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.
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John Gibson 1790–1866
Hylas Surprised by the Naiades
1600 x 1194 x 718 mm
Presented by Robert Vernon 1847
Purchased from the artist by Robert Vernon (1774–1849) in 1837, by whom presented to the National Gallery, London, 1847; transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1897.
Welsh sculptor John Gibson began modelling this life size marble sculpture in Rome during the spring of 1826. The artist had then been living in the Italian capital for just under nine years, and would continue to be based there until his death in 1866. Throughout the eleven-year phase during which Hylas Surprised by the Naiades was executed, Gibson’s reputation was growing both back in Britain and on the continent. His mythological statues, usually of an amorous subject matter, were increasingly in demand from a diverse array of patrons. The sculpture depicts three figures: Hylas, the pre-pubescent male figure at the centre of the group, and the two water nymphs, or Naiades, that flank him.
The subject of Hylas Surprised by the Naiades derives from an ancient myth that had long been a familiar subject among both visual artists and poets, as it would continue to be throughout the nineteenth century. Hylas, the beautiful young lover of the semi-divine hero Heracles (or Hercules as he became known from the Roman era), is sent to find water for the evening meal of the passengers of the famous ship, the Argo, after it docks somewhere off the coast of Mysia, present day Turkey. As Hylas stumbles upon a woodland pool and prepares to fill his pitcher, a group of nymphs catch sight of him. Overwhelmed by desire, they emerge from the depths of the pool and abduct Hylas by forcing him into their underwater realm. When Heracles learns of Hylas’s disappearance, this legendary incarnation of masculine strength is broken by profound grief. He wanders the shore crying out his lover’s name while the Argo sets sail without them both.
The sculptor has depicted the instant when Hylas finds himself surrounded by the nymphs; this is Hylas ‘surprised’, caught in the moment of initial disorientation. We see this kind of instantaneous frozen action in other works by Gibson, such as his Nymph Unfastening her Sandal (Royal Academy, London), an intentional effect the sculptor described as the creation of ‘momentary suspense’.1 Gibson includes the water pitcher with which Hylas set off to fulfil his mission for the Argonauts, which the figure holds in his right hand precariously, as if it is about to fall to the ground. The nymphs’ blank facial expressions are in keeping with the cool, calm nature of Gibson’s preferred Graeco-Roman style. By contrast, Hylas’s face hints at emotion. His slightly parted lips, widened eyes and defensive, wide-legged stance convey the extent to which he is startled by the nymphs. This aspect of the sculpture pronounces its deviation from antique precepts and their more traditional modern appropriations.
All three figures wear headdresses of some sort: a forked ribbon protrudes from beneath Hylas’s shoulder-length curls while the nymphs are adorned with matching crowns of woven reed leaves. The drapery of the sculpture is artfully designed simultaneously to limit the exposure of each figure’s flesh and to highlight the curvature of their ideal proportions. On the left, the larger nymph wears a loose covering around her waist held in place by a sash belt. Fastened with a fibula just under her shoulder, a single fold of cloth falls over the arm of her accomplice. The drapery belonging to this smaller nymph intertwines with the drapery covering the back and arm of Hylas, creating an ambiguity of folds that results in sufficient coverage landing in areas to be covered – over her pubic area and Hylas’s rear. This complex looping of marble fabric presents the body of Hylas as sealed and thus sexually impenetrable. Arguably, his position as the passive victim of an unbridled sexual force is softened by the total concealment of his back view. Furthermore, it is of note that the front-to-back fold over Hylas’s extended forearm vaguely resembles the cloak of the famous ancient sculpture the Apollo Belvedere, a statue Gibson praised as ‘unearthly’.2
An inscription across the top of the water pitcher reads ‘Beautiful Hylas’ in ancient Greek. Gibson did not know Greek and Latin, nor was he even well-versed in translated editions. The artist relied on his brother Benjamin, also a sculptor in Rome, for assistance in navigating ancient literature for source material. Elizabeth Eastlake, Gibson’s friend and first biographer, reports that he referred to his brother as ‘my classical dictionary’.3 Hylas Surprised by the Naiades does not attempt to serve as a visual counterpart to a specific classical text, but it is important to acknowledge that the debate over the identity of the first ancient author to transcribe the story of Hylas dates back to Gibson’s lifetime.4 The story was told by both Apollonius and Theocritus, two Greek poets from the third century BC; Apollonius in the first book of his Argonautica and Theocritus in the thirteenth of his Idylls. Both original Greek versions of the Hylas myth make clear an awareness on the part of one for the other text, but the primary poet has never been established.5
