Monumental masonry—an alternative history
A radical, revisionist examination of 18th-century English tomb statuary
By The Art Newspaper. Books, Issue 191, May 2008
Published online: 01 May 2008
Refreshingly unorthodox in both its style and methodology, Matthew Craske’s appropriately monumental and deeply researched study of 18th-century tomb sculpture is an outstanding contribution to the history of sculpture. But it is much more than that. Despite its subtitle, this is not simply a “History of Monumental Sculpture” but a major intervention in a much wider debate about the interpretation of art and culture in 18th-century Britain. As Dr Craske outlines in his characteristically provocative and incisive preface, the tomb sculptures on which British patrons spent far more than they ever did on painting have been largely ignored in the most influential modern studies of British art.
But instead of merely reading these works in terms of prevailing orthodoxies, as established by David Solkin, Peter de Bolla and others, he draws on a vast body of evidence gathered from an impressive range of contemporary publications and a hard-won knowledge of archives throughout the country to shape a powerful alternative argument. Sceptical of an interpretation of 18th-century British art in which sites such as Vauxhall Gardens are used “to explain the origins of the gallery and exhibition-obsessed world of today”, he uses contemporary views about monuments to challenge what he sees as the “promiscuous equation of art with spectacle and public discourse”. By arguing that tombs erected in country churches as essentially private, enduring commemorations of an aristocratic elite deserve as much attention as more ephemeral works accessible to a wider urban public, he not so much challenges the current view of the 18th-century art world as proto-modern as nuances and complicates it in a telling way. In Dr Craske’s account, the monument (“marble culture”) is just as central to an understanding of 18th-century images as the print (“paper culture”) and the panegyric—the celebration of virtue as exemplified by the images and texts on the monument—is recognised as the necessary corollary of the satire. At the same time, the monument and its setting were associated with retirement from the public urban world and celebrate enduring fame rather than ephemeral celebrity.
This is an oversimplification of a subtle argument that runs through the 15 chapters of Dr Craske’s book. The first three chart the shift in attitudes to death and commemoration during the first half of the century and these alone—not least the challenging of conventional views about the history of the family—make the book as important for historians as art historians. (Dr Craske writes especially well here and elsewhere about the 18th-century appropriation of Roman funerary conventions and the formulation of a neo-Roman imagery.)
Then follow four chapters about the circumstances of production in which the formulae developed by sculptors such as Rysbrack, Cheere and Roubiliac are examined not in terms of individual sculptural careers—though there is a mass of new information about all these figures—but rather in terms of how distinctive new types were developed in response to the needs of patrons. It is the concerns and intentions of these different groups of patrons that form the subject of the remaining eight chapters. These groups range from families without heirs and female donor figures to merchants and those who held high office in church and state. These discussions—informed by the fruits of years of archival research used to advance toughly argued readings—set a new standard for the interpretation of these complex works in terms of the belief systems of those who commissioned them. Interpretation here means interpretation through the words of contemporary texts and documents—readers looking for references to Derrida and Lacan will search in vain—and the emphasis is very much on the intentions of the patrons. Such an approach means that the viewing conditions of these sculptures and responses to them receive little attention. On the other hand the way in which these remarkable monuments are read through such a rich array of contemporary documentation makes this a compelling study which bears out the author’s claims about their roles within the culture. Ambitious in its scope, hugely impressive in its scholarship and passionate in its advocacy for a major aspect of 18th-century British art, this is a magnificent book.
of the History of Art, University
of California, Riverside
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