Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

John Gibson’s Friendship with Charles Eastlake and its Importance in Securing Gibson’s Reputation in London

This article traces the fifty-year friendship between John Gibson and the artist and writer Charles Eastlake. It focuses on their views on sculptural theory and practice, how Eastlake helped to secure Gibson’s reputation in London, and the impact their friendship had on the development of several British art institutions.

The mid-nineteenth-century British sculpture world was famously divided between two camps with Sir Francis Chantrey heading up the London-based faction and John Gibson leading the opposition from Rome. They were at logger-heads over the direction of contemporary British sculpture. The European camp espoused ancient Greek sculpture as the best model to follow and thus produced works in a neo-classical vein. Gibson even refused to return home to London as he believed that there his ‘life would be spent in making busts and statues of great men in anti-sculptural dress’.1 By contrast, Chantrey advocated modern subjects and thought that the natural world was the perfect model-book for sculptors. He dismissed prolonged study periods in Italy’s capital, telling Gibson ‘one three years is enough to spoil you, or any other artist’.2 This division of opinion lasted their lifetimes and on Gibson’s death there were those who praised his life’s work and others who dismissed it. The negative voices thought his strict adherence to past precedents had destroyed his imagination, with one critic opining: ‘He attempted to revive Greek art, not seeing that the utmost he could do in that field was to reproduce the works of those who had gone before’.3 Yet many hailed him as a saviour figure who had successfully elevated contemporary British art by rivalling Greek precedents and bringing it international renown. The fact that Gibson’s bequest of works from his studio was accepted unanimously by the Royal Academy suggests that his reputation was then at an all-time high and begs the question of how this life-long rebel of the British art establishment ended up as a pillar of it.4

Several answers have been proffered. Most recently, in the catalogue accompanying the 2016 Tate exhibition, Sculpture Victorious, curator Greg Sullivan discussed some of the ways that Gibson was ‘able to maintain a significant reputation in England from Rome’.5 He noted that Gibson received positive reviews in both the metropolitan and provincial press, secured the influential patronage of the reigning monarch and had one of his sculptures put on display in the national collection. The two latter factors may be linked with the painter and collector Charles Eastlake, as this essay argues. It is well known that Gibson and Eastlake were good friends from an early date, but what has been overlooked is Eastlake’s support for Gibson in the London art world, which helped sustain his reputation there while he continued to reside in Rome. It is the purpose of this article to plot their multifarious interactions concerning sculpture, and to understand better the vital role that Eastlake played in promoting Gibson and his work.

Gibson and Eastlake in Rome

Gibson died on 27 January 1866, a month after Eastlake’s death on Christmas Eve; had Eastlake lived longer he would have acted as an executor for Gibson.6 The news of Eastlake’s death is said to have brought on Gibson’s own.7 Certainly the last letter Gibson penned, found unfinished on his desk after his death, was one of condolence to Eastlake’s widow.8 These dramatic facts may be contextualised by remembering that the pair had first met half a century earlier and had remained in touch ever since. Although the precise date of their first encounter is not recorded, we know that they arrived in Rome around the same time, Eastlake in November 1816 and Gibson in October 1817. They both had long-term associations with the city, Eastlake residing there until 1830 and thereafter visiting frequently, while Gibson remained in Rome for the rest of his life, returning to England only occasionally for work. Their Roman studios were situated near one another, both located off the Via del Babuino, the traditional location of artists’ workshops and mosaicists’ galleries, with Eastlake’s in Piazza Mignanelli and Gibson’s on the Via della Fontanella. Although Gibson was a sculptor and Eastlake a painter, they moved in the same circle of British artists who convened at the Caffè del Greco and in one another’s studios, and who were connected to a wider international group. Rome’s artistic sphere was dominated during the first decades of the nineteenth century by the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, and, after his death in 1822, by the Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen. Gibson received mentoring from both of these renowned sculptors and Eastlake also felt their influence.9

Of all the sculptors he met in Rome, Eastlake became closest to Gibson, despite Gibson recording that originally he had found Eastlake ‘a curious kind of chap’ and ‘never [knew] what to make of him’.10 They certainly had different personalities: Eastlake was circumspect and studious by nature and so could appear standoffish; Gibson was more naturally convivial. They had also come to Rome with different agendas, which affected the way they spent their time: Eastlake was there to educate himself and so read and travelled widely, whereas Gibson, who had little money, directed his efforts almost solely to sculpting. Whatever their differences, Eastlake and Gibson were drawn together through mutual interests, not least a shared passion for ancient Greek sculpture and, on a more practical level, a desire to improve teaching facilities available to British students in Rome. Both matters continued to preoccupy the pair over the years, and in Gibson’s case became stumbling blocks between him and the British art establishment; Eastlake, who became a cornerstone of the Victorian art world would become important for Gibson in bridging the divide.

At the heart of their friendship lay a shared passion for antique art – a lifelong and focussed attachment in Gibson’s case whereas Eastlake came to love other types of art too. Both had to draw from classical casts as part of their earliest art education, but both additionally sought out original works to study, such as the Parthenon marbles in London, and the Vatican and Capitoline collections in Rome.11 Eastlake even visited ancient sites in the Roman campagna and in Sicily and Delphi, Corinth, Athens and Aegina – the Greek trip of 1818 undertaken with the architects Charles Barry the Younger and George Basevi.12 As a complementary exercise, the friends immersed themselves in relevant literature. The scholarly Eastlake mastered Greek and Latin and acquired books on classical sculpture and architecture.13 Gibson, although less academic, also built up an impressive art history library and maintained an appreciation of J.J. Winckelmann’s theories.14

