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A touch of neoclassicism 

Viccy Coltman 


L ast spring, three major exhibitions in London were devoted 
to aspects of neoclassicism in Britain. Sculpture took pride of 
place at Tate Britain ’s The Return of the Gods, architecture at 
Sir John Soane’s Museum’s In Pursuit of Anti qui ty, and the 
decorative arts at the Victoria & Albert MuseurrTs exploration of 
Thomas Hope: Regency Designer. Art historian Viccy Coltman 
went to the Tate exhibition and asks: what is ‘neoclassicism’, 
and why should anyone be interested in neoclassical sculpture? 


Living softness 

The Return ofthe Gods invaded the monu- 
mental Central galleries at Tate Britain 
with a mania for marble. The usually well- 
lit spaces with their neutral colour palette 
were transformed by dramatic spotlights 
which brilliantly illuminated the marble 
sculptures positioned in front of dark, 
cavernous walls. The impression was of a 
nocturnal encounter. Visiting sculpture 
galleries at night was a favoured pastime 
of visitors to Rome in the later eighteenth 
century, who were often accompanied by 
a guide (ideally a sculptor) to the Vatican 
and Capitoline Museums. By flickering 
torchlight, the ancient masterpieces in 
Roman collections could be viewed in a 
new light which brought the figurative 
sculptures alive. This impression of 
animation was sometimes heightened by 
the use of rotating pedestals, which gave 
this most impenetrable of artistic materi- 
als the possibility of circular motion. 

The Tate assembled a wide range of 
neoclassical sculptures, some of them 
freestanding - from colossal male forms 
to petite, curvy Venuses, to four-year-old 
girls - some of them portrait busts, and 
others again reliefs. Crowning the vista at 
the end of the tunnel-like gallery was 
Antonio Canova’s celebrated trio The 
Three Graces 1814-17. Once displayed in 
a tailor-made temple of the Graces in the 
sculpture gallery at Woburn Abbey in 
Bedfordshire, the Three Graces was 
bought by the National Galleries of 
Scotland and the Victoria & Albert 
Museum in 1994 for the staggering sum of 
£7,600,000. The base is stili fitted with the 
brass knobs by which the sculpture could 
be rotated. Sadly the Graces now remain 
unmoved by our attention. And we can’t 
touch them either, though that was a vital 
part of the aesthetic experience of sculp- 
ture in the eighteenth and nineteenth 


centuries. The first owner of the Graces, 
the 6th Duke of Bedford, wrote of their 
Took of living softness given to the 
surface of the marble, which appears as if 
it would yield to the touch’. 

Roman roots 

The label ‘neoclassicism’ was coined only 
later by the Victorians and used as a term 
of abuse for what they saw as a lifeless and 
impersonal style that attempted (and in the 
eyes of the Victorians, failed) to revive the 
antique. Today it is used of work produced 
during the sixty-year period from 1770 to 
1 830 by sculptors who used the Greek and 
Roman past as a library, or repertoire of 
subjects, themes, and characters, for their 
own productions. Over half the sculptures 
in the Tate exhibition were produced when 
their makers were in Rome learning their 
trade. A British painter wrote that it was 
not painting but sculpture ‘that is the great 
object of attention and encouragement’ in 
Rome in 1826. 

Those sculptures in the exhibition that 
were not made by British sculptors were 
commissioned or bought from their Conti- 
nental peers by British patrons on their 
grand tours in Italy. 

Sculptures were commissioned or 
purchased as luxury collectables, 
imported from Rome to Britain for display 
in the country house interior. John Rossi’s 
The British Athlete, 1828, is stili in the 
sculpture gallery at Petworth House in 
Sussex for which it was commissioned by 
the 3rd Earl of Egremont. A work by 
Thomas Banks, Thetis dipping Achilles in 
the Styx, c. 1786, reveals the link between 
neoclassical sculptures as elite posses- 
sions evoking and invoking antiquity and 
their potential for contemporary self- 
representation. In this ambitious work 
Banks shows Thetis dangling her son 
precariously by his heel in the River Styx; 


the head of Thetis is a portrait of Jane 
Johnes, wife of the man who commis- 
sioned the sculpture, and the infant 
Achilles has the features of their baby 
daughter Marianne. 

Sculpting and sculpted celebrities 

The Venetian Antonio Canova is undoubt- 
edly the most celebrated of neoclassical 
sculptors, both in his lifetime and up to the 
present day. But other neoclassical sculp- 
tors too, such as the Danish sculptor, 
Bertel Thorvaldsen, acquired enormous 
international reputations. Today many are 
unknown or famed for one particular work 
- like the American Hiram Powers, 
responsible for The Greek Slave (left), 
uniting chains with female nudity and 
classical form with contemporary politics, 
or John Gibson, responsible for an exper- 
iment in colouring marble known as The 
Tinted Venus (right). 

One of the valuable things done by the 
Tate exhibition was to show how neo-clas- 
sicism continued beyond 1830, juxtapos- 
ing earlier and later pieces. Gibson’s 
Narcissus, 1838, perched on a rock and 
captivated by his own (unseen) reflection, 
shares a plinth with Joseph Nollekens’ 
seated Mercury, 1783, opposite Gibson’s 
Pandora, 1856 and Canova’s Psyche, 
1789-93. Nollekens’ Mercury explicitly 
invokes a celebrated bronze sculpture 
recently excavated in the eighteenth 
century at the site of Herculaneum. Other 
works in the exhibition referenced ‘antiq- 
uity’ in a variety of ways, not least by 
taking subjects from classical literature 
and mythology, exploiting literary texts 
from Homer’s Iliad to Apuleius’ Golden 
Ass or picking up on themes from ancient 
history. 

Portrait busts were a neoclassical 
favourite. These truncated heads without 
bodies were incredibly popular in the 
neoclassical period. To our twenty-first 
century eyes they seem bland and not at 
ali naturalistic; ali too easy to walk past 
without a second glance. Once you scruti- 
nize them, however, it soon becomes 
apparent that they are highly individualis- 
tic with distinctive hair, dress, and expres- 
sions: with wigs, or bare-headed, with 
formal and informal hints of dress or 
nakedness; their heads poised at angles 
catching our eye, or looking into the far 


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distance. Some of the faces show signs of 
wear and tear - reminding us that not ali 
neoclassical sculpture is idealizing - with 
wrinkles, sagging flesh, and bags under 
their eyes. 

Just how important material is to these 
busts is revealed by a bust by Francis 
Harwood of a black athlete executed in 
black stone (pietra da paragone), 
outstanding amid the profusion of white 
marble (right). Nothing is known about 
the sitter or the commission, so this 
remains an enigmatic sculpture that eludes 
the usual interrogation by art historians 
with their questions: who are you? Who 
made you? Where were you displayed? 

The lure of the third dimension 

Sculptures may be mute and unable to 
answer all our questions, but they never- 
theless shout out the continued vitality of 
antiquity in the modern period. Walking 
around an exhibition of neoclassical 
sculpture reveals how important the third 
dimension is to its appeal. To walk around 
a figure is to encounter it as truly human. 
With so many beautiful bottoms on 
display in a gallery one comes to under- 
stand those stories told by Pliny, Ovid, and 
Lucian about people embracing and kiss- 
ing sculptures, falling in love with statues 
and bringing them to life through their 
desires. The third dimension is the dimen- 
sion of passion. Perhaps it is a good job we 
are not allowed to touch! 

Viccy Coltman teaches the History of Art 
at Edinburgh University. Like the sculp- 
tors she discusses here, she has lately been 
spending her time in Rome on research 
leave. 


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