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.