Medievalism in the Metropolis: The Saint Mungo Memorial, Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum
Against this tendency to the hard presentment of mere form vainly trying to compete with the reality of nature itself, all noble sculpture constantly struggles; each great system of sculpture resisting in its own way, etherealising, spiritualising, relieving, its stiffness and death.—walter pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873)
In his analysis of the sculpture of Lucca Della Robbia and Michelangelo, Walter Pater praises the liveliness achieved by Renaissance sculptors, drawing a comparison to nineteenth-century sculptors’ tendencies toward “stiffness and death.” According to Pater, sculpture, unlike painting and poetry, does not speak to modern audiences (Potts 65–70). Sculpture’s failure to communicate present-day concerns and preoccupations became almost a [End Page 24] cliché in the nineteenth century, an assessment proposed in reviews by Charles Baudelaire and others of the Paris Salons or the annual Royal Academy summer exhibitions. Baudelaire argues that the literalness of sculpture, particularly free-standing gallery sculpture, limits its potential to express abstract or philosophical ideals. Statues are too easily comprehended and too trivial to trouble a serious appreciator of art (Potts 62–64). Pater and Baudelaire were part of a cultural elite who looked primarily to painting as a means of avant-garde expression, but in the nineteenth century, sculpture had the potential to reach a much wider audience.
Sculpture played an important role both in commemorating the past and in celebrating the modernity of the Victorian age (Droth et al. 15–16). As people moved from rural areas to industrial centres, infrastructure and amenities were required to support, educate, and entertain growing urban populations. As the middle classes became more prosperous and working-class people began to gain better access to education, the audience for sculpture grew. In order to meet the demand for objects that celebrated Britain’s status as a modern, industrialized global power, an enormous expansion in sculptural production occurred in the nineteenth century. Museum buildings, like railway stations, city and town halls, offices, department stores, and universities, emerged as a new architectural type in expanding cities around Europe in the nineteenth century, and sculpture was often an important component in these structures. The architecture and sculpture of these structures would play a key role in rewriting the history of Britain (Droth et al. 148).
Toward the end of the century, the sculptor Sir George Frampton (1860– 1928) found himself, and the figurative groups he sculpted for the Glasgow Art Gallery, at the centre of debates about public sculpture, its commissioning, and its reception. Frampton and his contemporaries, including Sir Alfred Gilbert (1854–1934) and Sir Hamo Thornycroft (1850–1925), sought to define their practice in opposition to the “stiffness” and literalness criticized by Pater and Baudelaire. Writing for the Art Journal in 1894, the critic Edmund Gosse identified Frampton, Gilbert, and Thornycroft as representatives of “the New Sculpture” (138–42). Gosse characterizes the works of the movement as possessing a renewed interest in the nude, a high degree of naturalism, and a greater attention to surface detail. These qualities were seen as a rejection of the formality and uniformity of British neoclassical sculpture (Faulkner 11).
Like his fellow New Sculptors, Frampton drew on a range of historical art periods in his work. His sculptures and designs for the Glasgow Art Gallery looked back to an idealized medievalism, which he explored throughout his career. The unifying theme for the sculptural scheme was a celebration of arts and music from a specifically Scottish point of view. This central concept was decided in collaboration with the architects of the gallery, J.W. Simpson and E.J. Milner Allen, after Frampton was commissioned as principal sculptor, in 1897 (McKenzie 250–51). From the outset, [End Page 25] Simpson and Milner intended the sculptural scheme to feature prominently (McKenzie 249). Their designs for the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum do not conform to a single architectural style, exuberantly combining classical Palladian geometry with Renaissance and Baroque decorative elements. The gallery was built to unite the artistic, historic, and scientific collections of the city, which had previously been housed separately in the McLellan Galleries on Sauchiehall Street and in the Kelvingrove Mansion in the West End. The project was financed through profits from the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888 and by the Corporation of the City of Glasgow.
Frampton’s sculptures for the gallery, completed in 1900, are closely tied to Glaswegian history and identity. The focal point of the sculptural program is a freestanding bronze statue of Saint Mungo (the Scottish hypocoristic name for Saint Kentigern), patron saint of Glasgow and of art and music (fig. 1). Saint Mungo was a priest trained in the Celtic Church, who established a church on the site of what would become the city of Glasgow in about 550. Saint Mungo, bound up as he was with the city’s medieval origins, was a natural choice for Frampton’s sculptural scheme celebrating the city’s achievements. In Frampton’s sculpture, the saint is accompanied by two female figures representing the liberal arts; the figure on the left reads a book resting in her lap, while the figure on the right plays a portable organ. Frampton also carved relief sculptures in the spandrels of the [End Page 26] north, east, and west arches of the entrance porch of the gallery; they are titled The Empire Salutes Glasgow, The Industries of Glasgow at the Court of Mercury, and Love Teaching Harmony to the Arts (fig. 2). The statue of Saint Mungo and the surrounding works can be understood as Victorian objects in several ways. These sculptural pieces reflect the centrality of classical and medieval forms to Victorian representations of history, contemporary attitudes to the status and making of art, and sculpture’s role in promoting the values of empire through exhibition and display.
