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1900 "She put a spell on me", or the Enchantment of George Frampton's Lamia

Explore the 1900 catalogue

I cannot recall anything quite like this … I had been in the sculpture gallery some minutes before my eye fell on this strange and fascinating Lamia. Imagine a life-size face of extraordinary beauty, mysterious and sad, carved in ivory that in a minute becomes flesh to the eye … She makes an absolute silence in the room; whoever turns his head in passing stops and remains as one enchanted.1

George Frampton’s extraordinary sculpture of a mysterious femme fatale, crafted from ivory and bronze and set with semi-precious stones, made a great impact at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1900, where the work was shown in the Lecture Room (Fig.1). The Daily News found that: “no work of sculpture in the Gallery has attracted more attention”2 and The Times thought that it was “one of the most ambitious things here, and one of the most admired.”3 The catalogue refers to the sculpture only as Lamia, without specifying that its subject is not the monster from Greek mythology who prayed on children, but the Lamia of John Keats’s eponymous poem (1819), a beautiful serpent-like creature who assumes female form to win the love of the mortal Lycius. The bust appears to depict the dramatic moment when Lamia’s true nature is exposed. Keats describes the charged atmosphere at the wedding feast when:

By faint degrees, voice, lute, and pleasure ceased;
A deadly silence step by step increased,
Until it seem’d a horrid presence there,
And not a man but felt the terror in his hair.

And then describes the physical transformation seen through Lycius’s eyes:

“Begone, foul dream!” he cried, gazing again
In the bride’s face, where now no azure vein
Wander’d on fair-spaced temples; no soft bloom
Misted the cheek; no passion to illume
The deep-recessed vision—all was blight;
Lamia, no longer fair, there sat a deadly white.4

The use of ivory for the face perfectly depicts her “deadly white” demeanour and on the back and sides of the neck, incised in the bronze, are the scales of a snake’s skin as she starts her transformation back to serpent form. 

In the same gallery, another Romantic poet who greatly admired Keats was the inspiration for a different statue. In this case, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem of The Last Tournament was the source for Guinevere and the Nestling by William Reynolds-Stephens (Fig. 2). This artist was more explicit in his inspiration and included a quote from the poem in the catalogue.

… and after loved it tenderly
And named it nestling; so forgot herself
A moment, and her cares;

—Tennyson, The Last Tournament

The sculpture was praised as a “small-scale work of considerable beauty”5 and like Lamia it combined a variety of materials including bronze, mother of pearl, enamel, and gems. Highly decorated, it depicts the story of a mysterious child, rescued by Lancelot from an eagle’s nest, and given to Guinevere to care for. The base is circled with trees and the baby is shown in a nest watched over by eagles. The quotation omits the earlier line of the poem in which “Arthur pityingly took” the baby and then “gave it to his Queen to rear: The Queen but coldly acquiescing.” Although she loves the child before it soon dies, this is a more complicated narrative of maternity. Guinevere herself is also an interesting sexually active female character in as much as she was both a wife to Arthur and a lover to Lancelot.

These two sculptures were not alone in the Exhibition in portraying complex female iconographies and as such they epitomise a fin de siècle interest in exploring ambivalent female protagonists. Other examples of this genre in the Exhibition that year included Alfred Drury’s bronze statue of The Prophetess of Fate,6 whose crystal globe implies sorcery and divination, and Andrea C. Lucchesi’s The Myrtle’s Altar,7 which depicts Phaedra, wife of Theseus, who desired her stepson Hippolytus. Climbing a myrtle tree, she took out her frustrations by piercing its leaves with a hairpin.

Despite similarities in these works, there are also subtle differences and their intended meanings were in some ways modified and less obvious in the context of the Exhibition Rooms at the Academy. The use of different materials and colours in Reynolds-Stephens’s statuette was purely ornamental rather than symbolic and owed much to French decorative sculpture as well as incorporating the romantic notions of the Pre-Raphaelites and their love of Arthurian legends. Alfred Drury’s prophetess, despite its intimation of sorcery and the possible dark arts, conveys a benign presence. Frampton’s Lamia, however, was a far more complex and challenging sculpture, which although admired struggled to be appreciated as a truly Symbolist work. Even the reviewers found it difficult to understand the sculpture. The Times explained that: “we do not say that his Lamia is Keats’s Lamia, or that the artist’s meaning is perfectly clear, but the bust is a remarkable piece of workmanship.”8 Meanwhile, The Daily News missed vital details when they reported that “some indications of serpent scales might fitly have been introduced to justify the title.”9

As well as the scales of the snake, Frampton embellished the costume of Lamia with decorations that have an evident symbolic significance. Realism and naturalism were replaced in Symbolist art with imaginary and mysterious figures often from the romantic literature of the early nineteenth century. As is common in Symbolist art, the meaning of the symbols in Lamia are ambiguous but, taken together, they enhance Frampton’s intensely personal and enigmatic sculpture.

Lamia’s pendant has a small figure of a boy beneath a large opal, which is elaborately caged in bronze and further opals adorn the headdress and encircle the pendant. Foliage leads down to a spherical crystal held in a setting reminiscent of roots. At the time, opals could be symbolic of shifting passions and misfortune, and crystal balls were associated with witchcraft and fortune-telling. The encasing of the ivory face within the severe headdress and strapped cape can be seen to reflect Lamia’s own life as a prisoner of her fate. Her costume is decorated with what appears to be cow parsley but may well be the similar, but much more sinister and deadly hemlock.

Frampton’s work is close to contemporary French and Belgian artists rather than those of his British colleagues. The Symbolists’ combination of materials in works such as Charles Van der Stappen’s Sphynx Mystérieux (1897), made of silver and ivory, was an important precedent. Frampton had previously exhibited sculptures at La Libre Esthétique in 1894 in Brussels and in the first Vienna Secession in 1897, and throughout the 1890s increasingly incorporated elements of the decorative arts into his sculpture as a way of expressing Symbolist ideas. In the sculpture gallery of the 1900 Summer Exhibition, with its many portraits or uncomplicated depictions of Venus or Mars, Frampton’s Lamia stood out as a rare example of English symbolist sculpture. It combines life-size scale, the uncanny resemblance between ivory and the pallor of a corpse, and the mythology of the femme fatale, to cast a powerful spell, even in the crowded arena of the Summer Exhibition.

  1. E.H in The Pilot, 1900, Vol. 1, 450; quoted Susan Beattie, The New Sculpture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 161 and 258.↩︎

  2. The Daily News, 19 June 1900.↩︎

  3. The Times, 29 June 1900, 15.↩︎

  4. John Keats, Lamia, 1819, lines 265–268 and 272–276.↩︎

  5. The Times, 29 June 1900, 15.↩︎

  6. Royal Academy Pictures, 1900, reproduced, 124. Location unknown.↩︎

  7. Royal Academy Pictures 1900, reproduced on, 139.↩︎

  8. The Times, 29 June 1900, 15.↩︎

  9. The Daily News, 19 June 1900.↩︎

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Explore the 1900 catalogue