We know that Theocritus’s telling of the Hylas myth was the one favoured by visual artists because it is in this version that there are multiple nymphs, in contrast to the single nymph who in Apollonius’s text acts under the command of the goddess Venus.6 In Theocritus’s version, Hylas is seized by three nymphs: ‘Eunike beautiful, and Malis wise, and sweet Nichaia’.7 Berthel Thorvaldsen, the Danish sculptor and teacher to Gibson following the death of Gibson’s first mentor in Rome Antonio Canova, presents a trio of nymphs in both 1831 and 1833 versions of his marble bas-relief, Hylas Abducted by the Nymphs (Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen). With their depictions of a teenage Hylas joined by nymphs of equal stature, these reliefs have little in common with Gibson’s statue of the same subject. Like Thorvaldsen, British Royal Academician Henry Howard stayed true to Theocritus’s number of nymphs in his painting Hylas Carried off by the Nymphs, exhibited in 1826, in which three nymphs encircle the youth as he flows downstream (original oil painting presumed lost, known by the steel engraving by Charles Heath of 1821). Two other notable representations of the subject by British artists are William Etty’s Hylas and the Nymphs (Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire) and John William Waterhouse’s well-known later painting by the same title (Manchester Art Gallery). These works show a more inventive approach to the quantity of female abductors. Etty’s 1833 painting shows three female figures half submerged in the pool’s murky depths with a fourth engaged in the act of forcing Hylas into their arms. Waterhouse’s nymphs form an unconventional seven in his later 1896 work by the same title (Manchester City Art Gallery).
Together, these versions suggest that the story of Hylas could more readily be adapted to the artist’s own vision or requirements than other well known ancient narratives suitable for the marble block or canvas. Perhaps this can be credited to the fact that there are no extant antique statues depicting the story of Hylas, only several Roman mosaics. The myth of Laocoön and his sons, for example, could never be subjected to the same kind of re-imagining due to the iconic nature of the ancient sculpture depicting its most dramatic scene. One of the mosaics of Hylas’s abduction is located in the House of Bacchus among the ruins of Volubilis, an excavated Roman town in Morocco that was not unearthed until 1921. It includes, like Gibson’s sculpture, just two nymphs, one of whom clasps her hand around Hylas’s mouth as if she is attempting to silence his cries. In Rome there is another mosaic The Rape of Hylas (National Museum of Rome), which was mentioned by one of Gibson’s favourite authors Johann Joachim Winckelmann in his History of Ancient Art. The sculptor may have seen this work, which presents a similar figure to the Hylas at Volubilis: a red-caped and fully-grown man, greater in size than the three rather clumsy looking nymphs that cling at his muscles, the water pitcher glittering in mother-of-pearl.8
In limiting the group to three figures, Gibson affords symmetry to his design. We see the same kind of triangular composition in another group by the sculptor, his less-than-life-size Psyche Borne Aloft by the Zephyrs, begun in 1821 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1827 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). This is a work that Antonio Canova had ‘encouraged (Gibson to) execute’ shortly before the master’s death in 1822.9 Its three-figure arrangement has an antecedent in the elder sculptor’s famous The Three Graces (Victoria and Albert Museum/National Galleries of Scotland). In both Psyche Borne Aloft by the Zephyrs and Hylas Surprised by the Naiades, Gibson takes Canova’s three-figure model a step further by making it a distinctly geometric scheme: two figures of a similar stature (the zephyrs/nymphs) united by a third figure that forms the sculpture’s apex (Psyche/Hylas). Unlike Canova’s Three Graces, Gibson’s pattern of bodies is gendered; in Psyche Borne Aloft by the Zephyrs, two males are set against a single female form, anticipating the reverse in Hylas Surprised by the Naiades. In both groups Gibson has inserted a tree trunk, a common detail in Graeco-Roman statuary, to catch excess folds of drapery and support the apex figure. Picking up on the affinities between Psyche Borne Aloft by the Zephyrs and Hylas surprised by the Naiades, J.M.W Turner reported to Francis Chantrey from Rome in 1828 that he had seen the latter group in Gibson’s studio, describing it as ‘something like “The Psyche”, being two standing figures of nymphs leaning, enamoured over the youthful Hylas, with his pitcher.’10
