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Art & artists

Finding presence in the portrait sculpture

— July 2012

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Lydia Dwight Dead John Dwight (1633-1703) 1674 Grey salt-glazed stoneware 25.5 x 20.5 x11cm © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Presence: The Art of Portrait Sculpture

By Alexander Sturgis

This wonderfully enthusiastic publication is for everyone: the academic specialist, the art lover, and the simply curious. It accompanies an exhibition of the same title at the Holburne Museum, Bath, but the book stands alone and will be of lasting interest. In fact, the book packs quite a punch, being small in size but crammed full of ideas, images, thoughts and comparisons, all tumbling out at the reader, yet expressed in the most lucid and elegant prose.

Sturgis is concerned that we no longer value, indeed that we often hardly notice, the neglected art form of portrait sculpture. We are just too accustomed to walking past so many pompous-looking marble busts of bewhiskered worthies in public buildings, mentally turning off and ignoring what they might have to tell us. He wants to show us that portrait sculpture isn’t boring and that, at its best, it’s a really exciting art form that repays our attention.

And he succeeds magnificently, with a selection taking us through millennia, discussing realism versus idealism, scale and media, and much more – and above all, how portrait sculpture can impart a vivid sense of life and presence.

Modern perception, together with a general ignorance, means that we tend to see marble and bronze sculptures from the classical world as monochrome objects. But stone was originally covered in paint, and bronze heads set with enamel eyes, bone teeth and copper-plated lips. This attempt to create lifelike images continued down the centuries, with painted effigies on Christian tombs and plaster portrait busts. One startlingly lifelike example of painted plaster is that of the British Poet Laureate Colley Cibber (c.1740). This even provides a choice of viewing him with a bald head or, if you add another plaster piece, a sculpted loose cap. Cibber’s smile renders him particularly lifelike, as does the rather menacing grimace of another plaster entitled the Laughing Child (c.1498), which may be a portrait of the future Henry VIII.

Another type of realistic portrait is the waxwork, with examples from Madame Tussauds. One is of Henry Moore, a sculptor of abstract art – bodily realism commemorating abstraction, as it were.  Moore himself rejected realistic representation, and he referred to the ‘second hand life of realistic waxworks’. But here he stands clad in his own real clothes, along with a youthful David Hockney. Moore was dead by the time his figure was made, but Hockney sat for a photograph session. But waxworks are a very temporary, disposable form of portraiture, and these two figures survive only because they were rescued from disposal when Madame Tussauds decided that they no longer held public interest.

However lifelike the waxwork may be, nothing has such verisimilitude as a death mask. Until photography, death masks were the most accurate record of physiognomy, being taken from the actual face. That of Sir Thomas Lawrence (by an unknown artist, 1830) goes further than most, showing not only his face with all its wrinkles and hair, but his nightshirt and pillow as well. But far more poignant as a post mortem sculpture is the ceramic portrait of a little girl, Lydia Dwight Dead (1674), made by her father, John Dwight, in a white glazed stoneware technique that he himself had developed. Small in scale, it shows the six-year-old holding a bunch of flowers. Its companion, a rather less impressive figure of Lydia as a resurrected mini-angel (not reproduced in this publication) fails to convey the same presence of a real person despite its liveliness.

The cover of the book is graced – though perhaps ‘in-your-faced’ might be a better description – by one of Ron Mueck’s unsettling images: a monstrously large man’s head, lying on its side (mixed media, 118 cms long from crown to chin). It’s a self-portrait, and utterly lifelike apart from the scale, which makes it unsettling and somewhat threatening. Mueck’s work often plays with scale and his Dead Dad (1996–7, silicone and mixed media, 102 cms long) is a full-length nude figure portrait in equally naturalistic detail, but equally disconcerting in its miniaturization.  

There are many witty comparisons and pairings in this book, one of the most striking being a double-page spread with Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1880–1, cast c.1922) in bronze with muslin and silk, shown opposite Don Brown’s Yoko (2008) in acrylic and gesso, its cool and sophisticated pure whiteness suggesting an innocence at variance with the provocative nature of the figure.

This is wonderful art, and great art history – go and see the exhibition, and buy and read the book!

Presence: The Art of Portrait Sculpture by Alexander Sturgis is published by theHolburne Museum / Antique Collectors’ Club, 2012. 96pp. 58 colour illus. ISBN: 978-1-85149-685-3


Patricia Andrew
Art historian

Media credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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