Sir Alfred Gilbert

Comedy and Tragedy: ‘Sic Vita’

c.1890–2

Medium
Bronze
Dimensions
Object: 349 x 152 x 140 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Bequeathed by Frederick Harrison 1936
Reference
N04829

Display caption

The Latin subtitle to this work means 'Thus is life'. Gilbert explained that the sculpture represents a prop-boy carrying the mask of Comedy: 'He is stung by a bee - a symbol of love. He turns and his face becomes tragic. The symbol is in reality fact. I was stung by that bee, typified by my love for my art, a consciousness of its incompleteness'. While outwardly successful, Gilbert was trapped in a spiral of debt, disputes over uncompleted commissions and anxiety about his sick wife. He saw this sculpture as 'the climax to my cycle of stories' begun with Perseus Arming and Icarus. From a certain angle the face of Tragedy can be seen through the grinning mouth of Comedy.

Gallery label, February 2010

Catalogue entry

N04829 COMEDY AND TRAGEDY: ‘SIC VITA’ c. 1890–2
 
Inscr. ‘A. Gilbert’ below foot.
Bronze, 13 3/4×6×5 1/2 (35×15×14), on wooden base, 2×3 3/4×3 3/4 (5×9·5×9·5).
Bequeathed by Frederick Harrison 1936.
Coll: Frederick Harrison, died 1926.
Lit: M. H. Spielmann, British Sculpture and Sculptors of To-day, 1901, p.78; Hatton, 1903, pp.11, 12, repr; McAllister, 1929, p.88; Bury, 1952, pp.59, 70.

The topic was suggested by W. S. Gilbert's Comedy and Tragedy, originally written in 1884, produced at the Lyceum and revived at the Haymarket Theatre, of which Frederick Harrison was then the proprietor, in 1890. Hatton quotes the artist's account of his intentions as follows: ‘It represents a boy carrying a mask. He is stung by a bee - a symbol of love. He turns and his face becomes tragic. The symbol is in reality fact. I was stung by that bee, typified by my love for my art, a consciousness of its incompleteness.... I conceived the notion of harking back to the old Greek stage upon which masks were always worn, and I conceived a kind of stage property boy rushing away in great glee with his comedy mask, and on his way being stung by a bee.’

This is a reduced version of the original, a plaster model of which (30 in. high) was exhibited at the R.A., 1892 (2004), and is now in the V. & A. (repr. Cox, 1936, pl.5). Bronzes exist of both the large and small versions.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I