Saturday, 9 May 2015

'Sculpture Victorious' at Tate Britain

On Friday afternoon I left work early to go to see the 'Sculpture Victorious' exhibition at Tate Britain. As you can probably guess from the title it's about Victorian sculpture and the poster for the exhibition features a glorious elephant of the Raj with a blanket on his back. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect when I walked through the doors but was pleasantly surprised.

It's quite a small exhibition - only 6 rooms - but the exhibits are nicely spaced out with lots of explanatory notes and, even better for me, it wasn't terribly busy late on a Friday afternoon. That meant I could mooch around as much as I wanted. I was a bit puzzled by the choice of an elephant on the exhibition poster - what's that trying to say? - but when I saw him in all his glory I decided that I'd love a shirt made to the same pattern as the blanket over his back. It would become my favourite.

The first room is full of Queen Victoria - Victoria as a young lady with her shoulders bare and Victoria as an old matron with lots of coverings and s sterner face. Not just busts of her, but medallions and other 3D representations. The next room was mainly medieval with a carved image of Eleanor of Aquitaine that was restored by the Victorians and partially sparked their interest in looking back. We also get a full sized knight and a rather odd statue of Elizabeth I. A far more entertaining depiction of Elizabeth is her seated and playing chess with Philip II of Spain, with ships as the chess pieces. It's very noticeable that Elizabeth is sitting proud and tall while Philip is more like a supplicant and his head is below hers. Appropriately, it's called 'A Royal Game' by William Reynolds-Stephens

Another room contained a lovely statue of 'Pandora' by Harry Bates and shows a young Pandora with her gazing at her box, probably wondering what's inside it and whether she should open it. Mankinds' plagues have not yet been released and she is young and innocent, in the first flush of womanhood with her life before her, crouching and holding this box that she seems to have just picked up. For a relatively large statue it has a delicate quality about it, a gentle image that doesn't hint at the dread that will happen if that small box is opened. The statue looks very smooth and the light glistens on the marble in little sparkles. A slip of the fingers and the world will change - be careful Pandora.

I think my favourite piece was a life-sized bronze statue of 'An Athlete Wrestling with a Python' and the look of concentration and determination in his face says that there's no way that python will win the contest.  The pose is very realistic with one foot clearly anchoring the wrestler - let's call him Fred - to the ground while the other foot is slightly raised, making Fred more mobile and able to twist and turn as the python wraps its coils around him. One arm holds the coils away from his torso and the vital organs protected under his ribs and Fred's other hand holds the python's head, thumb pressing into its throat. It's a very striking image, created by Lord Frederic Leighton, whose house in Kensington is now Leighton House Museum that I visited for the first time earlier this year. I didn't know he did bronzes so that's something I've learned.

It's a nice little exhibition with a good variety of exhibits, including the first, small model for the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. There are a couple of very different statues of young men with bows, including this one. There's also a full sized reproduction outside the exhibition that is perfectly positioned for visitors to take photographs so I did. It's a very dramatic pose but I disapprove of the subject - it's called 'The Eagle Slayer' by John Bell. Obviously, that would be a bad thing.

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