Super sculpture scholarship collections in quick succession

The Victoria and Albert Museum has published its catalogues of the British, German, and Netherlandish collections in quick succession

In the past few years the V&A has published a number of interesting books on sculpture, largely relating to sections of the museum’s splendid collection. Last year, with three titles, was a particular high point. Besides Paul Williamson’s Netherlandish sculpture 1450-1550, there were Norbert Jopek’s German sculpture 1430-1540 and British sculpture 1470-2000 by Diane Bilbey, assisted by Marjorie Trusted. These three volumes, together with previously published books on Spanish sculpture (Marjorie Trusted) and Bells and mortars (Peta Motture), are a reflection of the high level of scholarship in the Sculpture Department.

Whereas the first two publications deliberately opt for a selection of the most interesting and visually appealing works of sculpture (50 and 80 works respectively in the books of Drs Williamson and Jopek), Dr Bilbey’s book aspires to completeness. With over 770 pieces, virtually all of which are illustrated and briefly discussed, it is therefore of a completely different order. The bulky volume (552 pages) is divided by century (17th century and earlier, 19th and 20th centuries), with the artists basically in alphabetical order in each. The reason for this somewhat hybrid option is not completely clear to me. Personally, I should have preferred either a strict alphabetical organisation or a strict chronological one.

In her introduction Dr Bilbey informs us that the works of over 200 sculptors are discussed, 500 of whom date from the 19th century. (This latter group is relatively unknown and means that the catalogue contains a large number of previously unpublished works of sculpture.) The figures themselves speak for the mammoth task Dr Bilbey has completed; consequently the result deserves all due respect.

Nevertheless, this catalogue also shows how quickly problems of demarcation and definition of the field of research can arise. Dr Bilbey has on occasion, it seems, been rather too carried away by an urge for completeness. One may, for example, rightly wonder why a number of memorial tablets have been included (nos 741, 745, 748, 762 and 770), a sundial (no.222), a scagliola plaquette by John Richter (no.527) and a number of chimneypieces (nos 226, 227, 231). These are works poised on the margins of sculpture, stonemasonry and applied art, whose inclusion in this book is my view only justified if they are by real sculptors (such as Alfred Stevens’s large group of architectural models, nos 535-682). This type of applied sculpture is a reminder that, until 1979, the department at the V&A was called the Department of Sculpture and Architecture. On the other hand, the omission of a number of authentic sculptural categories, such as works in alabaster, ivory or medals in bronze (Dr Bilbey justifies this in her introduction) is experienced as a considerable loss.

The problems of definition extend to the artists dealt with. A crucial question is, of course, how “British” a sculptor has to be to be included in this catalogue, a question that is also relevant to the revision of Rupert Gunnis’s Dictionary of British sculpture (expected in 2006). Dr Bilbey is sidestepping the problem somewhat by simply stating that British sculpture comprises work by artists active in this country who were not necessarily native to Britain. That strikes me as rather too facile a way of justifying the choice of a sculptor and is more apt to create confusion than clarity. Just how confusing that can sometimes be, certainly with artists who were active in England for only a small part of their career, can be clearly demonstrated from a number of examples. A case in point is Aimé-Jules Dalou, who worked in exile in London from 1871 to 1879, but is nevertheless regarded by art historians essentially as a French artist. And why include a terracotta sketch of his “La brodeuse”, a work that does not even date from Dalou’s English period? At the same time it is striking that the Flemish sculptor François Dieussart, who worked for a considerable time for the English court and for Arundel, should have found no place in this book (not “British” enough?), although the museum possesses a fine portrait of Queen Elisabeth of Bohemia by this sculptor from 1641. The Italian Agostino Carlini, on the other hand, who, like Dieussart worked in both England and the Netherlands, does appear.

One of the attractive aspects of this catalogue is that it not only gives a clear overview of five centuries of British sculpture, but also that all kinds of small-scale research can be carried out with such a wealth of data on artists. It enables one to observe movements and trends that might otherwise might not be so easily visible. For example, one can obtain a good impression of the number of foreign sculptors who made their careers in England. I counted over 30 (including doubtful cases like Dalou), and was struck by the fact that in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, it was mainly the Dutch and Flemish artists (or Netherlandish artists) who were successful in Britain; from the 19th century onwards, however, they are largely absent and their place is taken by Italians, Frenchmen and the occasional German. The gradual increase in the number of female sculptors—I counted only one in the 18th century (Anne Seymour Damer), as opposed to four in the 19th century (including Princess Louise Caroline Alberta)—is also illustrated by this catalogue.

It is remarkable how few self-portraits of sculptors—a genre that was anyway relatively little practised by sculptors—are in the book: only three, including the impressive, austere self-portrait by Flaxman that adorns the cover. The full-frontal perspective of this work suggests that the sculptor, who was, after all, the son of a plaster-cast maker, used a life-cast of his own face.

The modest marginal comments I have made on this catalogue do not detract in any way from the fact that in her work Diane Bilbey has made a very valuable contribution to providing fuller access to one of the world’s major museum-based sculpture collections. Her catalogue is destined to become a standard work on English sculpture and, by virtue of the many illustrated works of art (with an extremely clear layout and high-quality printing), an indispensable source.

o Paul Williamson, Netherlandish sculpture 1450-1550 (V&A Publications, London, 2002), 160 pp, 50 b/w ills, 50 col. ills, £25 (pb) ISBN 1851773738

o Norbert Jopek, German sculpture 1430-1540: a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A Publications, London, 2002), 180 pp, 130 b/w ills, 8 col. ills, £50 (hb) ISBN 1851773606

o Diane Bilbey with Marjorie Trusted, British sculpture 1470-2000: a concise catalogue of the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A Publications, London, 2002), 504 pp, 775 b/w ills, £60 (hb) ISBN 1851773959