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