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Body Doubles, a work lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs, makes an important contribution to our understanding of late Victorian sculpture. Getsy, who writes with clarity and range, argues for a redefinition of the movement Edmund Gosse named the New Sculpture and which the late Susan Beattie brought to scholarly attention. Whether or not he completely succeeds, he does convincingly show how some works of the New Sculpture lead to Modernist art. After a chapter on the seminal role of Leighton's Athlete with a Python in creating sculpture that serves as its own manifesto, Body Doubles discusses several key works by Hamo Thornycroft that continue what Leighton began, after which come chapters on Albert Gilbert, Edward Onslow Ford's Shelley Memorial, and James Havard Thomas's extradinarily anti-humanistic Lycidas (1905).

Left: Leighton's Athlete Wrestling with Python — Reduction of version exhibited R.A., 1877. Right: 9 ½-inch Maquette for the statue. c. 1877. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

According to Getsy, “late Victorian sculpture theory manifested itself not in textual manifestos or artists' statements so much as in these polemical, metasculptural objects that explored the relations between the object of sculpture, its making, its figuration, and the viewer's encounter with it” (6). The five sculptors on whom he concentrates — Leighton, Thornycroft, Ford, Gilbert, and Thomas —  all explore the relations of sculptural physicality, corporeality, and materiality, especially in relation to the need for statement or meaning (or lack of it). Leighton begins this trajectory towards Modernism in several ways: he chooses bronze as a preferred sculptural medium, emphasizes corporeality, and rejects “unifaciality [which had] been taken as axiomatic for the statuary format and its representation of the singular human body,” instead incorporating “the rotational experience of the small sculptures into the composition of his statue, creating a work which the compositional spiral is both clear and overriding” (31).

Left: Thornycroft's Teucer — reduction of the original life-size plaster exhibited R.A., 1881, and in bronze, R.A. 1882 (Chantrey Purchase). Right two: 8 ½-inch Maquette for the statue. 1881. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

Chapter 2 — "Animating the Classical: Hamo Thornycroft's Experimentation with the Ideal Statue, 1878-1884" — moves from Leighton, who “set the sculptural revival in motion,” to the sculptor whom Getsy sees as “its prototype” (43). In Teucer, Thornycroft, “celebrated in the press and by the Royal Academy,” abandons conventional poses, contrapposto, and “the sinewy balance common to figurative sculpture [which he replaced] with an almost inorganic geometric composition” As Getsy points out, the sculptor

compressed his figure into a vertical column. The archer's body is not firmly planted with a broad, stable stance. Rather, the figure springs from the single, central point where the heels cling together. From the vertical rigidity of the legs and torso, the perpendicular vector of the outstretched arm boldly extends into space. In effect, the traditional pyramidal composition has been flipped onto one of its points, replacing the apex with the right angle. [69]

Getsy's problem here derives from the fact that Teucer turns out to be not all that characteristic of Thornycroft's work, so that when he comes to discuss The Mower, one of his finest works, it has to represent a falling off, one which he claims comes from Thornycroft's “political progressivism.” Thornycroft supposdly decided that the public could not and would not accept a work that proved radical in both theme and technique — radical, that is, both political meaning and sculptural form. Therefore, “in making the Mower 'of our age,' . . . Thornycroft sacrificed his earlier experiments with materiality, with the dynamic interplay between naturalistic rendering and formal structure, with the bodily legibility of immodle action, and with the incursion into the viewer'a space. Instead, he largely returned to sculptural conventions in order to buttress his radical new subject matter” (78). Granted, for whatever reason Thornycroft does not repeat the experiment we see in Teucer, but Getsy's explanation hardly convinces, in part because The Mower doesn't seem that far left — in fact much less so that Holman Hunt's controversial presentation of Christ as a workman in The Shadow of Death (1873).

Left: Gilbert's Icarus. 1884. Middle two: An Offering to Hymen. Right: The Enchanted Chair. c. 1909. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]

Gilbert, who would not seem to support Getsy's project, belongs in this movement toward modernism, he claims, because he “increasingly emphasized metal's malleability and freedom over the traditional sculptural concerns with contour, mass, volume, plane, and formal coherence,” and the radical nature of his work appears in the fact that it “did not easily fit into either traditional or new definitions of statuary. Instead, it raised the question of how sculpture could be practiced without reliance on a body at all” (88). Getsy traces Gilbert's “progress into ‘licentious plasticity’ to Icarus, An Offering to Hymen, and The Enchanted Chair (1884-86), works that demonstrate “his growing dissatisfaction with the body as the only sculptural format” (88). Rejecting the kind of sculpture he created earlier in his career,

Gilbert found a new paradigm for three-dimensional art in goldsmithing. The work of the jeweler was, in Gilbert's view, free design unconstrained by the established format of the figural statue. Gilbert drew on John Ruskin's statements that goldsmithing was the "true source of the "final triumph of Italian sculpture" in the Renaissance. In a lecture to the Royal Institute of British Architects, he stated "Art is not imitation but creation." He went on to echo Ruskin's approbation of Renaissance goldsmiths and their training. [105]

Left: Edward Onslow Ford's Shelley Memorial from the book under review.