Unsurprisingly, Gibson’s and Eastlake’s creations reflected their debt to classical art and literature both in subject matter and style. Gibson’s sculptures of classical gods and heroes are well known as they became the hallmark of his oeuvre. Rarely discussed by contrast are the paintings Eastlake produced in which a ‘classic feeling’ is evident. Yet, for a few years, when he still aspired to be an academic history painter, they represented his most ambitious output and were well received, marking him out, alongside Gibson, as one of the leaders of the British artists in Rome during the 1820s. For instance, when asked by Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, for two designs to accompany her edition of Horace’s Journey from Rome to Brundusium, Eastlake’s resulting work was pronounced ‘by Canova and others to be of a higher classical character than any that had been done’.15 In one of the pair, Marius in Carthage 1818, Eastlake redeployed a sketch he had made of the Parthenon ruins, and its accurate depiction would surely have appealed to the duchess, who had subsidised excavations in the Roman Forum.16

John Gibson, Mars and Cupid 1825

John Gibson
Mars and Cupid 1825
Sculpture Gallery, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

The painting by which Eastlake gained admission as an Associate of the Royal Academy similarly derived from Roman history; Plutarch’s Life of Agesilaus was the source for Isadas, a Young Spartan, taken in the Battle for a Divinity 1826. Like Eastlake’s earlier depiction of Brutus Exhorting the Romans to Revenge the Death of Lucretia 1814, Isadas is an academic work which is also deeply neoclassical: the nude hero in perfect profile has the sharp clarity of a relief by Gibson, John Flaxman or Thorvaldsen.17 It further recalls the sculpted images of warriors on friezes that had recently been removed from buildings in Athens and Aegina, while the Greek architecture of the setting is as archaeologically correct as one would expect from a friend of Charles Barry. It was shown to great acclaim, firstly in Rome (apparently a thousand visitors, including the director of the French Academy, admired it in Eastlake’s studio), and then in London at the 1827 exhibition at the Royal Academy (at the same exhibition Gibson showed his Psyche Borne by the Zephyrs 1821–7).18 Eastlake’s painting had been commissioned by the sixth Duke of Devonshire (known as the ‘Bachelor Duke’), who, as an exceptionally keen collector and patron of sculpture, was also the first important patron in Rome of Gibson; indeed Gibson’s career was effectively launched in 1818 when the duke commissioned his Mars and Cupid in marble for £500 (fig.1). Eastlake’s picture and Gibson’s sculpture remain together in their original setting at Chatsworth House, the duke’s residence, with other classicising works by their contemporaries. Interestingly, both works of art depict ideal male beauty, a theme that preoccupied Gibson constantly and Eastlake especially in the mid-1820s.19 Hylas’s beauty is his undoing in Gibson’s Hylas Surprised by the Nymphs 1827–?36, exhibited 1837 and Isadas wins the battle not through bravery but through his beauty, which destroys the enemy who believe him to be a god.

Eastlake would go on to secure his reputation with his invention of picturesque scenes of Italian bandits and peasants, and later was praised particularly for some Biblical narratives and portraits. Yet some critics detected the continued influenced of classical sculpture in his later oeuvre. The critic Francis Turner Palgrave, for instance, in an anonymous article about ‘Eastlake and the British school of painting’, discussed ‘beauty’ as the overarching characteristic of Eastlake’s work, and its ultimate derivation from Greek sculpture. Dwelling on the gentle expressions and poses of Eastlake’s figures, Palgrave suggested that it was here that the influence of classical sculpture was most keenly to be felt:

Largeness of style and tenderness are the special notes of Hellenic art. The largeness, in our judgment, he did not reach; but he has much of the indescribable tenderness. Eastlake may have cultivated the qualities we have specified, through his love of ancient art, and particularly of sculpture; which he judged with a mastery of the rarest occurrence in a painter.20

One practical early outcome of Gibson and Eastlake’s friendship was the establishment of a drawing school in Rome. Feeling the lack of a British art school – other nations had well-established academies in the city – Gibson and Eastlake teamed up with the painter Joseph Severn and the sculptors Richard Westmacott the Younger and Lawrence Macdonald, among others, to set up what they referred to as the ‘British Academy in Rome’.21 Eastlake, as its chosen Secretary, wrote to several Royal Academicians in London, including its president Thomas Lawrence and John Flaxman, to garner their support as trustees, while the committee secured financial support not only from subscriptions among the British painters in Rome but also from eminent individuals and institutions, including King George IV, the Duke of Devonshire and the Royal Academy in the UK, and Sir William Hamilton, the art-loving British Consul in Naples. Soon they had fitted out a studio and hired models, and by May 1823 Eastlake could note with pride ‘there is not now a better drawing academy in Rome’.22

Despite having set the school on a secure financial footing and got its classes up and running, any further growth was prevented largely because the Royal Academy, despite sending the occasional donation, seems to have viewed it as a rival institution rather than as a potential offshoot. Consequently, some of the aspiring founding members chose to distance themselves from it, worried that an association with it might jeopardise their chances of future election into the ranks of the more august and long-established headquarters in London. Eastlake, concerned, even wrote to Lawrence directly on the point but appears not to have received an answer. One potential pitfall was a clause in the Academy’s rulebook that stated its members could not belong to other institutions, even though in practice this had never been rigorously upheld. More problematic was the rule of residency that stipulated that Royal Academicians should live in the UK, doubtless arising from a deep-seated belief that British artists had a moral duty to help foster British art in its native land. This necessarily raised questions about the existence and purpose of a school that might act as a magnet, especially if it became well-established, drawing talent away from British shores. Eastlake was made very well aware of what was expected of him by the painter J.M.W. Turner when the latter wrote a letter congratulating him on his election to full Academician status in 1830: ‘Dear Eastlake, Sigr Carlo in Rome, R.A. in England, now Charles Eastlake, Esqr Royal-Academician – greeting … you are now a complete brother labourer in the same Vineyard and England expects every Man to do his duty.’23 Eastlake did, albeit with heartache, return permanently to England; while his return was warmly greeted, his departure was lamented for it deprived the English colony of one of its leading lights. Indeed, the British Academy in Rome certainly declined in the years after the departure of its original diligent and competent Secretary.

