John Gibson Study Day: Tate Britain

by Dr. Philip Ward-Jackson

The Royal Academy website still features a very useful Gibson Sculpture Trail, with a map and details of all works by him which can be seen around London. In addition a generous proportion of sculpture and drawings from the Gibson bequest to the R.A. can now be viewed online.

The bustle in the concurrent American Abstract Expressionist show contrasted for me vividly with the calm atmosphere reigning in the more modest display dedicated to Gibson in the Tennant Galleries. The Academy’s records show the attendance was in fact every bit up to expectation, but in any event, I don’t think that admirers of this sort of sculpture need to take this lack of buzz too much to heart. Classical sculpture was certainly thought by some to benefit if not to conduce to a quiet atmosphere. Keats after all addressed his Grecian Urn as a ‘still unravish’d bride of quietness’ and a ‘foster child of silence and slow time’. Besides the viewing figures for the Gibson show, we have recently had a hopeful indication of continued interest in such things, in of all places Rick Stein’s recent Long Weekend programmes, where suitable interludes to the feeding frenzy were provided by a visit to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek in Copenhagen or a digestive siesta at the foot of Lisbon’s nineteenth-century statue of Luis de Camoens, even though that siesta was interrupted by an entertaining card-sharper.

Gibson was, in his day, an international celebrity, his studio was a popular port of call for art tourists in Rome over at least four decades of the nineteenth century. In England, and at the Royal Academy in particular, this international celebrity may have worked against him in a period of increasing artistic chauvinism. In the last 15 years of his life he showed nothing in the Academy’s annual exhibitions. Nevertheless, between 1876 and 1950 the R.A. honoured Gibson’s bequest of his studio contents by dedicating a gallery to them. Unfortunately no visual evidence has survived of this, by all accounts, badly overcrowded display. Since the 1990s, in response to increased scholarly interest, original plaster models for four of Gibson’s ‘ideal’ statues have once again been on show in optimal viewing conditions in the long foyer of the Sackler Gallery.

On 16 December, Tate Britain hosted a Gibson Study Day, organised by the Tate Research Centre in British Romantic Art, the Royal Academy Collections, and the Institute for the History of Art of the University of Vienna. This proved that interest in Gibson is still alive and flourishing in the international art-historical community, and that he is perceived as being, in the history of nineteenth-century sculpture, what the French call ‘incontournable’, best translated perhaps as ‘commanding attention’. Gibson had, as it were, displaced himself, in order to achieve the universality that classicism was then thought to imply. This brought him success by the indirect route.

Dr. Alison Yarrington of the University of Loughborough, reminded us how this ‘backwoodsman’ from North Wales came to be patronised by the Duke of Devonshire and other grandees, the deciding factor being, not so much that he was British, as that he came with the supra-national imprimatur of the great Canova. Yarrington helped us to an examination of Gibson’s letters to the Duke of Devonshire, to reveal how he placed himself strategically in relation to his more celebrated neo-classical rivals in Rome. She claimed for these letters a literary distinction and diplomatic subtlety – totally at variance with the myth of Gibson as a naïve, uneducated man.

Eric Forster, scheduled to speak on Gibson’s relations with Queen Victoria, was unable to attend, but would maybe have reinforced this argument, since the Queen, as well as being one of Gibson’s chief patrons, relied on ‘dear Mr Gibson’ for advice on sculptural activities in Rome. Susannah Avery-Quash of the National Gallery argued that, despite Gibson’s absence from the London art scene, his cause was supported by one of the biggest movers and shakers on that scene, the painter Sir Charles Eastlake, who was a long time friend and admirer. Not only were Eastlake’s own figurative compositions noticeably sculptural in conception, he had also demonstrated an interest in sculptural matters in his essay on Basso-rilievi , originally published in the Penny Cyclopaedia in 1835. In his role as secretary of the Fine Arts Commission for the Palace of Westminster, he was probably instrumental in securing for Gibson the commission for the ambitious group of Queen Victoria with Wisdom and Justicefor the Prince’s Chamber in the Palace. Finally, it was through Eastlake, by then its president, that Gibson negotiated his bequest to the Royal Academy.

As things transpired, 50% of the talks were given by non-English art-historians. Anna Frasca-Rath from the University of Vienna gave an account of Gibson’s Roman studio in the Via Fontanella based on present day evidence and contemporary descriptions. Its extent, and probable expansion over the years and its division into work and exhibition spaces were looked at in some detail. Stefano Grandesso, an independent scholar, who has written books on two sculptors of that period, Pietro Tenerani and Berthel Thorvaldsen, was able to show how Gibson had operated in that competitive Roman milieu, where variations on classical themes, ideas about the interrelation of figures in group compositions, and even sorties into classically inflected genre were under perpetual review. From America, Roberto C. Ferrari of Columbia University, gave an account of the rather avuncular relationship between Gibson and his ‘dear little Hatty’, the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who was responsible for the remark that Gibson was ‘a god in his studio, but God help him out of it.’ In 1862, Hosmer’s Zenobia in Chains shared a temple-like structure at the London International Exhibition with Gibson’s Tinted Venus. At the same time that she was with her ‘best master….in the world’, Ferrari showed how Hosmer had branched out into themes inspired by romantic literature and more recent history, and had given to her female subjects an introspective, and in the case of the Zenobia, a heroic and defiant quality.

Timothy Stevens, who may have thought that he’d said his piece in 3rd Dimension, stepped in to replace Benedict Read, who had been scheduled to speak on Gibson’s Bequest to the R.A., but who, sadly, had died on 20 October. Stevens brought the day to a close by returning to Gibson’s early days in Liverpool. Alluding to the sculptor’s shrewd business sense, which had figured so prominently in Alison Yarrington’s talk, he reminded people that these sound professional habits had been formed, while Gibson was working with the Liverpool sculptors, Samuel and Thomas Franceys, before leaving for Rome. The difficulty in finding enough work in Liverpool had caused a talented sculptor like George Bullock to diversify into other forms of work. However, the quantity of visual and literary stimuli available in the city, especially for someone like Gibson, who was a protégé of the generous lawyer, politician and historian, William Roscoe, had not to be underestimated.

At the start of the proceedings, Greg Sullivan of Tate Britain, who chaired the first session, had dedicated the whole day to the memory of Benedict Read, and it was a day which, had he been around, Ben would have been mighty pleased to attend and contribute to.

Main image: John Gibson, The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche (detail), c. 1844, plaster 103×142×15cm.(photo: © Royal Academy of Arts).

The John Gibson Study Day took place on 16 December 2016 at Tate Britain.

Aurora Corio