Two casts of Gilbert’s Charity. Left: Bronze polychrome. 15 inches (38.1 cm) high; Collection of Victoria and Albert Museum, London, accession no. A.8-1972. Right: Bronze. 15 in. (38.1 cm) high; 18 ⅝ inches(47.5 cm) high including wooden base. Private Collection. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
A statuette of Charity was originally commissioned as part of the memorial to Lord Arthur Russell at St Michael at Chenies, Buckinghamshire, that dates from 1892-1900. Lord Arthur Russell (1825-1892) was a Liberal Party politician and a brother of the Duke of Bedford. In December 1892 Lady Laura Russell asked Somerset Beaumont to arrange a meeting with Gilbert to discuss a commission for a wall monument to her late husband. When Gilbert finally visited the family chapel of the Dukes of Bedford at Chenies in October 1893 he realized that there was little room on the walls of the chapel for a cenotaph. He therefore envisioned a memorial candlestick, 9 feet tall and two feet wide, which would take up no wall space and very little floor space. The candlestick would have a girdle of enamel around its centre incorporating four commemorative inscriptions, four heraldic shields, and four allegorical figures representing the virtues of Charity, Truth, Courage and Piety. In a letter of March 18, 1901 from Gilbert to Lady Russell he identified the four figures of virtues whose symbolism was both traditional and innovative. “The Design was prompted by reflections, + much thought upon the personal Character of Lord Arthur…I find no better Symbol nor Emblem, by which to perpetuate his memory than that of a Candelabrium [sic] to suggest a column which should bear an Everlasting light, by means of a lamp, which should need constant care.” Richard Dorment has commented: “Thus the form of the memorial itself expressed the ideas of strength, wisdom, and remembrance…and the four figures embodied the Christian virtues. Typically, Gilbert included one theological virtue (Charity) and one cardinal virtue (Courage) but added two traits of Lord Arthur’s that are not traditionally counted as virtues at all, Piety and Truth”(190). Gilbert’s Charity has much in common with depictions of Charity by two older painters he greatly admired, Edward Burne-Jones and George Frederic Watts, both of whom greatly influenced the sculptors involved with the New Sculpture movement.
Gilbert’s candlestick was finally sent to Chenies on January 3, 1899 and was installed on January 16, except for the figures were finally placed on April 4, 1900, the eighth anniversary of Lord Arthur’s death. Lady Russell immediately recognized the quality and originality of the works writing “I cannot tell you how very beautiful I think the figures – so full of feeling & bold in execution – I have indeed waited long but I have my reward.” She immediately asked Gilbert for casts of the four allegories. On May 10, 1900 Gilbert wrote that the original waxes had been lost in the cire perdu casting process, but “I have certain models [presumably plasters] which will allow me to reproduce as very near representation.” Three of the figures were eventually cast as sand-casts but Courage was not included. Additional casts of Piety, Truth, and Charity were later used in c. 1911 on the Goetze family grave at Paddington Cemetery, Willesden Green, London.
The cast of Charity now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, together with the one on the Russell memorial, are the only examples of this statuette where there has been a substitution of gold for tin in their bronze alloy. During the 1890s Gilbert had become interested in techniques to achieve different surface finishes and particularly of colouring bronze. As a result the flesh and hair of these particular casts of Charity have a warmer patination than the drapery and the bronze appears hand coloured. A caustic pickling solution had been applied to the areas of flesh giving a reddish-purple tone. These were the last examples of Gilbert’s work carried out in polychromy and were made by the Parlanti foundry at Parson’s Green run by Alessandro Parlanti.
Later casts of Charity are not as finally modelled as these two earlier casts. After the First World War Gilbert gave the Fine Art Society sole right to reproduce his works. Some examples were cast by the Compagnie des Bronzes in Brussels. A bronze cast of Charity of c.1920, likely from this source, is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford together with casts of Truth and Piety. Plaster models for the set were at one time in the collection of Patrick Synge-Hutchinson, Albert Toft’s studio assistant.
Dorment, Richard. Victorian High Renaissance. London: Lund Humphries, 1978, cat. 103.
Last modified 22 May 2021