Eastlake’s promotion of Gibson in London

Eastlake and Gibson’s friendship did not cease after Eastlake returned home for good in 1830. Instead, Eastlake proved a useful friend within the London art world – as indeed he did, albeit to a lesser extent, for other artists.24 Eastlake supported Gibson on a number of levels. On a practical level, he was one of several friends who offered hospitality during the sculptor’s occasional visits to England. Eastake’s wife, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, recorded various occasions when the sculptor stayed with them at their London home, 7 Fitzroy Square. It was during a visit in 1860 that she recorded her guest’s well-known absentmindedness and he was a guest again in 1862, when he came over to see the International Exhibition in London, where three of his tinted sculptures were on display.25

More importantly, Eastlake advanced Gibson’s career by acting as his advocate at the Royal Academy and by opening up truly significant patronage opportunities. He was in a prime position to promote his friend’s reputation as a result of his own standing in the Victorian art world, not least among the sculptural confraternity. In 1827, while he was still in Rome, Eastlake had been awarded the prestigious commission to design the pediment for the newly built Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. He chose The Nine Muses as his theme. It was executed by William Grinsell Nicholl, who produced other decorative sculpture for the museum too, and it was installed in June 1840.26 A decade later, in 1837, Eastlake was on the high-profile committee convened at the British Museum to ascertain whether the celebrated Parthenon marbles had originally been coloured (they did not reach a final verdict).27 Furthermore, Eastlake ended up heading the two major art institutions of the day, through his appointment in 1850 as the seventh President of the Royal Academy, and his appointment in 1855 as the first director of the newly reconstituted National Gallery.

The first important action that Eastlake took on Gibson’s account occurred at the Royal Academy, when Gibson’s election as a full member in 1836 was being discussed.28 In the past Eastlake has been credited ‘in some measure’ with the debate’s successful outcome, but a close investigation of extant documentation suggests that Eastlake’s role was decisive. Eastlake and Gibson were the only two Academicians ever to be elected to full membership in absentia.29 Eastlake’s later attempt to get the sculptor Richard Wyatt thus elected was rejected on the grounds that his residency abroad disqualified him.30 When recording that outcome, Gibson – who held Chantrey responsible for Wyatt’s rejection – noted of his own case: ‘it would appear that this rule had either been neglected or waived, owing to Sir C. Eastlake’s intervention’.31 It was hugely significant that Gibson, through Eastlake’s assistance, secured the highly respected Academician status yet was not forced to give up the practice in Rome which was so conducive to him. It is also noteworthy that Eastlake was able to bring this about so many years before he became President of the Royal Academy.

John Gibson, Queen Victoria 1844–7

John Gibson
Queen Victoria 1844–7
Guard Chamber, Buckingham Palace, London

A second crucially important intervention was the introduction that Eastlake brokered between Gibson and the British royal family. Scholars have acknowledged the importance of Gibson’s first meeting with Prince Albert, which took place on the sculptor’s first trip back to Britain in 1844. On the back of this meeting Albert introduced Gibson to Queen Victoria, which, in turn, led to the commissioning of a bust of the sovereign, which evolved into a full length statue of her (fig.2) and to numerous later royal commissions.32 Of course the sculptor’s links with the ruling monarch also opened the floodgates to commissions from aspiring patrons who wished to follow their queen. What has been overlooked hitherto in the whole affair is that Eastlake was chosen as the most suitable person to introduce Gibson to Prince Albert.33 Gibson himself readily acknowledged Eastlake’s pivotal role in propelling him into public notice. In his final letter to Lady Eastlake, he recorded the key role that her late husband had played in negotiating his relationships with arguably the most important individual and institution for any British Victorian artist: ‘As time rolled on I felt deeper and deeper in his debt – it was he who brought me forth to the patronage of the Prince and Queen – and also to the Royal Academy’.34

John Gibson Queen Victoria with Justice and Clemency 1855–7,

John Gibson
Queen Victoria with Justice and Clemency 1855–7
Palace of Westminster, London

Eastlake also corresponded in an official capacity with Gibson over the latter’s public commissions. This is not the place to discuss Eastlake’s advancement of sculpture in general, but it is appropriate to mention two episodes when their paths crossed through the offices that Eastlake held. The first concerned the work of the Fine Arts Commission, a body established in the early 1840s by Sir Robert Peel and Prince Albert, with Eastlake as their chosen Secretary, to commission works of art by British artists or artists resident in the UK to decorate the new Palace of Westminster, mainly with scenes from native history or literature. Virtually all the commissions were distributed by public competition, but Gibson, whose aversion to decision-making by non-specialist boards was notorious, was an exception.35 He was invited, apparently at Prince Albert’s wish, to participate and he produced a multi-figural composition of Queen Victoria between Justice and Clemency for the Prince’s Chamber (fig.3).36 His proposal was approved by the Commission in July 1850 and, as Secretary, it was Eastlake’s job to get in touch with the sculptor to state the terms of the contract and to see the work through to completion. From extant correspondence we learn that the sculptor was paid £3,835 in three instalments over the next seven years.37 The second event when Eastlake is likely to have been in touch formally with his friend over one of his sculptures relates to Gibson’s multi-figured piece, Hylas Surprised by the Naiades 1827–?36, exhibited 1837 (fig.4). This had come to the National Gallery as part of the Vernon Bequest in 1847, and was Gibson’s first sculpture to enter any museum collection. In 1855 it was requested for the Paris International Exhibition and Eastlake more than likely was involved in bringing about this prestigious loan given his very recent appointment to the newly created position of Director of the National Gallery.38 Interestingly, this was Gibson’s only sculpture to enter the national collection during his, and Eastlake’s, lifetime. The second work to be acquired by the National Gallery was Gibson’s bust of the British painter William Bewick, which was accepted as a gift in 1871 during the directorship of Eastlake’s successor, William Boxall, who was himself a close friend of Gibson’s.39

