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1956 Dame Margot Fonteyn

Perfectly poised en pointe, Maurice Lambert’s sculpture of the Royal Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Margot Fonteyn, captured the “line and exquisite lyricism” of her poise (Fig. 1).1 Fonteyn, the former lover of Lambert’s younger brother, the musical prodigy Constant Lambert, had married Roberto de Arias in 1955.2 Consequently such an exhibit may perhaps be read as a tribute to his prematurely deceased brother or to Maurice’s own infatuation with the dancer, particularly because this study was not an official commission but undertaken as a private dedication.3 Lambert’s affinity towards this sculpture was such that when he heard a rumour of night prowlers in the galleries, for a time he took to sleeping beside the Margot Fonteyn sculpture, armed with a revolver.4 Seen up close, Margot Fonteyn’s bodice bore astrological emblems in tribute to Constant’s ballet score Horoscope (1938).5 Yet the motif also revealed a couple nestled close to Margot Fonteyn’s heart; the male figure resembling the sculptor (Fig. 2). Still, the more explicit context for the sculpture was probably the fact that Fonteyn had been ennobled as a Dame in the Queen’s New Year Honours List 1956, for her services to ballet.6

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Lambert was acclaimed for the quality of his portrait busts, most recently in celebration of the completion of the President of the Royal Academy’s term in office, Sir Gerald Kelly (1954) exhibited in 1955. However, due to its scale and associated technical challenges, Margot Fonteyn was one of the “most ambitious portraits” that he completed.7 Exhibited in the Academy’s Wohl Central Hall, the life-sized Margot Fonteyn sculpture was declared by The Spectator as a “marvel of modern engineering” because of the wire-mesh metal work of the tutu and upper bodice, the theatrical wirework eyelashes, and the hook and eye fastenings of the costume.8 Lambert enhanced classical bronze casting techniques by incorporating these innovative materials into an otherwise traditional bronze sculpture. As Master of the Royal Academy’s Sculpture School (1950–1958)9 Lambert was acknowledged for his pioneering use of alternative materials and technical proficiency, having been among the first to explore the use of new materials such as ferro-concrete for Pegasus and Bellerophon (1948) and aluminium for Lucifer (1952), which were used experimentally because traditional materials had become scarce during and immediately after the war years.

Similar use of metalwork for prototype sculpture was also in evidence at the Venice Biennale in 1956, when the abstract sculptor Lynn Chadwick was overwhelmed to unexpectedly win the International Prize for Sculpture, usurping the favourite Alberto Giacometti for this esteemed award.10 However, Lambert’s mixed-medium technique was not original; indeed, Lambert’s figure of Margot Fonteyn may be compared with Edward Degas’ iconic Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (wax 1880–1881, cast in bronze 1922), which incorporated muslin for the tutu and silk for the hair ribbon, which had been acquired by the Tate as recently as 1952. Moreover, the subject matter was also not without sculptural precedent in the British context: fellow Academician Frank Dobson had completed a portrait bust in 1924 of the Russian ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, the wife of the first Chairman of the Arts Council, Maynard Keynes.11 Lambert similarly completed a less formal portrait bust of the ballerina without a headdress, as Margot Fonteyn (1956), although this was not exhibited until the Summer Exhibition of 1959.12

During the Summer Exhibition of 1956, the full-sized Margot Fonteyn sculpture became the catalyst for fundamental change when the Academy’s Council unanimously ratified the decision to purchase it for £2,500 under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest.13 Chantrey purchases were by long-standing agreement exhibited at the Tate Gallery, which was “compelled” to accept them.14 Cognisant of the Tate’s probable objection to this purchase, the Academy’s Council pre-emptively agreed to invoke their legal right of purchase in the event that the Tate hindered the accession of Lambert’s sculpture.15 In fact, a decade earlier, the Director of the Tate Gallery, John Rothenstein, had written to The Times expressing concern about the Academy’s choice of sculpture for the Chantrey Bequest, when Arnold Machin’s beaux-arts Spring (1947) was reluctantly accepted by the Tate Gallery.16 Nevertheless, on this occasion, the Tate Gallery declined to accept the Margot Fonteyn sculpture, given the institution’s determination to pursue a more modernist policy of exhibits.17 Consequently, the Margot Fonteyn sculpture suffered the ignominy of a “half star” label indicating that while the work had been reserved, its fate was disputed. Concurrent with the debacle over the Margot Fonteyn sculpture ran negotiations between the Royal Academy, the Tate, and the Treasury seeking resolution.18 This dialogue concluded with the Tate Gallery securing the right to “receive only those works which they were willing to accept”, even when the works were otherwise admired.19 It was resolved that henceforth Chantrey Bequests could be offered by the Academy to the Tate Gallery and, if declined, could be offered “on loan to other galleries”.20 Subsequently, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden was approached, though it reluctantly had to forgo the loan of the Margot Fonteyn sculpture because the ballerina was “still an active member of the Company”.21 Fortuitously, in July 1957, the Director of the Royal Ballet School at Richmond contacted the Academy seeking permission to borrow the Margot Fonteyn sculpture; recognising that this was a most appropriate venue, the Academy immediately agreed to the request.22 Located at the Royal Ballet School since 1957, this sculpture was eventually gifted to the School in 2000 by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest.23

