- Roubiliac and the Eighteenth-Century Monument, Sculpture as Theatre
When, in the late 1790s, a campaign was waged against the Revolutionary museums of Paris on the grounds that museums denatured works of art by removing them from their original setting and purpose, it was surely significant that it was led by two men, L.-P. Deseine and Quatremère de Quincy, who had been trained as sculptors, and that their most telling [End Page 436] example was a baroque tomb monument by a contemporary of Roubiliac. No type of art had suffered more from the displacements occasioned by the Revolution than baroque monuments because none depended so greatly on the psychovisual relationship they established with the beholder in the environment for which they were created. Yet already the taste for such monuments had passed; neoclassical aesthetics judged the allegory and drama on which they relied meretricious and “theatrical.” Their aggressive appeal to the emotions and pursuit of fleeting effects ran counter to what the late eighteenth century saw as the essential spirit of sculpture, the “calm grandeur and noble simplicity” of the ancients as defined by Winckelmann, the high priest of neoclassicism. Throughout Europe, baroque sculptors, including Roubiliac, were branded great corrupters of art and fell into critical disfavor, from which they have only recently and incompletely been retrieved.
If neoclassical taste mocked the false use of a noble and transcendent art form to render ephemeral actions, there is further irony in the rapidity with which these monuments of memory were forgotten and pushed aside by later generations. Walk into Westminster Abbey today and you will find the tombs of the rich and powerful heaped in corners, covered in dust and obscured by stacks of chairs. Many have been tampered with or removed from their original locations. Though the identities of most are long forgotten, they serve as a collective reminder of the once mighty British Empire and the cult of monuments during its heyday. The purpose of this handsome book is to resurrect this bygone cultural phenomenon through a close analysis of the life and work of Louis-François Roubiliac, arguably the most talented of a number of immigrant sculptors working in eighteenth-century London.
The use of “theatre” in the subtitle carries no pejorative meaning; the authors rightly feel no need to apologize for the inherent theatricality of the baroque monument. Rather, through Roubiliac’s work, the authors aim to demonstrate how theatrical effect, gained through narrative action, illusionistic carving, and manipulation of viewpoint, became a sculptural language through which tomb monuments negotiated the inherited conventions of the genre and the needs and expectations of artist, patron, and public in the mid-eighteenth century. Gesticulating allegorical figures and representations of the dead, limbs penetrating the viewer’s space, the control of light and space, combine to dramatize the subject’s life (and afterlife) and move the beholder toward faith, patriotism, and virtuous conduct. As Bindman and Baker demonstrate, monuments simultaneously commemorated the dead and those who commissioned them (often not one and the same) and served as exemplum virtutis in the public setting of church or abbey.
The book is especially good at showing how these monuments stood at a complex intersection of religious practices, an emerging public sphere in search of a public means of commemoration, private grief, family obligations, and artistic ambition. Bindman and Baker persuasively argue that monuments as a type are “best approached . . . through the social and professional status of the deceased and the circumstances of the donation” rather than through the typologies and taxonomies of style and iconography, which have determined much previous writing on tombs and sculpture more generally. A fascinating section on the making of the monuments makes it clear that Roubiliac’s innovative narrative conceits hinged on his superior skills as a sculptor and that the arresting effects he achieved, beyond commemorating the subject, served as a form of self-advertisement, a means of distinguishing himself from the competition. Before the advent of public art exhibitions in England...