John Gibson, Hylas Surprised by the Naiades 1827–?36, exhibited 1837

John Gibson
Hylas Surprised by the Naiades 1827–?36, exhibited 1837
Tate N01746

It should be noted that such acts of patronage were not entirely one-sided. A little-known episode demonstrates one occasion at least when Gibson spoke up in favour of Eastlake. It occurred when Gibson wrote to the royal household to encourage the widowed Queen Victoria to erect a monument to her late husband (Gibson took the opportunity to urge that any memorial should be classical in style). Noting the type of people he thought were the best to involve, Gibson mentioned Eastlake specifically by name: ‘The opinion of two or three of the first-rate architects would be the most valuable … Sir Charles Eastlake, though not an architect, is a man of knowledge and good taste; there are many who sit in judgment without real judgment – these are the most numerous.’40 It is not known whether Gibson’s opinion was taken into consideration but Eastlake was made responsible, for a time, for the artistic arrangements that led to the creation of the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park.

John Gibson, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake 1840

John Gibson
Sir Charles Lock Eastlake 1840
National Portrait Gallery, London

There is also the matter of the marble bust that Gibson produced of Eastlake, which is dated to 1840 (fig.5).41 Little is known about how it was commissioned as Lady Eastlake does not say anything about its origins in her memoir of Eastlake’s life, or in her own journals and correspondence, or in her own will where she bequeathed it to the National Portrait Gallery. It may have been a direct – and if so, the only – commission between sitter and artist. Alternatively, it may have been a present from Gibson to Eastlake in recognition of all that Eastlake had done for him. This explanation seems more plausible if only because Eastlake was not in the habit of commissioning likenesses of himself.42 Whatever the precise origin of the bust, it is certainly a commemoration of their friendship.

The Gibson bequest to the Royal Academy

Arguably the most fruitful interaction between Eastlake and Gibson occurred at the end of their lives when Gibson decided to leave to the Royal Academy the contents of his Roman studio, including drawings, models and finished marbles, as well as money (£32,000) for the purpose of building a gallery so that his sculptures could be put on permanent display.43 He was in touch over the matter with Eastlake, in the latter’s capacity as President of the Academy.

According to Gibson’s correspondence with Eastlake, his gesture had been inspired by equivalent acts of generosity by Canova and Thorvaldsen towards their home towns of Possagno and Copenhagen.44 As art historian Anna Frasca-Rath has argued, Gibson was keen to promote himself as the master-pupil of both these sculptors and his bequest was one way of doing so.45 There were also two well-known British precedents that he could have mentioned (but did not): firstly, the acceptance in 1848 by University College London of the gift of 120 models of John Flaxman’s work, which Eastlake knew about given that he had overseen the Royal Academy’s small donation towards this acquisition;46 and secondly, the donation by Lady Chantrey of a large collection of casts from the studio of her late husband, Sir Francis Chantrey, to the University Galleries (now the Ashmolean Museum) in Oxford.47

Eastlake may well have seen the acquisition of modern British sculpture as a happy counterpoint to the active acquisition policy he had been pursuing during the previous decade at the National Gallery in relation to continental Old Master paintings. Gibson’s true motivations are not easy to fathom, and his comment noted above may not be the whole story. Originally, he admitted that he had thought of favouring Rome and letting his fortune ‘be distributed in pensions to Art-students in the Eternal City’.48 Whether Eastlake had a hand in persuading the sculptor to be as generous as possible to the Royal Academy is not known, although according to the Art Journal one reason for Gibson’s change of heart had been his ‘unwilling[ness] to place himself in opposition to the convictions of the Council of the Royal Academy’.49 This suggests a rapprochement had taken place between Gibson and the Academy, perhaps following the death of Chantrey in 1841 and Eastlake’s promotion to President in 1850? Perhaps, too, there was a part of him that wanted to settle an old score? If his lifelong adversary Chantrey had ensured that people could view examples of his work in a leading public gallery – and the related Chantrey Bequest enabled the purchase of works of art that had been produced in Britain – then perhaps this motivated Gibson to ensure similar access to a very different type of British sculpture in his own work produced in Rome.50

Eastlake, on writing to let Gibson know the successful outcome of his offer, was keen to record that the events at the Council meeting had been conducted in a fair-minded way:

As your friend, & as occupying the Chair, I felt that I was precluded from saying much with a view to influence the decision of those present. The announcement was, however, received with enthusiasm, & Mr Hardwick fully made amends for my reserve. He spoke in eloquent terms of the excellence of your works, of your laudable desire to have them kept together for all time, & of the influence they would have on students in sculpture. The sum which you liberally propose to bequeath with those works was also dwelt on, as a means which would enable the Academy to fulfil your wishes with credit to itself & to you; promoting at the same time the objects of the Institution.51

