc surrounding the head that simultaneously evokes a halo and a Gorgoneion.13 Although the title ascribed to St. George seemingly renders the subject more straightforward than the enigmatic Mysteriarch, the idiosyncratic iconography of the statuette, as well as the inventive use of materials exceeds the bounds of a typical depiction of the saint to become more in keeping with Frampton’s ideal sculptures. The mother-of-pearl plaque that rises behind the statuette echoes the effect achieved by the architectural framing device in Mysteriarch, declaring the autonomy of the sculpture from its surroundings. The enamelled disc that rises above the shoulders of St. George, with its swirling vines and roses, calls to mind the golden undulant waves that emanate out from the head of the female figure in Mysteriarch. The most striking feature of St. George, the gleaming chalcedony sphere, with its mesmeric mineral veins, conjures imponderable depths both celestial and terrestrial at once that defies facile interpretation. Even the gleaming ripples of the unmarked banner serve as a sensual cue to imaginative engagement.
These distinctive features of the St. George statuette are further intensified when considered in the imperial context of Frampton’s monumental sculpture of Queen Victoria for Calcutta. Commissioned in 1897 to mark the Diamond Jubilee, Frampton chose to portray the monarch enthroned, holding a sceptre and orb.14 However, for his tribute to the Empress of India, Frampton proposed a sumptuous, multimedia assemblage, described in The Studio in 1898:
The figure itself is to be in light bronze, the sceptre of ivory with gold ornaments, the orb of lapis-lazuli, surmounted by a golden figure of St George: the crown and wreath will also be in gold, and the cushion behind the figure enamelled, probably in pale blue and white.15
Sadly, Frampton’s impractical plans for this ornate treatment never came to fruition.16 Instead, the St. George statuette, evidently taken from this innovative adaptation of the traditional iconography of the royal orb, encapsulated the essence of the opulent and unrealized monument in miniature form.17 This imperial framework adds another layer of resonance to the statuette, with the sumptuous substances invoking not just sensual engagement and visual delight, but also global networks of trade in precious raw materials.18 St. George was synonymous not just with England, but also with imperial masculinity. Towering above a mineral sphere, honed and crafted to perfection, the armoured knight rises triumphant over terrain both tangible and intangible. With the Queen Victoria monument altered from its intended form, and the St. George statuette ultimately lost, this transgressive sculptural moment has been largely obscured from history. However, the legacy of this work endured for Frampton when he later returned to the figure of St George to commemorate the fallen soldiers of the First World War and the lost promise of the era.19
Frampton’s St. George was not universally praised, but nonetheless left a strong impact on viewers at the 1899 Summer Exhibition. The Times deemed St. George “an agreeable exercise more or less in Mr. Gilbert’s manner.” “The Royal Academy: Fourth and Concluding Article”, The Times, 26 May 1899, 4. The Builder elaborated on the materials, but was somewhat more dismissive on the overall success of the work, describing it as:
a statuette with a base of a tortoiseshell supporting an agate globe on which is a metal figure of St. George in gilt armour, with a background of mother-of-pearl plaques; the whole effect is very pretty, but it is only a kind of large ornament;[fn]“Sculpture at the Royal Academy”, The Builder 76, no. 2942, 24 June 1899, 611.↩︎
A.C.R. Carter, “The Royal Academy of 1899”, The Art-Journal (June 1899): 184. See also “The Art of 1899: Part I. Some London Exhibitions”, The Studio 16, no. 74 (May 1899): 222.↩︎
The St. George statuette remains untraced. The statuette was on view at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1899, as well as the First exhibition of statuettes by the sculptors of to-day, British and French, at the Fine Art Society in March 1902. Frampton’s St. George is now known only through photographs and contemporary accounts, although the exact descriptions of the materials vary. Perhaps the most thorough account of St. George can be found in “Sculpture at the Royal Academy”, The Builder, 24 June 1899, 611.↩︎
Carter, writing for The Art-Journal, declared that despite approaching the Exhibition in a spirit of optimism, most of the paintings on view bore “the mark of honest mediocrity” and little evidence of true merit. A.C.R. Carter, “The Royal Academy of 1899”, The Art-Journal (June 1899): 161. Similarly, a critic for The Builder proclaimed simply, “This is evidently not a good painting year.” “The Royal Academy”, The Builder 76, no. 2935, 6 May 1899, 429. In a rather acerbic pronouncement, The Athenaeum stated, “Our original impression that the Academy of this year is more than usually uninteresting is strongly confirmed by repeated examination of its contents and more familiar acquaintance with them.” “The Royal Academy: Second Notice”, The Athenaeum 3735, 27 May 1899, 662. Even the Introduction to Royal Academy Pictures 1899 was censorious of the Exhibition, lamenting, “It can scarcely be said that there is this year any great sign of activity in the studio”. Royal Academy Pictures 1899; Being the Royal Academy Supplement of “The Magazine of Art” (London: Cassell and Co., 1899), i.↩︎
