Sculpture Archive

Alexander Bird: on the Shelley Memorial by Edward Onslow Ford

In 1893, the Shelley Memorial dedicated to the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was formally inaugurated in University College, Oxford. 83 years before, the then student was expelled for “contumaciously refusing to answer questions proposed to [him], and for also repeatedly declining to disavow a publication entitled The Necessity of Atheism”. At the time, this particular work had caused much contention at the university, and although Shelley’s religious and spiritual views are often reduced to simply aesthetic, they in fact fluxated and changed, as did his thinking throughout the course of his life.

This ever-changing nature of Shelley’s beliefs and ideas is greatly reflected in the memorial itself.  Although Shelley was an atheist, the memorial in his honour is very spiritual, elegiac and even religious, both in its imagery and in the ideas of life after death it evokes.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_002. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Sculpted by the artist Edward Onslow Ford, a foremost figure of the New Sculpture movement, the sculpture is situated in a domed tempietto in the college designed by Basil Champneys. The memorial was originally intended to be erected in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome where Shelley was actually buried. But the statue was thought to be too large and eventually was donated to the college by Shelley’s daughter in law, Jane, Lady Shelley, who had also been the one who had commissioned it originally.

The sculpture itself depicts the lifeless Shelley washed ashore, caught in a sudden storm on the Gulf of La Spezia he drowned and was cremated near Viareggio.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

In the sculpture, he is shown nude and as a somewhat androgynous figure, reclining and life-size. Shelley himself is sculpted from white marble whereas the surrounding plinth and other sculpted elements are either in bronze or coloured marble.

The memorial features classical and symbolic imagery throughout, in the tree branches, heavy with fruit, as well as in the two mythological creatures that hold up the plinth. The second figure is a female study, looking mournful and solemn she holds a stringed instrument, a lyre or harp. It is possible that she represents a mourner or even Shelley’s wife Mary. But most likely she is the visual and physical embodiment of “poetry” itself.

Ford often included allegorical figures such as these within his work, especially in commissions and memorials. Often an excuse to show a male or female study, they could represent certain subjects or classical pursuits such as science, art, poetry or even more universal themes such as motherhood, death, grace, hope and prosperity.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_013. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Some of these allegorical figures can be seen in works such as the Victoria or Gladstone memorials.

The piece itself is very similar to others of the movement such as Teucer by Hamo Thornycroft, Icarus by Alfred Gilbert and The Sluggard by Frederic Leighton, all of which represent classical Greek heroes or athletes, studies of male nudes and all in the highly stylised, idealised and polished style of the movement. It has been argued that the memorial itself has been responsible for shaping Shelley’s image in modern times, the work itself was described as being able to present an “atmosphere of thought and feeling”.

Ford’s approach to the human figure is highly stylised, much like that of his contemporaries such as Thornycroft and Brock. The new sculpture movement was known for these types of works, ones which moved away from neoclassicism yet still referenced it, and for their use of symbolism, which was more dynamic, energetic and physical but still refined, and often featured elements of the mythological and exotic. Another piece by Ford is Linos, which was heralded at the time, very early in his career as a sculptor. Linos resembled in many ways Rodin’s Age of Bronze; the two were displayed together at the Royal Academy in 1884.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_004. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Although similar in that they are both studies of the male nude as well as extremely physical and expressive, they are also very contrasting in their styles. Rodin’s work was seen as very rough and experimental at the time, physical and taught, restricted and real. The critic Spielmann described Ford’s work as “always restrained, refined, dainty, elegant, aiming at grace and decorativeness rather than passion and force”. But for the subject matter of the Shelley memorial, this style is very well suited. When we think of the Romantic poet tragically drowned and laying on the shore, surely no style is better suited to visually represent it than that of an extremely physical and emotional piece of symbolic sculpture which harks back to the style of ancient Greece, the style used to depict great and tragic mythological heroes.

I believe this is the purpose of the visual and thematic decisions that went into creating the piece. My personal reaction to it was shock and a desire to find out more about it, it is extremely beautiful and delicate and it is possible to view it simply as a sculpture depicting a myth or allegory as opposed to the unfortunate truth of someone’s life, but this mixed with the rather intimate viewing of it makes apparent why it has changed the way we perceive both Shelley and his ideas. The sculpture helped the popularity of Shelley’s work and also changed the way it was perceived, adding to Shelley’s image of Romantic poet and simply showing him as a beautiful and tragic classical and allegorical figure.

Edward Onslow Ford, Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford. CON_B06524_F002_011. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.


Alexander Bird
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer

Leonora Monson: The Strand Statues

Audio Version

Read by David Brown

Text Version

The life and legacy of British-American sculptor and artist Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) remains a source of divisive and heated debate. Hailed by some as a central yet unappreciated pioneer in 20th-century British sculpture, whilst for others, the invigoratingly “modern” dynamic to his works are the markers of an iconoclast who wreaked havoc on traditional art. He is, therefore, an individual whose work demands sensitive analysis both for its significance in the historical context in which it was born and for its importance in the present day.

In the depths of the Conway Library, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, exist a series of photographs that encapsulate these divided opinions which shaped Epstein’s life as well as his artistic legacy. The photographs are of Epstein’s eighteen nude statues installed on the facade of the British Medical Association (BMA) headquarters on the Strand in London in 1908. These were depictions of archetypal subjects including, among others, primal energy, academic research, maternity, infancy and Hygieia. The statues provoked considerable controversy for their supposed indecency, they were condemned by several religious figures as overtly sexualised and morally obscene, and their appearance labelled by others as ugly and deformed, leading to campaigns for the BMA to have them removed.