Circumstantial evidence, however, suggests that Eastlake may have worked hard behind the scenes to ensure the proposal was adopted. There is some indication that he wrote round to make certain Hardwick was present to speak in favour of the proposed gift.52 Furthermore, Eastlake probably assisted Gibson with aspects of his all-important letter to the Council, a suggestion which fits with what is known of Gibson’s lack of scholarly pretensions and Eastlake’s experience as an orator and petitioner.53 What bears emphasising is the fact that at this critical meeting chaired by Eastlake the bequest and its attendant conditions were readily accepted by all the attendees. Such a unanimously positive response is remarkable, especially given the number of debates and feuds associated with the institution since its foundation. Indeed, the Gibson Gallery is the only example in the Academy’s history of it accepting a substantial physical memorial to an individual member and their work.54 Eastlake himself was delighted with the outcome; his private letter relaying the news was full of praise for Gibson’s artistic achievement.55 Its sentiment recalls Eastlake’s warm endorsement of his friend’s work to be found in his letter of thanks to Gibson, sent on receiving a copy of a book of engravings after Gibson’s sculptures – a book which Gibson had in fact dedicated to Eastlake.56

Neither friend saw the Gibson Gallery in its finished state as it only opened to the public in 1876, a decade after both had died.57 However, they clearly discussed its intended layout for Gibson submitted a floorplan ‘showing the position of the casts from [his] works in two proposed rooms’, which Eastlake would have had to sign off in his capacity as President.58 Gibson’s sketch (along with other related material) was rediscovered in 2016 in the Academy’s Print Room, a precious find given that the Gibson Gallery was disbanded in the 1950s and the space was changed considerably with the creation of the Sackler Wing in the 1990s.59 While Gibson’s bequest was important in its own right, its original high profile acceptance by a prestigious public institution may have played some role in influencing later gifts of sculptural models to British museums, including a collection of John Graham Lough’s models to the Corporation of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne after his death in 1876 and of some works in plaster by Joseph Edgar Boehm to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum) in 1892.60

Lady Eastlake’s biography of Gibson

As a coda to the discussion about Eastlake’s promotion of Gibson and his work, it is appropriate to recall that the widowed Lady Eastlake was responsible for editing Gibson’s first full-length biography, which appeared in 1870; she also published positive remarks about him in an article she devoted to Thorvaldsen.61 She was chosen to produce the biography by friends of Gibson, perhaps because others – notably the art historian Anna Jameson (also a friend of the Eastlakes, who had published articles on Gibson), Margaret Sandbach (a patron and close correspondent of the sculptor who was the granddaughter of abolitionist William Roscoe), and Robert Hay (former private secretary to the Duke of Wellington, who, like Mrs Sandbach, had helped Gibson with the start of an autobiography) – were all dead, as was Eastlake.62

For the task, Lady Eastlake utilised their notes, as well as information supplied by Henry Sandbach, Mary Lloyd, Penry Williams, and Harriet Hosmer.63 She felt that her contribution was to give the material ‘a practical arrangement’, to ‘strip it of its egotism & apparent vanity’, as well as to provide what she referred to as ‘a necessary preamble in order to prepare the reader for the character, before introducing the man’.64 She agreed to undertake the work on the grounds that Gibson had wanted a biography, mutual friends were pressurising her to help out, the public would enjoy the quaint tone of Gibson’s writing and would find interesting the parts concerning Canova and Thorvaldsen, and because of her own ‘very sincere admiration & affection’ for Gibson.65

Lady Eastlake had to contend with publisher John Murray’s condition of publication that she put her name to the work. She demurred at first on the grounds that she ‘would not dream of announcing to the public that [she] had been occupied on Gibson’s biography while other work [was] apparently not done’.66 The ‘other work’ was a second volume of her late husband’s Materials for a History of Oil Painting, which appeared in 1869, and her memoir of his life that prefaced a second volume of Eastlake’s Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts. Lady Eastlake actually completed the memoir in October 1869, before finishing Gibson’s Life, but various problems meant it appeared as the second of her two biographical sketches of 1870. The book, as published, was criticised in certain quarters. The writer and social reformer Frances Power Cobbe, for instance, had read Gibson’s original manuscript and was disappointed with the way it had been edited.67 Generally speaking though it was well received, with Lady Eastlake accounting for the healthy sale figures with the observation that Gibson was a great favourite with a female audience.68

Eastlake’s writings on sculpture

Even though Gibson became a public figure he never published his views on sculptural theory and practice in any systematic way. Nevertheless, we can gain a good impression of them from his private correspondence, his notes for his intended autobiography, and from what others quoted him as saying. Eastlake’s views on the theory and practice of sculpture are easier to come by and are most readily ascertained from two publications dedicated to sculptural topics and from comments in witness statements he made in 1863 as part of a committee of inquiry into the running of the Royal Academy. Two major themes arising from Eastlake’s comments are appropriate to draw attention to here as both overlap with prime concerns of Gibson: firstly, Eastlake’s advocacy of the benefits to be derived from studying classical Greek sculpture, and, secondly, his response to the fundamental issue of what constituted optimum training for a young sculptor. Considering first the issue of the perceived primacy of ancient Greek sculpture as a lodestar for sculptors, it is Eastlake’s two essays on sculptural topics that are relevant. They were printed together as part of Eastlake’s Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts, published in 1847 by his friend, the barrister C.H. Bellenden Ker, although both had first been published elsewhere at different times. One of the essays bore the simple title ‘Sculpture’ and had appeared as an appendix to the third report of the Fine Arts Commission in 1844.69 The second piece was a focused study on one type of sculpture, ‘Basso-Relievo’, and had originally been written in 1835 for the widely circulated Penny Cyclopaedia.70 Both pieces helped cement Eastlake’s reputation as an original thinker and an authority on matters to do with the fine arts and broadened his publications away from their previous emphasis on painting.71

