The Progress Relief: a Neo-Medieval scene depicting transportation technologies (1866) by James Redfern. Portland Stone, approximately 70cm high x 3.5m wide. Location: 7 Lothbury (the former Overseas Bankers Club, which faces part of the Bank of England), London. Architect: George Somers Clarke, Snr.

Redfern, a sculptor best known for his statues on gothic and neo-gothic churches, chose to depict scenes of progress (here defined as the introduction of steampower in modern transportation, agricultural, and mining industries) in a quasi-medieval style intentionally filled with anachronisms. The androgynous figure of Progress, who looks like the kings and queens in gothic ivories of the late thirteen century, lays a finger on a large open book offered to him by a woman in medieval costume, which makes her easily mistakeable for a nun or a member of the Holy Family. At the left of these two central figures a workman stands as if inspired while a man seated above a gear extends a model of a steam engine to a farmer and a miner. Meanwhile on the opposite side of the frieze, a woman offers a tiny steamship to sailors.

There's nothing unusual about a Victorian sculptural representation of contemporary science and technology in the costume of an earlier age, but that earlier age is almost always that of ancient Greece or Rome, and the style and clothing emulates the work of that period. Armstead's Science and Manufacture on the façade of the Colonial Office at Whitehall, Dressler's Liverpool by its imports supplies the counntry with food and corn on St. George's Hall, and Roslyn's Science and Commerce on 70-71 New Bond Street all exemplify the more typical representation of such subjects as bare-breasted women otherwise swathed in flowing classical robes. Many such allegorical figures, like Bursill's Science, hold attributes identifying them. Here in contrast the figures in medieval garments do not so much hold the objects that identify them as give them to the kind of workmen benefited by them. The figures representing either steampower or the inspiration or the spirit of innovation that produced its various forms — the identity of these figures is not quite clear — plays a part in a narrative of progress rather than serving as a static representation.

Using a quasi-medieval or medieval-revival style and clothing seems particularly unusual and even odd in 1866, a time when most Victorians erroneously considered the Middle Ages to have been technologically primitive. Sages like Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin saw the Middle Ages as superior to their own times not only because its hierarchical social structures supposedly took good care of the lower orders but also because men worked with their own hands rather than with machines. Of course, like many people today, the two sages tended to define the mechanical — what we would call the technological — as only the newest technology, the technology newest to them. Think of all the humanists working with the astonishingly sophisticated technologies of writing (pencils, pens, ink, paper, and books) who proclaim themselves technophobes. The Victorians were no different, and so it's strange to see Redfern portraying the tools of the Industrial Revolution in medieval guise. It's even stranger to see a scene set in the Middle Ages used to represent progress, since most medieval revivalists were medieval revivalists precisely because they rejected the idea of progress.



[Click on these images for larger pictures.] Photographs and caption by Robert Freidus. Formatting, perspective correction, and commentary by George P. Landow. You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

Bibliography

Ward-Jackson, Philip. Public Sculpture of the City of London. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1403.


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Last modified 2 December 2011