Frampton depicts Saint Mungo in ecclesiastical vestments and his female attendants in loose medieval dress, features that appear in many of his works. The medieval, like the Gothic, was understood as a vernacular British style in sculpture and architecture, representing Britain’s traditions and values. Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin’s designs for the Palace of Westminster (completed between 1840 and 1870), which recall the origins of parliamentary democracy and the signing of the Magna Carta, epitomize the thematic connections between medievalism and Britishness. The meanings of the medieval style were amplified through architectural sculptures such as Frampton’s Saint Mungo, with its ties to Scottish and Glaswegian history. Saint Mungo can be placed alongside the statues of the barons who signed the Magna Carta, which were placed in the House of Lords in the early 1850s (Droth et al. 153–57), or the electrotype reproductions of the effigies of British kings and queens made by Elkington & Co, which entered the National Portrait Gallery in the 1870s (Droth et al. 169–67).
The medieval period was also a touchstone for the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain. Frampton was a member of the Art Workers’ Guild and also exhibited with the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, both of which were founded in the 1880s and closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. John Ruskin and William Morris’s shared advocacy of the [End Page 27] collaborative methods of medieval architects and stonemasons inspired both of these organizations. Ruskin and Morris believed this communal model for making art should be followed by contemporary artists and architects (Hart 149–52). Frampton had trained in craft skills such as modelling and metalwork before he entered the Royal Academy schools to pursue sculpture (Borenius). This training enabled Frampton to produce monumental works and freestanding sculptures, as well as small statuettes and decorative panels for doors and interiors. His flair for the decorative was one reason that Simpson and Milner approached him, and the close collaboration between Frampton and the architects conformed closely to the model advocated by the Art Workers’ Guild.
The female musicians in the spandrels above the Saint Mungo group are also in medieval dress. The skillful relief carving on their gowns depicts varied patterns suggestive of Arts and Crafts-style embroidery; they variously feature trees, flowers, and salmon (a symbol of Glasgow) (Jezzard 63). The female groups on either side of the north door porch are also in medieval costume, but they celebrate the modern aspect of Glasgow’s success as well as its medieval origins. They are draped with banners showing elephants and kangaroos, which reference Britain’s colonies in India and Australia. Thanks to Glasgow’s location on the River Clyde, shipping and shipbuilding were the city’s most profitable industries, and during the nineteenth century, the city specialized in commerce with India, Australia, and Canada (Mackenzie 222). By including elephants and kangaroos in the iconographical scheme, Frampton was emphasizing Glasgow’s position within the global structures of the British Empire.
The significance of the Australian and Indian references in the architectural sculpture of the Glasgow Art Gallery was reinforced by Frampton’s polychrome plaster statue of Queen Victoria, which was on display outside the museum as part of the 1901 International Exhibition. The statue, which had been commissioned just after Victoria’s death, was created for the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata, a controversial project overseen by Lord Curzon (Droth et al. 134). Statues of Victoria were heavily invested with the ideology of empire, and it is interesting to consider the Queen’s image in relation to Saint Mungo and his embodiment of Glasgow in particular and of Scottishness more generally. Sculpture had occupied a central role in international exhibitions, beginning with the Great Exhibition of 1851. As Martina Droth et al. argue, sculptures were presented in international exhibitions as objects of beauty, historical value, and moral instruction but also, most importantly, as “exemplary objects of cultural unity” and “embodiments of social integration” (30). Frampton’s Saint Mungo and the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum as a whole demonstrate the city’s aspirations to become a cultural and artistic centre, while celebrating the achievements of the people past and present. [End Page 28]
katherine faulkner is an associate lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she gained her PhD in 2013, and the College of Global Studies at Arcadia University. She has published widely on British sculpture and also specializes in widening access to art history, working on the Courtauld’s Young People’s program as well as leading talks and workshops at museums and galleries around London. She serves on the editorial board of the Open Library of Humanities and MAI, the journal of feminist art and visual culture. In 2019, she will be a residential scholar at the Yale Center for British Art.