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Papers in Tate Archive may provide clue to identity of Hugo’s Quasimodo

Documents which are part of the Tate Archive may hold a vital clue to the original inspiration for Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo

Documents which are part of the Tate Archive, which this year celebrates its 40th Anniversary, may hold a vital clue to the original inspiration for Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo, the central character in his seminal work, The Hunchback of Notre Dame which was begun in 1828 and published in 1831.

A seven volume hand-written autobiography of the nineteenth-century British sculptor, Henry Sibson (1795 -1870), was found in a house in Penzance in Cornwall when the occupants planned to move. Offered to Tate in 1999, the writings provide a valuable insight into the artistic practices of the time.

In the 1820s Sibson got a job carving in Paris. He recalls: ‘the (French) government had given orders for the repairing of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris and it was now in progress. I was employed to carve the foliage round the windows under two contractors, Plantor and Fontaine’. But he appears to fall out with M. Plantor in a row over not being supplied with rasps, instruments used in carving, and is effectively sacked. He continues:

I applied at the Government studios, where they were executing the large figures and here I met with a M.Trajan, a most worthy, fatherly and amiable man as ever existed – he was the carver under the Government sculptor whose name I forget as I had no intercourse with him, all that I know is that he was humpbacked and he did not like to mix with carvers.

Sibson lands a job with this group of workers on a project in Dreux, a small town outside Paris. Later he writes:

At length the time came to go to Dreux. M Le Bossu (the Hunchback) a nickname given to him and I scarcely ever heard any other and M Trajan, the Chief of the gang for there were a number of us. M.Le Bossu was pleased to tell M Trajan that he must be sure to take the little Englishman.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame had suffered during the radical phase of the French revolution in the 1790s. Victor Hugo is known to have taken a keen interest in its nineteenth-century restoration. The architect Étienne-Hippolyte Godde embarked on a restoration of part of the north transept of Notre Dame in the 1820s, a scheme known to have been disliked by Hugo. Subsequently Hugo, and others who favoured a more Gothic style, were instrumental in establishing the Comité historique des Arts et Monuments in 1830 and later Hugo actively promoted Viollet-le-Duc’s Gothic restoration of the cathedral which was realised in 1844.

Sibson’s writings, undertaken in his 70s, recall the period 1820-21. The sculptors and carvers he describes would have been working in an atelier attached to L’École des Beaux Arts located in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. Victor Hugo, is known to have lived in the 6th arrondissement in the 1820s. With his keen interest in the restoration of Notre Dame and his daily proximity to the ateliers and the cathedral, he may have witnessed M Trajan and his “humpbacked” boss, or even have known them. The Almanach de Paris from 1833 lists all professional inhabitants in the area and includes the carver Trajan, indicating that he continued to work there during the period Hugo would have been writing his epic novel. Additionally, in an early version of Hugo’s epic Les Miserables, the main character is Jean Trajean, a name Hugo later altered to Jean Valjean. 

Tate Archivist Adrian Glew said ‘I spotted the references when I was cataloguing the Sibson archive and knew I had to delve further. It has been fascinating looking into this in the year of Tate Archive’s 40th Anniversary. There are so many historical gems in the Collection.’

Sibson’s vivid account of the artistic and social life as a sculptor in nineteenth-century England and abroad contains vignettes of some well-known artists of the time, although he himself is little known. As a hardworking and well-travelled craftsman he was skilled outsider striving for recognition. His abilities were recognised when he was selected for inclusion in one of the prestigious Westminster Palace exhibitions in the 1840s. Sibson’s memoir will be on display outside the Hyman Kreitman Reading Room at Tate Britain from 16 August until the end of the month.

Editor notes

Tate Archive is the largest archive of British art in the world with over one million items. Tate Archive holds over 750 archive collections that reveal the artistic and personal histories of artists over the past century.

Tate Archive catalogues, displays and makes available for research and outreach an unparalleled collection of unique and secondary items in all media about artists who have made a significant contribution to the history of fine art practice in the UK. In addition, Tate Archive houses a cornucopia of papers relating to art-world figures, critics and art historians, dealers and gallerists, as well as the records of commercial galleries, art societies, exhibiting and funding bodies, periodicals and art publishers. The Archive includes diaries, notebooks, correspondence, sketchbooks, sketches, maquettes, publications, printed ephemera and press cuttings. Tate Archive also houses extensive collections of supporting material comprising over 100,000 photographs of artists and their studios as well as artists’ photographic collections such as those of Eileen Agar, Vanessa Bell, Nigel Henderson, Barbara Ker-Seymour, Paul Nash, Tom Picton and John Piper. It also houses over 2,500 artist-designed posters and over 3,000 audio-visual artists’ interviews, talks and documentaries. It acquires, through the generosity of its donors, between 20 to 30 archive collections each year.

In the past year, Tate Archive acquired a number of important archives including the personal and professional papers of the writer, curator and art historian David Sylvester (from 1940s to 2001); the papers of Keith Vaughan which are now catalogued; and the archive of Throbbing Gristle artist, Genesis P-Orridge. Recently catalogued archives that are now available to view include Naum Gabo’s personal papers, models and maquettes; David Page's collection of material relating to the Hornsey School of Art sit-in 1968; a rare sketchbook by Stanley Spencer dating from around 1919-24 which included an undiscovered loose-leaf of one of his earliest portrait drawings of his brother Gilbert from 1906/9; and the records of the New English Art Club, 1886-1981.

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