Written by Lucius Apuleius, a North African writer active during the Roman period, the fable of ‘Eros and Psyche’ is essentially one of consensual intimacy between the beautiful mortal Psyche and the god of Love, and thus Psyche Borne Aloft by the Zephyrs does not offer the same sexual immediacy as, according to the violence at play in myth of Hylas, the later sculpture ought to. Although Apuleius’s narrative does involve erotic consummation, this particular Psyche by Gibson is merely offered to us in transit to the marital bed. By contrast, Hylas is presented to the viewer at the moment when lust and desire are about to be realised. Yet this aspect of the work does not seem to have concerned viewers during Gibson’s lifetime, either in London, where the work was first displayed at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition in 1837, or in Rome, where tourists from all over the world came into contact with the work.11 As the myth of Hylas had had such an enduring life of its own in poetry and the visual arts, the essential ‘rape’ of Hylas, as Turner and others termed it, was not received as sexually explicit.12 As in the story of ‘Eros and Psyche’, the subject tended to be seen merely as a familiar and even charming classical tale. Only one prominent publication seems to have felt the need to hint at the particular eroticism of the myth might be problematic. In 1854 the Art Journal printed a stipple engraving of Gibson’s sculpture as part of a series of important works of British art, and the text accompanying the engraving mentions the ‘peculiar nature’ of the depicted ‘mythological episode’, stating that it is one ‘requiring to be treated with especial care, lest it should exceed the boundaries of propriety. The artist has felt his difficulties, and has avoided an offense which, a mind less delicately trained would, perhaps, even unintentionally have committed.’13
Gibson’s ‘delicately trained’ mind may have safeguarded his representation of this myth from its potentially indecent content. Going on to praise the sculpture for its ‘harmony’ and ‘elegant’ figures, the Art Journal author expresses approval for the ‘skilful management of the drapery’, something that bore relation to the reigning in of the group’s sexual implications. By the time the article was published, Gibson was considered one of the greatest living sculptors in the continental West. The artist’s masterly reputation was based on in his formal commitment to ideal beauty via the relics of antiquity, and, in addition to the consummately executed purity of his figures, his capacity for innovation and experimentation within this framework. The combination of his chaste style and his international fame may have legitimated the depiction of a subject that might otherwise have proved offensive to some.
The nudity of Hylas Surprised by the Naiades seems to have been taken for granted by critics. This is especially significant when we note that as the century progressed, the naked human form in painting was becoming more and more of a moral issue, both in England and in Rome. For example, in 1830, another British artist living in Rome, Joseph Severn, a close friend of Gibson and a frequent visitor to his studio, reportedly had his painting Ariel on a Bat’s Back banned from an exhibition of his works by the Roman ‘priestly directors’ ‘because it was a naked figure’ (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).14 At the Royal Academy exhibition of 1837, the bevy of voluptuous female nudes in Etty’s Ulysses and the Sirens (Manchester City Art Gallery) caused one journalist to lament the absence of ‘the pure models of remote antiquity’, ‘so dear to the eye of taste’.15 Essentially, classical idealism, the only mode of depicting the human form in sculpture at this time, functioned as clothing or a veil to nineteenth-century audiences. As forms became more and more life-like in pictures, the marble body automatically resisted such mimetic developments because of its roots in ancient form. Paradoxically, with Hylas Surprised by the Naiades, the Graeco-Roman nature of Gibson’s bodies obscured their human nature.
Describing Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the Nymphs, classicist Simon Goldhill posited the question in 2011: ‘is Hylas here a victim?’. He continued: ‘How this question is answered will inevitably implicate the critic’s own ideological self-positioning.’16 Along with each of the other visual representations of the myth mentioned above, Waterhouse’s Hylas differs from Gibson’s in that he is of equal size to the nymphs that draw him into the water. The manliness of Waterhouse’s figure is emphasised by the darker flesh tint the painter has used in contrast to the milky pallor of the nymphs’ skin. There is less of a discrepancy between his form and theirs, rendering the eroticism of the story and the work of art heterosexually normative. The author reviewing Waterhouse’s work in the Daily News in 1896 focused on the difference between these artists’ interpretations of the story, evidencing the idea that the later work presented a more accessible form of desire: ‘Gibson, the sculptor, when he took the same subject, made his nymphs tall, commanding figures that seem to overpower the youthful Hylas, less even in size than they. But (Waterhouse’s) temptresses threaten no force and use no apparent wiles. Most seductive they are.’17 Child-like in his youthful beauty, Gibson’s Hylas is dwarfed by the nymphs, making him unquestionably a helpless victim of a sexuality and a corporeality greater than his own. Yet the gracefulness of the nymphs’ motion and the ideal unity of their forms alter the furious effect of their attack on the boy. The larger nymph at the left gently presses her face against Hylas’s head as if she is smelling his hair while her companion gazes into Hylas’s eyes without betraying anything other than placidity. Smell, sight and touch are all evoked at once, making this just as much of a sensory as a physical encounter.