In 2016, the Margot Fonteyn sculpture was featured in the BBC programme Looking for Margot, presented by former Principal ballerina Darcey Bussell, who recalled how as a student at the Royal Ballet School she had touched the sculpture’s middle finger of the left hand for good fortune; a ritual perpetuated by aspirant young ballerinas, which over the decades has given the fingertip a gleaming patina.24 Thus, the association of the Margot Fonteyn sculpture with the world of ballet was appropriately perpetuated through its powerfully symbolic placement in the Royal Ballet School, where, as Bussell affirmed, “Dame Margot remains the touchstone for British ballet”.25

  1. Margaret (Peggy) Evelyn Hookham, stage name Margot Fonteyn. Dancer, Sadler’s Wells Ballet. “Margot Fonteyn: Dancer”, Royal Opera House, (accessed 3 March 2017). Due to Fonteyn’s extensive touring schedule, the legs for the sculpture were modelled by Georgina Parkinson, a student at the Royal Ballet School, who stood for hours on pointe. Lambert perfected the fourth position pose evidenced by the fact that the ankle was not sickled. A Royal Ballet School representative in conversation with the author on 25 May 2017.↩︎

  2. Constant Lambert cast Fonteyn, aged fifteen years, as the lead dancer in his ballet The Rio Grande and subsequently ended their turbulent relationship “gracelessly” in 1947. Barry Smith, “Lambert, (Leonard) Constant: (1905–1951)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34382 (accessed 3 March 2017).↩︎

  3. Maurice Lambert was often inclined to infatuation for unattainable women, “one of his later infatuations was with Queen Elizabeth”. Vanessa Nicolson, The Sculpture of Maurice Lambert (Aldershot: The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, 2002), 86. On the bodice, the prominent Taurus signified Fonteyn’s birthday date as 18 May 1919.↩︎

  4. Nicolson, The Sculpture of Maurice Lambert, 86.↩︎

  5. The costume was inscribed by Lambert “Topless tower burnt and men recall that face”, alluding to “Fonteyn’s appeal with that of Helen of Troy, whose beauty Homer likened to that of the immortal goddess.” Nicolson, The Sculpture of Maurice Lambert, 86.↩︎

  6. John Percival, “Fonteyn, Dame Margot [real name Margaret Evelyn Hookham; married name Margaret Evelyn de Arias]: (1919–1991)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34382 (accessed 2 June 2017).↩︎

  7. Nicolson, The Sculpture of Maurice Lambert, 86.↩︎

  8. Cyril Ray, “Private View”, The Spectator, 11 May 1956, 196, no. 6672 (1956): 651–652.↩︎

  9. Among Lambert’s students were the sculptors Anthony Caro and Bryan Kneale; Sidney Charles Hutchinson, The History of the Royal Academy 1768–1968 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1968), 187.↩︎

  10. Lynn Chadwick, Interview: Lynn Chadwick. Interviewed by Cathy Courtney, 1995, British Library Recording, NLSC, Artists’ Lives, C466/28.↩︎

  11. Neville Jason, The Sculpture of Frank Dobson (Aldershot: The Henry Moore Foundation, in association with Lund Humphries, 1994), 128.↩︎

  12. The portrait bust was an edition of three: one copy is held at the Upper School of the Royal Ballet School and another in the National Portrait Gallery Collection (no. 6033).↩︎

  13. Royal Academy Archives, RAA/PC/1/29-40. Council Minutes, 16 April 1956, 161. The sum of £2,500 in 1956 would be equivalent to approximately £60,000 in 2018; “Inflation Calculator”, Bank of England, (accessed 27 February 2018).↩︎

  14. John Rothenstein, Brave Day Hideous Night (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1966), 207.↩︎

  15. Royal Academy Archives, RAA. Council Minutes, 16 April 1956, 161.↩︎

  16. John Rothenstein, “The Tate, 1897–1947”, The Times, 21 July 1947, 5.↩︎

  17. John Rothenstein, (1901–1992) was the longest serving Director of the Tate Gallery (1938–1964), whose commitment to modern art facilitated a change in policy resulting in the “right to decline unwanted purchases”; Rothenstein, Brave Day Hideous Night, 214.↩︎

  18. Royal Academy Archives, RAA/PC/1/29–40. Council Minutes, 16 July 1956, 173.↩︎

  19. Hutchinson, The History of the Royal Academy 1768–1968, 190.↩︎

  20. Royal Academy Archives, RAA/PC/1/29–40. Council Minutes, 2 July 1957, 174.↩︎

  21. Royal Academy Archives, RAA/PC/1/29–40. Council Minutes, 11 December 1956, 185.↩︎

  22. Royal Academy Archives, RAA/PC/1/29–40. Council Minutes, 2 July 1957, 211.↩︎

  23. Letter of 13 October 2000 from Barbara O’Connor, Royal Academy Registrar to the Permanent Collection to Nigel Copeland, Bursar of the Royal Ballet School: Transfer of Title signed 27 October 2000, Royal Ballet School Archive.↩︎

  24. Looking for Margot, first broadcast on BBC 1, 20 December 2016.↩︎

  25. Darcey Bussell, “Darcey Bussell on Margot Fonteyn: How Did the Great Ballerina End up Living in Poverty Abroad?”, The Telegraph, 18 December 2016, (accessed 5 March 2017).↩︎

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