The Times summed up the general critical assessment succinctly, “‘Sculpture good; portraits and landscapes up to the average; figure subjects somewhat below it’—such be the general verdict on the Academy of 1899”, “The Royal Academy: First Article”, The Times, 29 April 1899, 14. The Builder praised the sculpture on view, stating: “The proportion of interest in the sculpture of this year, in comparison with that of the pictures, is really remarkable.” “Sculpture at the Royal Academy”, The Builder, 24 June 1899, 611. In The Art-Journal, Carter observed, “The rooms devoted to sculpture this year contain an unusual number of meritorious examples of a craft which does not meet with the encouragement in this country that it deserves.” A.C.R. Carter, “The Royal Academy of 1899”, The Art-Journal (June 1899): 184.↩︎
Royal Academy Pictures 1899, ii.↩︎
“The Art of 1899”, The Studio 16, no. 74 (May 1899): 222.↩︎
Susan Beattie, The New Sculpture (New Haven, CT: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, with Yale University Press, 1983), 8. Other examples of this ground-breaking style and the incorporation of unconventional materials on view in 1899 included: Francis Derwent Wood’s La Paimpolaise, a bust of a female peasant figure in teak, beech, and tin; Harry Bates’ Mors Janua Vitae, depicting a female figure in ivory hovering over a city scene and being crowned by a winged figure of death in bronze; Goscombe John’s A Portrait, a copper and gilt bas relief depicting the painter Eva Roos Vedder in profile; William Reynolds-Stephens’ Sir Lancelot and the Nestling, a statuette of the Arthurian knight in full armour holding a baby in bronze, ivory, mother-of-pearl, and enamel; Hubert von Herkomer’s The Triumph of the Hour, a six-foot long bronze shield with allegorical scenes rendered in enamels.↩︎
Three years earlier, an interview in The Studio had celebrated Frampton, writing:"one feels that a singular responsibility rests on the young artist, and that the shaping of the art of England for years to come is perhaps, so far as industrial art is concerned, more fully in his hands than in those of any other living artist." E.B.S., “Afternoons in Studios: A Chat with Mr. George Frampton, A.R.A.”, The Studio 6 (1896): 213. Later, in 1901, Spielmann would declare Frampton “a tête d’école—a leader, an inventor in his architectonic work, personal in the sentiment of his art, whether in its structural, polychromatic, or decorative characteristics.” M.H. Spielmann, British Sculpture and Sculptures of To-Day (London: Cassell and Co., 1901), 95.↩︎
For a thorough discussion of Frampton’s work and career, see Andrew Jezzard, The Sculptor Sir George Frampton, unpublished PhD dissertation (University of Leeds, Department of Fine Art, June 1999).↩︎
See Martina Droth, “Cat. 137 Alfred Gilbert, St George”, in Martina Droth, Jason Edwards, and Michael Hatt (eds), Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention, 1837–1901 (New Haven, CT: Yale Center for British Art in association with Yale University Press, 2014), 374.↩︎
As described in an article in The Studio,"the head itself is set in front of a gilded disc, supported on an architecturally treated screen rising from the base to some little distance above the figure … The exquisite serenity of the noble head is thus assured of its environment wherever it may be placed." E.B.S. “Afternoons in Studios”, The Studio 6 (1896): 209.↩︎
Beattie likens this disc to the orbs in Edward Burne-Jones’ The Days of Creation, writing, "Part of [Frampton’s] aim in Mysteriarch was to express in three-dimensional form the medievalising reverie of late Pre-Raphaelite painting: the feathery hair and winged headdress, the pleated and bound sleeves and even the symbolic disc that frames the head, comparable in significance with the spheres held by the angels in The Seven Days of Creation, recall the imagery of Burne-Jones." Beattie, New Sculpture, 158. Note that a Medusa-like head also appears as a medallion between the breasts of the female figure.↩︎
Here, again, Frampton was emulating a precedent established by Gilbert with his monument to Queen Victoria for Winchester Castle, commissioned to mark the Golden Jubilee in 1887. The sculpture also depicts an enthroned monarch, and incorporates decorative details and polychromy. See Jezzard, The Sculptor Sir George Frampton, 159; and Beattie, New Sculpture, 207.
For a full discussion of Frampton’s Queen Victoria in Calcutta and the Victoria Memorial Hall, see Droth, Edwards, and Hatt, Sculpture Victorious, 132–137. See also Beattie, New Sculpture, 210–214.↩︎
The Studio 14 (1898): 122–124, as cited in Jezzard, The Sculptor Sir George Frampton, 158.↩︎
Jezzard, The Sculptor Sir George Frampton, 159.↩︎
As Jezzard has asserted, the choice to depict St George on the orb may have been inspired by the figure of winged Victory perched atop the orb held by Queen Victoria on Gilbert’s Jubilee monument at Winchester Castle (1887). See Jezzard, The Sculptor Sir George Frampton, 36–37, 158–161, and 221–222.
Frampton’s use of St George was echoed in turn by Thomas Brock in his choice to depict the monarch holding an orb surmounted by St George for the Victoria Memorial London, 1901–1911.↩︎
For more on polychromy, nineteenth-century sculpture, and the imperial networks of exchange through which these raw materials circulated, see Sarah Victoria Turner, “Sculpture, Empire and Victorian International Exhibitions,” 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), 298–305. See also Jason Edwards, Cat. 138 “Edward Onslow Ford, St George and the Dragon Salt Cellar”, 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), 379–380.↩︎
For more on Frampton’s memorials for the First World War, see Jezzard, The Sculptor Sir George Frampton, 155. Interestingly, at the end of the war, Frampton wrote an article advocating for the young veterans to be engaged as art workers to create the monuments themselves. He particularly favoured the use of tapestries. George Frampton, R.A., “Our Shrines of Memory: Some Suggestions for Suitable War Memorials”, Quiver (April 1919): 425–428.↩︎
Thematic categories: art criticism - sculpture, British Empire, colouring of sculpture, critique of Exhibition - criticism, Diamond Jubilee, Imperialism, monuments, New Sculpture movement, patriotism, Pre-Raphaelites, public sculpture, sculpture, statues