Ironically, it is this lack of force which seems to have been more of a point of critical contention than the subject matter. One reviewer of the 1837 Academy exhibition described the group as ‘utterly unimaginative … the expression of the faces blank in meaning.’ 18 Although the figures are ‘graceful’, this author continues, they are ‘not flesh, but marble: the limbs could not move from their position. A statue should not be a petrification: the marble ought to represent not form merely, but life and motion.’ Held at Somerset House since 1780, the 1837 annual Royal Academy exhibition was the first to take place at the National Gallery building in Trafalgar Square. The new sculpture room was heavily attacked by the press for being too small and poorly illuminated, with the marbles effectively jumbled on top of one another in a fashion that did not do them justice. Despite Gibson’s signature departures from the antique, such as the instantaneous effect conveyed in the depicted scene, Hylas’s Graeco-Roman idealism could be viewed simply as ‘conventional classical’ when displayed alongside the vivacious, naturalistic portrait busts by Chantrey.19 A Nymph at the Bath (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) by Gibson’s fellow Anglo-Roman Richard James Wyatt was also exhibited in the National Gallery’s ‘nasty little poking hole’.20
Initially, the businessman and former MP William Haldimand (1784–1862) had ordered the sculpture in marble after glimpsing a clay sketch of the group during his visit to the sculptor’s studio, but shortly cancelled this commission ‘on very liberal terms’.21 Following the display of Gibson’s sculpture at the 1837 Academy exhibition, the group was purchased by Robert Vernon (1774–1849), a wealthy entrepreneurial, non-aristocratic collector of contemporary British art. Despite Vernon’s eagerness to ‘see (him) if he ever came to England’, Gibson never met the collector in person.22 It was Chantrey who was appointed to superintend the placing of Hylas in Vernon’s mansion on Pall Mall. In 1839 the Art-Union published an overview of Vernon’s purchases that conveyed the spirit in which they were displayed: ‘Mr Vernon has not gathered his stores into ‘A Gallery.’ Every room in his mansion is filled with them-from the parlour to the attic; they are evidently brought together far less for display than to render his home intellectually delightful’.23
Vernon’s decision to purchase Hylas Surprised by the Naiades had an enormous impact on the history of the work. That same year, the collector began to allow members of the public to submit applications for permission to enter his home and view the art. Hylas Surprised by the Naiades was the only life-size sculpture in Vernon’s collection, and the only work in marble that was not a portrait bust. In 1847 Vernon bequeathed his extensive collection of British art to the nation. Members of the board of the National Gallery were instructed to choose which of Vernon’s amassed works should form part of the national collection, and this sculpture was included on the two informal, hand-written inventories listing the selected works.24
Over the next few years the sculpture would move several times. For a brief phase Vernon’s house was opened to the public on certain days of the week as an extension of the National Gallery, but following the collector’s death in May 1849, the house closed. Early in 1850 the board of the National Gallery gave in to anxieties over the safety of the artworks kept in Vernon’s house, which was not fireproof nor insured, and the sculpture, along with the rest of the collection, was moved to the ‘dark and gloomy’ lower hall of the building at Trafalgar Square before finding a semi-permanent home in July that year in Marlborough House, a former royal residence designed by Christopher Wren.25 It was here that Hylas Surprised by the Naiades came to be well-known as a public work of art, coming to be viewed as something of a national treasure. At Marlborough House, it was prominently placed in the entrance hall surrounded by various portrait busts as the pride of the ‘seven Vernon marbles’.26 Numerous guide books to London from the 1850s mention the work, and when authors pause to describe it, it is always praised as a source of pride, ‘beautiful’, ‘fine’, a sight not to be missed.27 Significantly, it was the first marble statue by a British artist to exist so prominently in London’s public realm that was not a portrait, or a war or funerary monument.
