This life-size statue group in white marble presents a scene from Greek mythology in which the boy Hylas, the companion of Hercules, goes to collect water from a stream, and is lured into the depths by water nymphs who are entranced by his beauty. The nymphs (Naiades) simultaneously gaze admiringly and move to physically detain the boy. The taller nymph places her face against Hylas’s hair and strokes his cheek while gently restraining his arm. The other places a hand around the boy’s waist and takes his hand in hers. Hylas seems to lose his grip on the pitcher in surprise. His extended leg suggests that he is trying to leave, although he also appears entranced by the naked naiad.
Gibson began his career as a cabinet-maker in Liverpool before moving to London in 1817. Following the advice of John Flaxman, London’s leading neoclassical sculptor, he travelled to Rome, arriving in October of that year. Having received training from the Italian master Antonio Canova and the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (who also made a relief of this subject), Gibson produced works based on the close study of Greek and Roman antiquity. He was commissioned to produce this work in May 1826 but it took many years to complete. The delay was caused by Gibson’s patron, the statesman William Haldimand, who decided to withdraw his interest. Gibson, however, found another buyer in the collector Robert Vernon. In 1832 the Liverpool Echo reported to its readers that the work was almost complete. It was finally exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837, and was given to the nation as part of the Vernon Gift in 1847. In 1850 it was exhibited in the Great Hall of Marlborough House with Vernon’s busts, and in 1854 it was engraved for a feature in the Art Journal. The commentary noted that the subject – the obsession of grown women for a boy – was potentially controversial, but Gibson had treated it with care. The work was exhibited at the Paris International Exhibition in 1855. Despite the relative success of the work’s reception in England, Gibson never returned to his home country, fearing that he would be forced to make a living there from portrait busts and statues, rather than from poetic subjects.
Hylas Surprised by the Naiades draws on several classical sources. The boy’s profile resembles an antique gem engraving with ‘long hair in curls’, as described by the third-century Greek poet Theocritus. The amphora in his hand is based on excavated examples, and his pose echoes a relief of the subject on a sarcophagus at the Villa Mattei in Rome. The Greek inscription translates as ‘Beautiful Hylas’.
After Gibson’s death the Glasgow Herald declared that the statue group was ‘amongst the most poetic and best finished’ of his works. It was initially shown in a corridor at the National Gallery before being removed to pride of place in the Central Hall, a curatorial decision applauded by the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885: ‘it is for the first time seen to advantage, and the great hall is, for the first time, an important centre of the building.’ In 1897 it was transferred to the Tate, where the Daily News felt that it ‘shows well the contrast between the old school and the new’.
Emma Hardy, ‘John Gibson’, in Ingrid Roscoe, Emma Hardy and M.G. Sullivan (eds.), Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660–1851, New Haven and London 2009, http://184.108.40.206/henrymoore/index.php, accessed 18 September 2013.