Ford and the Decorative Arts
Ford also used what appears to be enamelling within the copper and brass strips soldered onto the base of The Singer, echoing the cloisonnism (or synthetism) then simultaneously developing in vanguard French painting, with the heavily outlined planes, minimally modelled bright colour, and resistance to trompe l’oeil three-dimensionality found in the canvases of Paul Gauguin and the school of Pont-Aven.6 As art historian Caroline Boyle-Turner has noted, the term cloisonnism was first introduced by French critic Edouard Dujardin in 1889 to describe a new trend in contemporary French painting, the same year that The Singer was completed and first exhibited.7 Although it may be tempting to align Ford’s sculptural and decorative arts practice with avant-garde French painting (in order to situate his work within the canon of Western art history) or with the well documented Gothic Revival, the closest parallel to the base is in fact a nineteenth-dynasty pectoral of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II now in the Louvre in Paris, which Ford might have encountered while training as a painter on the continent in the early to mid-1870s (fig.4).
8 The statuettes also exemplify the gradual miniaturising of ancient Egyptian sculptural motifs into ever more decorative forms within Victorian culture throughout the century. This trajectory originated with turn-of-the-century travel book plates illustrating monumental Egyptian architecture and sculpture from the Pharaonic, Ptolmaic and Roman periods in their original contexts, usually populated with human figures that served to demonstrate their vast scale. It continued with Thomas Banks’s monument to George Blagdon Westcott 1805, accompanied by a sphinx, crocodile and recognisable Nile gods, and Richard Westmacott’s monument to Ralph Abercromby 1809, accompanied by a pair of sphinxes, both in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and the considerably reduced examples on display at both the British Museum and the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, before concluding with the mid-century museological focus on the more ‘exquisite beauty’ and ‘refinement’ of smaller-scale artefacts, such as jewellery and other domestic and grave goods, in the British Museum’s Egyptian Galleries after 1834.9
Ford seems to employ musical motifs in his neo-Egyptian statuettes with a number of possible ideas in mind. By depicting a harp whose strings are plucked by the right fingers of The Singer, while her left hand hovers expectantly in mid-air, Ford emphasises the statuette’s tactile surface and the touch of his modeller’s hand.10 The sculptor also animates the theme of the tactility of music in Applause, whose hands similarly hover in mid-clap. With The Singer, by contrast, the figure’s ‘sibyl-like mien’ and ‘lowered eyelids’ (to use the phrases of a contemporary critic),11 open mouth and deep-drilled nostrils, as well as her prominent neck muscles, expanded chest and raised stomach, emphasise the idea of melodies emerging from deep within her body, reminding viewers of the cast, hollow nature of Ford’s bronze statuette. The nine different musicians depicted on the side panels of Applause (fig.9), which include both string and wind players, and Ford’s choice of a singing harpist in his first neo-Egyptian statuette, can therefore be seen to encourage contemplation about the duality of his emphasis on surface, characteristic of a number of sculptors of his generation, associated with the so-called New Sculpture, and his ‘symbolist’ interest in hidden depths.12
How to cite
Jason Edwards, ‘Ford and the Decorative Arts’, April 2013, in Jason Edwards (ed.), In Focus: 'The Singer' exhibited 1889 and 'Applause' 1893 by Edward Onslow Ford, Tate Research Publication, April 2013, https://www