Their importance lies partly in the fact that they discussed aspects of sculpture not covered in the publications of Eastlake’s British contemporaries. While there was increasing coverage of sculpture in mid-century publications, art historian Benedict Read’s survey of the field has suggested that the vast majority was either press reportage of contemporary public sculpture commissions or reviews of sculptors’ exhibited work. There were longer discursive articles by critics like William Michael Rossetti and Francis Turner Palgrave in organs like the Art Journal, whose editor Samuel Carter Hall favoured sculpture, but again the emphasis was on the modern and contemporary British school of art.72 As a related offshoot, Anna Jameson, a friend of the Eastlakes, produced in 1854 a user-friendly handbook to the modern sculpture courts of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. This national and contemporary focus continued, a characteristic example being William Bell Scott’s The British School of Sculpture of 1872.73 Additionally, there were publications by the Royal Academy’s professors of sculpture but, in Read’s opinion, the outputs of the mid-nineteenth century were few in number and it was only with Henry Weekes, a professor at the Royal Academy from 1869 to 1877, that a significant corpus was produced, and even then his Lectures on Art had to wait until 1880 to be published.74 One work of another professor is worthy of note because it focused on historical schools of sculpture. Richard Westmacott, after his retirement, published a history in 1864. Covering the origins and development of sculpture across the globe and down the centuries, its scope necessarily precluded very detailed commentary.75 Eastlake’s works are therefore distinctive and pioneering as they are among the very first works in English to offer in-depth analysis of classical Greek art, including reflections on the lessons that a study of it could afford to contemporary practitioners.

The point of Eastlake’s philosophical piece on ‘Sculpture’ was three-fold: it was, firstly, an acknowledgement of the existence of laws governing the arts, noting that they varied between the sister arts of sculpture and painting; secondly, an attempt to define what those laws were in relation to sculpture; and thirdly, an assertion that ancient Greek sculpture represented the type which best fulfilled those laws and thus also offered the best model for aspiring sculpture students to learn from. Eastlake’s core philosophical premise was that all art can only imitate rather than actually be reality and, as such, in order to please the viewer, sculpture should work by convention rather than disappoint by attempting a dissimulation of nature, which, being impossible, would fall short of the mark and encourage a bad-tempered concentration on its perceived deficiencies.

Alongside this theoretical point, Eastlake kept in mind the most basic practical consideration that for art to be enjoyed by the viewer it had to be visible. For sculpture – so often set up high on free-standing columns or embedded in architecture – the need for compositions to be understandable was particularly crucial. This requirement had a knock-on effect on the execution of sculpture. Eastlake went on to suggest that, to accommodate both the theoretical and practical underpinnings of sculpture, using conventions was the best way for a sculptor to work. He summed up his thinking as follows: ‘The conventions of the arts are remedies, adopted in certain situations and under particular circumstances, and are supposed to be concealed in their results: their ultimate resemblance to nature, and their successful effect in those circumstances, are the test of their propriety and necessity.’76

In Eastlake’s opinion, the sculptors who had truly grappled with these combined theoretical and practical issues and had found the best solutions were the ancient Greeks. Of their sculpture, he opined:

It is distinguished by the greater or less conventional treatment, or the entire omission of all particulars which are more literally imitable than the flesh. The instances of such conventional treatment, including alterations of costume and omission of various circumstances, which are observable in the sculpture of the Greeks, are perhaps the most remarkable liberties, with a view to consistency of style, which the history of art presents.77

While not condemning outright the sculpture of other periods and countries that followed other rules – indeed he noted that ‘the sculptors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Algardi, Bernini, Puget, Le Gros and others’ were ‘justly celebrated’ – Eastlake pointed out that the law governing their art, which he defined as a ‘defence of absolute imitation’, set itself up in ‘disapproval of the system of the ancients’.78

Arguably, the type of sculpture which Eastlake best thought exemplified Greek mastery of the language of art was the bas-relief. In his article devoted to ‘Basso-Rilievo’, having classified relief sculpture into three types – alto-, mezzo- and basso-rilievo – he discussed the conventions that had come about or as he put it, ‘the modifications of which this branch of sculpture was susceptible … according to the varieties of light, situation, dimensions, and use’.79 As prime examples, especially regarding the ‘judicious adaptation of their styles for the situations they occupied’, Eastlake pointed to the Parthenon marbles as ‘unquestionably the finest existing specimens of this branch of sculpture’.80 Certain later examples were highlighted for a ‘misapplication of ingenuity’, including Donatello’s and Ghiberti’s famous reliefs on the doors of ecclesiastical buildings in Florence with their bold introduction of perspectival recession.81 In Eastlake’s opinion, ‘the art so practised, has no longer an independent style, and only betrays its inferiority by presenting defects which another mode of imitation can supply’.82 What he was criticising was the fact that those early Renaissance sculptors had wrongly forced on sculpture ‘the conditions of painting’.83 The Falconet school of sculpture of eighteenth-century France, which thought relief sculpture ‘ought always to aim at … illusion’, was likewise pointed out as being a school that had pursued a quite different path than the one that the ancient Greeks had set out on.84 Eastlake made his own preferences clear when he concluded his article by pointing to the work of John Flaxman. He noted that this modern British master demonstrated a return to the Greek ideals and that his art signalled ‘the revival of a purer taste in the application of basso relievo to architecture’.85

Eastlake’s promotion of Greek art theory dovetailed with Gibson’s own feelings about its importance, while his focus on bas-reliefs drew attention to the medium in which Gibson was especially renowned.86 Not surprisingly, Gibson was delighted with both essays. Clearly thinking such an endorsement from the leading sculptor of the day would add to the prestige of the volume, Bellenden Kerr quoted Gibson’s remarks at length in his editor’s preface. The passage bears transcribing here for it represents the fullest record of Gibson’s assessment of Eastlake’s scholarship:

