- 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...