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ARTICLES MILLAIS, EDMUND YATES, AND THE CASE OF BELT V LAWES P.D. EDWARDS University of Queensland The libel case in which Richard Belt sued his fellow sculptor and former employer Charles Bennet Lawes for damages occasioned the last trial, and the longest libel trial, ever held in the law courts in Westminster Hall. Hearings before the judge, Mr. Baron Huddleston, and a special jury occupied forty-three sitting days between 21 June and 28 December 1882. And even after this the case dragged on for fifteen months longer, with two unsuccessful appeals for a new trial in 1883 and 1884. Belt alleged that Lawes had libelled him in an article published in Vanity Fair on 20 August 1881 and a letter to the Lord Mayor of London, J. Whitaker Ellis, on 24 September 1881. As young men Belt and Lawes had both for a time been pupils of the established sculptor John Henry Foley. Subsequently Belt worked for a short time in Lawes's studio, before setting up on his own in 1875. He quickly outdistanced Lawes, receiving important commissions for memorial busts of Charles Kingsley and Canon William Conway and a statuette of Dean Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, and winning the eagerly contested competition for the design and execution of a statue of Byron to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his death. The article in Vanity Fair stated that the sculptures of Stanley, Kingsley and Conway had in fact been finished, and invested with whatever artistic merit they possessed, by another former pupil of J.H. Foley, Thomas Brock (later to win fame, and a knighthood, for the Victoria Memorial at the Buckingham Palace end of The Mall), and that the drawings for the Conway monument and all the modelling of the Byron statue had been Victorian Review 19.2 (Winter 1993) Victorian Review done by Pierre Fran├žois Verheyden, a Belgian who served as one of Belt's "assistants" from 1876 to 1881. Lawes, Brock and Verheyden all asserted that Belt was "quite incapable of doing any artistic work whatever" and that he "systematically and falsely claimed to be the author of the works for which he was only the broker" (Times 22 June 1882:10). They decided to reveal the truth about him, for the protection of the public and the good name of their profession, after his reputation as "a sculptor of genius" appeared to be crowned by a commission from the Queen for a statue of Disraeli (Lord Beaconsfield) in 1881 . After the first appeal in 1883 an editorial in the Times dismissed the whole affair as "a miserable professional squabble," a case of "no public interest whatever, although the subject of much social curiosity" (17 Dec. 1883^).1 In a socio-historical perspective, however, the apparent reasons for the social curiosity aroused by the case, if not the particular legal and artistic questions at issue, remain interesting: it has some claims to be remembered, in fact, as a locus classicus of certain typical Victorian social conflicts. The Times editorial itself hinted at the passions stirred in the artistic world because of the conspicuous classgap between plaintiff and defendant, observing that many of Belt's less successful rivals regarded themselves as "superior" to him (a word that is surely meant to imply a sense of social, not merely artistic, superiority on their part) and were therefore predisposed by a "sense of abstract justice ... to attach a good deal of importance to the revelations of Mr. Lawes." Judging by the reports of the trial in the Times, however, the vocal partisanship of the spectators who crowded into the court day after day appears to have been exercised almost exclusively on the side of the social underdog, though by no means only by the lower social orders. A broader but related social issue in the case was that of professionalism versus amateurism. While the verdict of the jury, affirmed upon appeal, was widely construed as implying support for the professional craftsman against the upper-class dabbler, the fact is that it was only Belt's professional competence that was at issue, not Lawes's, and the expert opinion voiced, with impressive unanimity, by many of the best...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 1-19
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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