With respect to the paper on BASSO-RELIEVO, my own opinion of its merit is fully borne out by the testimony of the eminent sculptor Gibson, who observes, in a letter to me, ‘The first time I read our friend Eastlake’s essay on BASSO-RELIEVO was at Rome. I then thought, and I continue to think, that he has treated the subject more correctly and more learnedly than any other writer whom I have met with. To a sculptor this is a subject of great importance; and I think that the students in this country would derive much advantage from frequently and carefully studying this essay, by which they would become more impressed with the necessity of adhering to the principles established by the Greeks for architectural decorations. It is the Elgin collection [Parthenon marbles] which has thrown light upon the subject of “Basso-relievo”; and Eastlake has admirably demonstrated the principles of that branch of sculpture’. I may add that Mr Gibson has since stated to me, that he considered the paper on SCULPTURE quite as valuable and as important as that on BASSO-RELIEVO.87

There was just one of the ‘principles established by the Greeks’ which Gibson and Eastlake did not agree on: polychromy in sculpture. As the introduction of tinting and adding colour by other means became such a hallmark of Gibson’s work and as the topic is mentioned in both articles by Eastlake, it is important to signal this point of difference between the friends. Gibson’s justifications for employing colour were many and well-known and much has been written about his tinted sculpture; here it is worth putting into the equation Eastlake’s comparatively less well-known thoughts on the matter. First, one should put on record the single episode where Eastlake had something positive to say of the effect of Gibson’s polychromy. Lady Beauchamp, having put on display Gibson’s tinted statue of herself, became concerned after receiving some negative comments about it. Seeking independent judgement, Gibson arranged for various friends, including the Eastlakes, Anna Jameson and Cockerell, to go and see it; the unanimous verdict was that its effect worked.88

Yet from a broader look of Eastlake’s views, it is clear that he was increasingly cautious about introducing colour into sculpture. In his article ‘Sculpture’, he raised the issue from what he saw as a philosophical angle, which ties in with what has been quoted above concerning Eastlake’s thoughts on the need for each type of art to be true to its distinctive, if limited form:

A statue coloured to the life might deceive the spectator for a moment, but he would presently discover that life and motion were wanting; and the imitation would be consequently pronounced to be incomplete. Whatever is attempted by the arts, the perfection of style requires that the imitation, however really imperfect with reference to nature or even with reference to other modes of representation, should suggest no want.89

Eastlake also thought it doubtful that antique Greek sculpture could be relied on as a precedent in the way Gibson suggested it might. For one thing, Eastlake came to believe that ancient Greek sculptors had restricted colour just to details, never introducing it wholesale in the way that Gibson had come to do. Secondly, and related to this point, he thought that any colour they had introduced had not sought to imitate real flesh or introduce the natural colours of eyes or hair in the way that Gibson’s interventions increasingly did. Rather unnaturally bright tints like dark red for the flesh had been employed for decorative effect or to aid the legibility of a sculpture. Thirdly, Eastlake opined that whenever ancient Greek sculptors had employed colour, they had not themselves chosen to do so, but rather had done so, unwillingly, due to religious convention.90 In his article on ‘Sculpture’ there are several passages where he made his opinions plain. Most pointedly, near the end, he asserted that ‘absence of colour was, with the ancients, an essential condition of the art’.91 Eastlake did not fail to discuss how an absence of colour affected the style of execution and how needful visibility and aesthetically pleasing contrast could be produced by using various cutting and polishing techniques to maximise the contrast created by the fall of light and the creation of shadow.92 What Gibson thought of Eastlake’s views is not recorded but clearly they did not convince him sufficiently to change his mind; not only did he continue to employ polychromy in his own work but he did so with increasing frequency and with ever more freedom.

On the training of sculptors

On a more practical level, Gibson and Eastlake both gave much consideration to how young sculptors should be trained, including what facilities and teaching methods were the best. We have seen how this matter first preoccupied them as young men in Rome but it continued to do so given that Gibson felt obliged to defend his modus operandi in Rome against strong assaults from his peers working in a very different context in London, and given that Eastlake became directly responsible for the teaching provision of young sculptors – as well as trainee painters, architects and latterly engravers – after he was appointed President of the Royal Academy in 1850. Again, Gibson’s views on Rome as ‘the University of Art’, and his consistent advocacy of the benefits of hands-on studio teaching as fostered in Rome, are well known.93 The point that is worth teasing out here, in the context of the current discussion, is how Gibson’s views were publicised partly via his friendship with Eastlake. He made his point that England was ‘almost the only country in Europe which [did not have a] pensioned academy in Rome’ and that if the government did not start sending students to Rome then no progress in the British schools of art would ever be made, to several public figures, notably to Sir Robert Peel in 1844 and to Lord Stanhope in 1857.94 It appears that additionally Eastlake and his wife became mouthpieces for him in the 1860s.