In 1855 Hylas Surprised by the Naiades was shipped to Paris for display at the first Exposition Universelle. Entrusted to arrange the display of British sculpture, the sculptor John Bell had the choice of whether or not these works should be placed in the great hall amongst the French sculpture or confined to an apartment ‘rather scanty of both space and light’ but conveniently adjacent to the gallery in which British oil paintings were hung. Upon the decision that it would be better if all works of the British school stood in close proximity, Bell had the walls of the apartment repainted from a ‘sombre green’ to a ‘warm grey’, and arranged the marbles two wave-like formations designed take advantage of what little light leaked in from the ‘tolerably high windows’.28 Hylas Surprised by the Naiades was placed inside of one wave, and Edward Hodges Baily’s Eve at the Fountain (Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery), placed inside the other, effectively rendering these two works special and distinct from the others on display. Affixed to all of the thirty-five sculptures in this small room were tickets matching the grey of the walls, on which the name of the artist and the subject of the sculpture was printed in gold lettering in both English and French.
Hylas Surprised by the Naiades was shipped back to England promptly following the exhibition. It is unclear if it was ever moved to the South Kensington Gallery along with some of the paintings from the Vernon collection, but it is certain that by May 1865 Gibson’s work was on display once again at Trafalgar Square, this time in a more permanent manner. Positioned in the corridor connecting the newly built eastern room with the Turner gallery, the group was surrounded by some cabinet pictures for which there was no space in the rest of the building.29 In 1883 the illustrator Henry Edward Tidmarsh produced a series of watercolours depicting the interior of the National Gallery. His wash and bodycolour rendition of Room XVIII (40) and the Dome (Guildhall Library) shows Hylas underneath the dome, and no longer confined to a narrative of British art exclusively, juxtaposed with a selection of Spanish old master works, including Francisco de Zurbarán’s Saint Francis in Meditation, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s A Peasant Boy Leaning on a Sill, and Diego Velázquez’s Christ Contemplated by the Christian Soul.30 The exhibition of Gibson’s group with these foreign paintings could only have afforded the work an independent universality it had not possessed as a component of the Vernon collection. Additionally, Tidmarsh’s image reveals that a kind of screen was placed behind Gibson’s sculpture at this time, blocking its rear view.
Upon the establishment of the National Gallery of British Art in 1897, or the Tate Gallery as it became known, the work was moved to the building at Millbank. In the summer of that year, Hylas went on display for the gallery’s opening. The London Daily News referred to the work with some familiarity, commenting that ‘Gibson’s Hylas shows well the contrast between the old school and the new.’31 Now that Gibson’s work could be conceived of as a relic of ‘the old school’, the ‘new’ school of sculpture would have been exemplified by works such as Frederic Leighton’s bronze Athlete Wrestling a Python (Tate N01754), also on display at the opening of gallery at Millbank. In 1957 the group was exhibited in Holland Park as part of an exhibition of British sculpture past and present, funded by the London County Council.
As well as the original marble, Hylas Surprised by the Naiades became known through several plaster casts versions. From 1854 to at least 1866, a cast of the sculpture was on display at Crystal Palace along with a selection of other plaster versions of the sculptor’s better known works. As late as 1921 T. Mardy Rees reported that a cast (potentially the one shown at Crystal Palace) was in the possession of the Royal Academy.32 It appears that at some point in the following decades it disappeared, and was potentially destroyed. In 1856 another plaster version of the work was sent to the Royal Museum at Hanover, along with one of his Hunter (presumed lost). A cast after the sculpture is in possession by the Shepherd and Derom Galleries in New York City. In 2001 and again in 2012, this cast formed part of their exhibitions Nineteenth-Century European Paintings, Watercolours, Drawings and Sculpture and Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century European Sculpture respectively, and remains today on public view. Originally, it was owned by a Richard Vaughan-Yates from Liverpool, who at some point donated it to Blackburne House, a girl’s school in Liverpool’s Hope Street quarter.33 The catalogue for the Shepherd and Derom Galleries’ 2012 exhibition reports that originally this cast was covered in a thick layer of over-paint, which was removed when the work was acquired in the 1980s.34