4 Ford also evidently derived the overall shape of The Singer’s pedestal either from Dominique-Vivant Denon and Louis-Pierre Baltard’s widely-circulated 1802 illustrations of the temple at Dendera (fig.4).
The harp in The Singer (fig.5) may have derived at least in part from Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Pastimes in Ancient Egypt, Three Thousand Years Ago 1863 (Harris Art Gallery and Museum, Preston, fig.6), and one might speculate that Ford sought, with The Singer and Applause, to create the successful sculptural equivalent of Alma-Tadema’s popular Egyptian canvases. Ford’s neo-Egyptian statuettes seem to follow more closely the example of Alma-Tadema’s preference for more bourgeois, antique scenes than the mid-century Anglo-Roman marbles celebrating the comparatively aristocratic figure of Cleopatra. It should also be noted that the two artists had a close relationship at this particular moment in their careers, emblematised by the painter’s portrait of Ford’s daughter, Clothilde Enid completed in 1888, and Ford’s 1895 sculpted portrait bust of Alma-Tadema (Royal Academy, London). In 1889, the pair also collaborated on furniture for the Marquand Mansion in Manhattan.5 With this in mind, it is possible to speculate that Ford intended his works to appeal to Alma-Tadema, since the painter included an Egyptian-themed room in his studio-home and acknowledged that his Egyptian pictures were his ‘personal favourites’.6
The crown in Applause (fig.9), with its red and turquoise bosses, and intricately braided snake, suggests that Ford may also have attended one of the first performances of Verdi’s Aida in the mid-1870s, or saw an illustration of it, as there is a clear relationship between this crown and a surviving piece of costume jewellery from the production dating from c.1876 (fig.10). There may also be a relationship between The Singer (fig.11) and the designs for the Paris debut of Aida at the Opéra de Paris on 22 March 1880, as can be seen when comparing the statuette with Pierre-Eugène Lacoste’s c.1879–80 drawings of the costumes made for the production (fig.12).
Thus, although it is clear that Ford drew upon and synthesised an array of ancient and modern sources while working on The Singer and Applause, the meaning of Ford’s eclecticism still needs to be established. This will be done by considering the relationship between the main sculpted figures designed by Ford and the hieroglyphic variants that he depicts in relief form upon the side panels of the two statuettes.
The synthetic use of multiple stylistic sources in late nineteenth-century British art, known today as ‘Victorian eclecticism’, is generally understood as either a product of aesthetic over-confidence (a demonstration of British artists’ certainty that they were able to master all styles from all periods) or as an example of Victorian under-confidence (evidence that British artists, unlike their French peers, were unable to come up with an original modern style, and so returned endlessly to historical precedents). The same criticism has been levelled at the nineteenth-century Egyptian revival, which is more often than not characterised as ‘Egyptomania’, a term that suggests that artists were less concerned with the careful selection and synthesis of sources for a particular purpose, but rather yielded to a tasteless desire for, and lack of comprehension of, ancient Egyptian culture.
With this in mind, by drawing a visual parallel between the main clapping figure of Applause and the miniature, hieroglyphic variant on the side panel of the base of The Singer, Ford could be said to encourage reflection on the comparative merits of the two modes of figuration. If so, then Ford’s agenda chimes with the similarly comparative, historicising and imperial aims of Owen Jones’s and Joseph Bonomi’s 1854 guide to the Egyptian Courts of the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. Jones and Bonomi assumed that readers would be familiar with, and proud of the Rosetta Stone, forcibly acquired from Napoleon’s Egyptian troops in 1802. Like the Rosetta Stone, Jones’s and Bonomi’s popular guides invited comparison between several languages, emphasising the authors’ imperial mastery of them all: for example, Jones noted that the Temple of Abu Simbel, discovered by Jean-Louis Burckhardt in 1816 and reproduced at a reduced scale within the Crystal Palace was called ‘Aboo Simbel’ by Arabs, ‘Abshak’ by the ancient Egyptians, and ‘Aboccis’ by Roman geographers (fig.18).16
17 Similarly, while Sharpe condemned the way in which the fingers and toes within Egyptian sculpture tended to be ‘straight and unformed’, but praised those rare cases in which the toes were ‘spread with the weight of the body’, the fingers of The Singer are powerfully separated and curled (fig.19), and the main figure in Applause rests her weight on her bent, left tip-toes, and flexes her right toes out beyond the back of the pedestal, as the profile and back views make especially apparent (fig.20). While Sharpe felt that Egyptian figures were ‘too short in the waist’, The Singer gently extends the length of her slender torso as she stretches her long body gently backwards; and where Sharpe praised Egyptian sculptures in which the ‘countenance’ was ‘not the usual Egyptian face’ but ‘some attempt at a portrait’, Ford’s attempts to imitate his model’s features was recognised and in fact criticised by some of his contemporaries.18 Finally, in line with Sharpe’s preference for the rare Egyptian works in which the knees were ‘well formed’ and in which the fibula was ‘marked down the leg’, the fibula is emphatically visible in the right shin of The Singer, the realism of which was noted by contemporary reviewers.19 In short, the corporeal details of Ford’s models deliberately possessed the kind of ‘mean or trifling’ effect that, according to Sharpe, prevented the eye from ‘judging the whole’, the gestalt monumentalism that was one of the few qualities of Egyptian sculpture that Sharpe praised.
22 And yet, if Ford at first glance seems to follow Jones’s and Bonomi’s intellectual and aesthetic lead, the front and back panels of the pedestal of Applause suggest that the sculptor was keen to differentiate his position, at least from Jones’s later account of Egyptian decorative arts in The Grammar of Ornament (1856). In this highly influential book, Jones argued that ‘graceful symmetry and perfect distribution’ characterised Egyptian design. Jones also appreciated the fact that Egyptian carvers ‘never appear to have gone beyond a symmetrical arrangement’, and he believed that the ‘ideas’ and ‘teachings’ of Egyptian art were ‘the soundest’.23 While the front and back panels of the pedestal of Applause depict an almost perfectly symmetrical scene that could be said to conform to Jones’s taste, Ford differentiated his compositions by employing a nest with two eggs on the left-hand side, and two baby birds on the right-hand side, and by providing a subtle differentiation between the rows of buds above them, with two unlined and one lined on the left, and one unlined and two lined on the right (fig.24).24
How to cite
Jason Edwards, ‘Victorian Eclecticism’, April 2013, in Jason Edwards (ed.), In Focus: 'The Singer' exhibited 1889 and 'Applause' 1893 by Edward Onslow Ford, April 2013, https://www