Edward Onslow Ford's Shelley Memorial, which Getsy describes as a memorial embodying (pun intended) “Thanatic Corprreality” or the body as corpse, continues the movement toward what will become Modernism. He does a fine job explaining the origins of the memorial as part of the campaign by Lady Jane Shelley, the poet's daughter-in-law, to make the scandalous poet respectable — a campaign that in this case resulted in University College, Oxford, accepting the monument. Ford, who saw the poet's monument as his “signature work,”

put a great deal of thought into the structure of the memorial. An innovator in polychromy and mixed material sculpture, he employed four different colors of marble in addition to the bronze, to which he added his distinctive deep green patina and, at one point, gilding. The plinth proper, atop the rectangular black marble base, is in a deep maroon marble. With the mourning muse's slightly overhanging left foot, hand extended toward the depths and downcast eyes, the entire effect of the receding steps suggests the seashore itself. The flat and semi-refletive base further adds to this connection by creating a dark and murky mirrored surface. [130]

Here, Getsy argues, the sculptor took the “limit case of the corpse — at once the most fundamentally realist subject and the ultimate sign of bodily materiality” (128) — to emphasize corporeality as the source of sculpture. And although funereal sculpture long depicted the body asleep or at rest, Ford “instead offered Shelley's corpse. The complete nudity of the body as it lies on its side, with crossed legs and shoulders, parted lips, tossed-back had, awkward shoulders and arms” (133) rejects both the conventions of the genre and most contemporary assumptions about the nature sculpture.

Getsy's entire book points toward James Havard Thomas's Lycidas, which after the 1905 Royal Academy rejected it, causing “storm” in the newspapers, ” became the centerpiece of the New Gallery's competing exhibition”. The press saw the statue's rejection as yet another instance of the need to reform the RA, but Getsy sees it more importantly as a bridge or entrance to modernism.

Three view of John Harvard Thomas's Lycidas from the book under review.

Although “its precise and unwavering attention to the body . . . . seems to fulfill the New Sculpture's aims to seamlessly identify the illusionistic representation of the body with the sculptural object,” it also departs from Victorian conceptions of figurative sculpture in crucial ways. In particular, this black wax statue “boldly asserted that sculpture was an art of bodies and mechanics, not of persons or personalities. Offering a reconstruction of a human body rather than attempting to render a human subject, Lycidas challenged existing definitions of figurative sculpture and their humanist presumptions” (143). In other words, Thomas leads to that strain of modernism that not only abandons narrative but rejects meaning as well.

As the preceding paragraphs suggest, Body Doubles is a very different kind of book from Benedict Read's pioneering Victorian Sculpture and Susan Beattie's The New Sculpture, both of which cover many works by many sculptors. This beautifully illustrated, tightly argued book generally discusses only those works that support the author's thesis. Major works that do not do so are either criticized as retrograde or simply not mentioned. The principal problem with Getsy's book appears in its subtitle: “Sculpture in Britain, 1877-1905,” for it is really not about that at all. It could be called “Ten or Twelve Works of Victorian Sculpture that I like,” or, less facetiously, “Anticipations of Modernist Sculpture.” Getsy argues very convincingly for his thesis, but it's not always clear if he realizes the value judgments implicit in his approach — namely, that the works he claims to be proto-Modernist pioneers are necessarily better sculpture than those that don't. He therefore either knowingly or unknowingly falls prey to a teleological, pseudo-evolutionary theory of art that privileges Modernist art. Those of us who find Brock, Leighton, Thornycroft, Ford, Gilbert, Derwent Wood, Bates, and many others both more exciting as art and more interesting as objects of study will find Getsy's neglect of so many major works dissatisfying and unconvincing. Nonetheless, as long as one reads this challenging volume chiefly for its demonstration of the road to Modernism, it has great value.

References

Beattie, Susan. The New Sculpture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

Getsy, David. Body Doubles: Sculpture in Britain, 1877-1905. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Read, Benedict. Victorian Sculpture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.


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Last modified 18 November 2008