Lady Eastlake explained that a motivating principle for her emphasis in her 1870 biography on ‘the necessity of a Roman education for the student in sculpture’ had been that the matter was ‘mentioned so powerfully and urgently both in the reminiscences and correspondence of Gibson, that, unless admitted fully into the following pages, one of his chief wishes would remain unfulfilled’.95 Eastlake made his position clear during a public enquiry of 1863 into the current practices and future ambitions of the Royal Academy. Many witnesses agreed with the traditional view, most strongly advocated by Chantry but with powerful advocates like Turner, that everything an aspiring British sculptor needed for his education could be found in London and that Rome was essentially a distraction.96 Eastlake’s views were different, and characteristically nuanced: he was clear about the benefits of sending aspiring sculptors and architects to Rome, largely on account of the amount of influential sculpture and architecture they would encounter. Interestingly, he was no longer so convinced about the benefit of such an exercise to trainee painters – perhaps because British painting collections had become so rich in the Old Masters that painters now had a host of excellent models on their doorstep – a situation for which, of course, Eastlake was largely responsible through his activities at the National Gallery. What is worth pointing out is that Eastlake quoted Gibson’s weighty views on the matter in the evidence he gave before the committee of enquiry of 1863 and that, in turn, the commissioners noted Eastlake’s referencing of Gibson in the summary of key points they laid out at the start of their official report.

Two important points, one relating to Gibson, the other to Eastlake, need reflecting on at this point. Seemingly contradictory is Gibson’s advocacy on the one hand of a British teaching establishment in Rome, while, on the other, his apparently large role in letting the flourishing drawing school that he had helped establish fall into apathy. Scholars of the history of the school noted that he was in sole charge of it from 1853. Presumably Eastlake’s vagueness when asked about the current state of the British Academy at the 1863 select committee was deliberate in order not to draw attention to his friend’s embarrassing monopoly and perceived mismanagement of it. As scholar Kathleen Wells has perceptively surmised, those who courted Gibson’s support ‘for the new educational venture could scarcely focus attention on the one he had all but killed off’.97 Despite these new calls for the establishment of ‘a small branch academy at Rome’ both by some of the witnesses and by the commissioners in this final report, nothing was done: the ‘British School at Rome’ founded in 1901 is not the brainchild of the Royal Academy but rather of a completely separate group of archaeologists.

If Gibson’s record in terms of promoting facilities for teaching art is ambiguous, Eastlake’s is not straightforward either. Looking at his record it cannot be said that he was particularly proactive during his fifteen-year presidency of the Royal Academy in improving the teaching on offer, especially for the non-painters in his care. One of the issues that the Royal Commission of Enquiry of 1863 focused on was the curriculum, which took a particular hammering from the sculptural confraternity. Certain problem areas were highlighted by the witnesses: the lack of sculptors on the teaching staff, the minimal curriculum, the emphasis on lectures being a less effective way of teaching sculptors than practical demonstrations, and that the arrangement in the life-class, where the painters’ easels dominated the front rows, thwarted ‘that close access to the model necessary for the worker in clay’.98 A separate but related matter was the continued issue of the lack of appropriate space given over to the display of sculpture at the Academy’s annual exhibition, which impacted on the ability of sculptors to promote their reputations and to find patrons to buy their work.99

While not attempting to justify Eastlake’s record, certain factors beyond his control may partly explain his inaction on behalf of the sculptors at the Academy. As he repeatedly explained to the board of inquiry, he could not forget that painters made up the vast majority of the students and hence it was painters who were most needed on the teaching staff, and nor could he forget that the public, who paid their all-important entry fees to the summer exhibitions that sustained the Academy’s finances, came to see the pictures and paid very little attention to the other exhibits.100 There was also the abiding issue of a lack of space, which limited the possibilities in relation to the teaching on offer and the display of works of art at the annual exhibitions, and that was something that only got resolved after the Academy relocated to Burlington House in 1869, a move that took place four years after Eastlake’s – and Gibson’s – death.101


Lady Eastlake’s biography of Gibson included passages where she compared her husband to their friend Gibson; indeed what distinguishes her biography of 1870 from the later one by T. Matthews of 1911 is her introduction of arguably extraneous and even vain references to Eastlake and herself. The two men were measured against each other more extensively by Austen Henry Layard in his review article of 1870 of Lady Eastlake’s two biographies published that same year. Layard began his article by noting certain shared personal traits and artistic influences: ‘They were both equally fastidious, and they both aimed at a classical purity of style, and an excessive refinement of execution, which may have been obstacles to their attaining the highest power’.102 He went on to talk about their differences in terms of how they spent their lives. He dismissed Gibson, noting ‘there was little to be said’ in reference to his legacy beyond his sculptural output, but was expansive about Eastlake:

[T]o his acquirements and skill as a painter, and to that intellectual cultivation in which Gibson was entirely deficient, [he] added other qualities which brought him more into immediate contact with the world, and rendered his life a more useful, active, and eventful one than that of his friend and fellow-labourer. His experience and knowledge enabled him to take a wider and juster view of art in its various phases and in connexion with its many ends than Gibson, and consequently there are more materials for his biography.103

Although Layard in his review article of 1870 cast judgement on what he held to be Eastlake’s and Gibson’s respective contributions in terms of artistic output and participation in public life, especially as that related to the arts, nowhere did he dwell on their mutual interaction over sculpture. Few it seems, even during Eastlake and Gibson’s own lifetimes, made much of their longstanding and fruitful association in this area. This article has sought to make good that omission. It has proven beyond doubt the importance of the friendship to Gibson, not least because it played a vital role in securing Gibson’s reputation within the British art world. It begs the question of whether Gibson, without Eastlake’s interventions of various kinds outlined above, would have got as far as he did, particularly within the deeply riven Royal Academy of the day. The article has also discussed Eastlake’s and Gibson’s interests over certain important issues of sculptural theory and education. The second section utilised extant fragments of evidence, necessarily privileging Eastlake’s views on sculpture over Gibson’s because they were made known in the public domain through publication and secondary criticism. Bearing both their words and artistic oeuvre in mind, it has been shown that while the friends’ views differed on occasion and most essentially over the issue of polychromy in sculpture, there was sufficient agreement between them to ensure cordial relations for almost half a century.