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For a field so little studied, it is perhaps surprising how entrenched the characterisation of Victorian sculpture seems to be. In the historiography, Victorian sculpture represents a fragmented field, and has long appeared to constitute two distinct halves: an early phase that largely perpetuates the neoclassical tradition, roughly comprising the 1830s through the 1860s; and an innovative later phase, marked by an eclectic and decorative aesthetic, beginning in the late 1870s and reaching a peak of creativity in the 1880s and 1890s. This latter phase, which has garnered the most attention from scholars, is commonly labelled the ‘New Sculpture’, and is so insistently associated with newness that it has swept all that came before into a large category thought of as its opposite – sculpture that appears old-fashioned, outdated, and somewhat redundant. In this divisive picture, large tranches of art production have been left completely unexamined, and even the most innovative and prominent artists of the period – such as John Bell and Henry Hugh Armstead – have been largely ignored.
The exhibition opening at the Yale Center for British Art in September 2014, and then travelling to Tate Britain in February 2015, will look at sculpture across the whole of the Victorian period. Our key themes are craft and reproduction, innovation and technology, through which we examine the central role that sculpture played in Britain and in the former empire. We have looked not so much for names, but for the most interesting works and dominant themes. In that process we have rediscovered the substantial oeuvres of artists whose most important works may not be on display in a public art gallery, but held in storerooms, or in institutional sites, such as the Houses of Parliament, in a cathedral, a private club, or a school. We have artists who are celebrated in their local town – such as Thomas Wallis of Louth – but are now virtually unheard of anywhere else. A diverse range of objects represents the breadth of the sculptor’s profession. As well as celebrated virtuoso works in marble and bronze, the exhibition showcases sculptures and reliefs cast in silver, zinc, gesso, plaster and ceramic, or carved in ivory, wood, and even moulded in leather. As well as objects, we have assembled images that capture the different roles that sculpture played in public spaces, in educational forums, and in popular entertainment arenas. Through historic newspapers, photographs and films, we examine the way in which monuments and statues were deployed as imperial icons, celebrated in elaborate ritualistic ceremonies, and later, sometimes also attacked. The exhibition thereby seeks to capture the ubiquitous place of sculpture in the Victorian era, as well as demonstrating the richness of production throughout the period, showing that innovation, creativity, and newness are qualities that define the period from the 1830s to the 1860s as much as the final decades of the century.