In 1215, Saher de Quincy, the Earl of Manchester, and 24 other barons forced King John of England to sign the Magna Carta, which limited the king's powers and protected their interests. Since the 1900s, statues of Quincy and other barons have stood in the chamber of the House of Lords in London, "as a reminder to all lords who sit below to keep an eye on the monarchy and make sure absolutism did not recur," said Michael Hatt.
The Quincy statue is in New Haven now, for a limited time, and Hatt couldn't be more delighted. "It's a real coup getting it here," he said.
Hatt, a professor of the history of art at the University of Warwick, said that a lot during a press walk-through of "Sculpture Victorious," the new exhibit of 19th-century British statuary at Yale Center for British Art. "I keep saying it over and over. I don't mean to become dull, but it's so extraordinary that so many of these pieces are here," Hatt said.
Hatt is one of three curators of the show, which is made up of many pieces that have never left the United Kingdom. Many have never left the place where they were first installed, such as the Quincy statue, as well as an extraordinary silver trophy that depicts a medieval-inspired joust, complete with knights, maidens, horses, dogs, spears and coats of arms. That glittering prize usually sits – like a fantasy in the midst of the everyday grind – in a municipal building in southwest Scotland.
"It's sort of bizarre, seeing it in a very modern building, council offices, a very unglamorous setting," Hatt said. "This is silversmithing at its most refined, at its most skilled."
The exhibit focuses on artworks created during the Victorian era, a time when "an extraordinary efflorescense of sculpture" occurred, in Hatt's words. Not surprisingly, one of the most popular subjects for artists was Queen Victoria herself. "Queen Victoria is an iconic image, the symbol par excellence of not only the monarchy but also the empire," Hatt said.
She is represented in the exhibit by statues both large and small of herself both young and old, by pieces of jewelry and especially by coins stamped with her image, which were used in many far-flung lands at the height of the British Empre's power.
"In every financial transaction in the empire, a sculpture of Queen Victoria is being passed from hand to hand," Hatt said.
Two other queens are seen in the exhibit. A cast of the 13th century tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the only sculptures to survive a 1936 fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace, a London exhibition space that housed hundreds of sculptures. Making a cast of the tomb, which is in France, "is a symblic repatriation of English kings and queens from French soil," said Jason Edwards, professor of history of art at the University of York and one of the other two curators. (The third curator is Martina Droth, associate director of research and curator of sculpture at YCBA.)
Another queen, the fondly remembered Elizabeth I, is seen in the exhibit in a massive sculpture of herself. She and the king of Spain play chess with a set that looks like the Spanish Armada, which Elizabeth's army famously defeated in 1588. The work, "A Royal Game," made of electrotyped bronze and wood, stone, abalone, and glass, is so tall visitors must stand on tiptoes to see the detail, and even then might not catch it all.
"It makes you feel rather small. It was designed so you had to look up," Hatt said. "It shows a splendid assertiveness. You have to stand close. You can't just walk away."
Another iconic figure is the first Duke of Wellington, the military leader who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. An entire bay of the exhibit is dedicated to studies from a work created in Wellington's honor by Alfred Stevens. Stevens, influenced by Italian Renaissance artworks, was a tragic figure driven to his death by the ever-changing demands of the committee that sponsored a competition to create the work. "They were generally blown away by the design, but they had a loss of nerve," said Edwards. "The pressure of this became self-fulfilling. He had a breakdown. The stress of doing it effectively killed him."
Those interested in British history can check out the Yale exhibit, as well as an exhibit at the Clark Art Institute, 225 South St. in Williamstown, Mass. One of the four surviving copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta will be on exhibit there through Nov. 2.
"Radical Words: From Magna Carta to the Constitution" also will feature several of the important documents of American political thought that it inspired, including one of 26 known surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence, a draft of the United States Constitution annotated by George Mason, and an 1863 official folio copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.
SCULPTURE VICTORIOUS: ART IN AN AGE OF INVENTION 1837-1901 is at Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St. in New Haven, until Nov. 30. Details: britishart.yale.edu.