After a sustained public defamation campaign led by The Evening Standard and St James Gazette, despite the BMA’s support for maintaining the statues, in 1937 the mutilation of the figures went ahead after an incident led to their designation as a danger to pedestrians. All protruding sections of the figures – including faces, shoulders, genitalia, legs, arms, and feet – were chiselled away and the statues left in the largely mutilated form that we see them today at Zimbabwe House, formerly the BMA building.

Side by side images of the statues before and after dilapidation.

Left: The statues in situ on the Strand before 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_009). Right: The same statues after 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_020). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

It is hard to comprehend that a collection of sculptures that faced such intense public scrutiny and uproar at its conception, now quietly exists, often unnoticed by pedestrians on one of the busiest streets in London. I am one such guilty Londoner, having walked down the Strand on a regular basis yet ignorant of these statues and their significance, until my time on the Digitisation Programme at the Courtauld.

Side by side images of the building before and after dilapidation.

Left: View of the BMA building on the corner of the Strand (CON_B07186_F003_005). Right: The statues after 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_006). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The Courtauld’s collection of photographs provide a unique insight into the lifespan of the statues. The collection includes black and white photographs of casts of the statues rejected in Epstein’s initial proposal to the BMA along with those that were accepted, the statues in situ before and after their mutilation in 1937 and surviving individual fragments. Particularly thought-provoking are the Courtauld’s photographs of the nudes of a young woman posing as Maternity; an old woman cradling a baby, depicting Infancy; and Matter, represented by a man grasping a rock marked with the outline of a foetus. To me, Epstein was remarkably sensitive in his depiction of the tenderness of human relationships across the boundaries of age and gender, whilst impressive in his candid approach to the changing physical form of the human body. Indeed, his sculptural depiction of the physically changing form of the female body across different stages in life, be it age or after pregnancy, is a breath of fresh air on a street now filled with billboards boasting a narrow ideal of what “femininity” should look like.

Whilst all such statues remain physically in situ, the depictions of children, be it the foetus in “Matter” or the new-born in “Infancy”, were physically removed from their original and complete sculptural form. The authorities were making it clear: Epstein in his candid depiction of the naked human body was threatening Edwardian sensibilities regarding the sanctity of motherhood and purity of childhood. The old woman’s sagging breasts and withered flesh, and the man’s full-frontal nakedness, were central in the early-20th-century campaign against the figures, whilst they equally informed public perception of Epstein’s subsequent projects. The rest of his career was tainted with the persistent criticism that his sculptures dangerously challenged contemporary ideals surrounding beauty and sexual propriety.

The Conway Library also contains photographs of alternative casts in Epstein’s workshop that were later destroyed after rejection by the architects in 1908, including a nude of a woman holding a leaf, posing as Nature. Her open stance and unashamed nakedness were evidently seen as too shocking in the initial choice of statues to be erected on the Strand. Through the images in the Library we gain an insight into the logic behind the initial choice of figures chosen, supposedly more appropriate than several of their workshop contemporaries, and crucial photographic evidence of physical casts that no longer exist.

Side by side images of two of the statues before dilapidation.

Left: “Maternity” in situ on the Strand (CON_B07186_F003_044). Right: Cast for “Nature” destroyed after rejection by the architects in 1907 (CON_B07186_F003_054). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

We can, however, see the vandalism of the “Strand Statues” as a somewhat pyrrhic victory for Epstein’s critics. Epstein’s now mutilated figures remain in situ in the heart of Central London, a powerful visual manifestation of the historic constraints placed on artistic freedom whilst also a reminder that a work of art should be understood beyond the aesthetic value attached to it in its initial finished form. The photographs in the Courtauld archives also reveal the subsequent story of the fragments removed in 1937 and the efforts of individuals to ensure that they remained an important part of the narrative surrounding the impact of contemporary sensibilities on artistic practice. Several of the photographs are of fragments following their removal from the Strand site and after an extensive cleaning programme at the National Gallery of Canada in 1961. These fragments now exist in an international museum in which their stories can be told to a global audience.

Side by side images of a statue before dilapidation and a recovered fragment.

Left: “Infancy” in situ, prior to 1937 (CON_B07186_F003_060). Right: A fragment from the BMA statue of “Infancy” after cleaning by the National Gallery of Canada, 1961 (CON_B07186_F003_064). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Side by side images of a Epstein next to one of the statues before dilapidation and a recovered fragment.

Left: A model for “Matter” in Epstein’s workshop (CON_B07186_F003_050). Right: A fragment from the BMA statue of “Matter” after cleaning by the National Gallery of Canada, 1961 (CON_B07186_F003_067). The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The diversifying platforms and subsequently expanding audience to which photographic illustration to the story of the “Strand Statues” can be accessed has been enhanced immeasurably by the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme. The programme aims to provide an expansive online archive through which a variety of audiences will be able to access and study the Courtauld photographic libraries for themselves, including the images of the “Strand Statues”. It is indeed timely that one of the main criticisms of Epstein’s figures was that they were not confined to a museum or art gallery where those with suitable artistic and moral sensibilities could engage with these works of art appropriately. Their location on a main street for anyone and everyone to see was viewed as a dangerous threat to established Edwardian perceptions regarding who could truly comprehend art. On Friday 26th June 1908, The South London Press reported the complaints levelled against the statues by Fr. Bernard Vaughan to a gathering of Catholics in South London. His outrage was based upon fury at the laxity of the authorities in their initial decision to “thrust these statues upon their public highways” rather than dictating an exclusive location and subsequent audience to which such statues were accessible. Such an audience was defined as those with the suitable “artistic temperament” to be trusted to recognise the dangerous dynamic inherent in these sculptures and respond accordingly. Such statuary, he argued should be confined to “art galleries and museums, or where people had to go out of their way to find it.” In light of the work of the Courtauld Digitisation Programme, I wonder what Fr. Bernard Vaughan would be thinking now?


Leonora Monson
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant