Saturday, July 12, 2014

Gibson, Northumberland, Cupid, and Psyche

On July 9th, Sotheby's London held an auction of 57 works of fine and decorative arts collected by the Dukes of Northumberland, put up for sale by the current 12th Duke. Among the works that sold were two bas reliefs in marble made by the sculptor John Gibson (about whom I have of course written rather extensively!). The reliefs were The Marriage of Psyche and Celestial Love and Cupid Pursuing Psyche, and sold for a rather surprising £122,500 each ($209,953; hammer price including buyer's premium). This is nowhere as high as the millions spent on contemporary art, of course, but in a day and age when many people believe Classicism is dead, it is noteworthy that for some people these works still hold great merit and are considered worthy acquisitions and beautiful works of art. Indeed, after having looked at many of Gibson's works in Europe and America, I can say with certainty that his relief sculptures in marble are among his finest works. Gibson was a draftsman at heart, and relief sculpture often allows the sculptor to "draw" in marble, if you will, in a way that is very different from how sculpture in the round is conceived and made. The image above showing Cupid Pursuing Psyche is actually from the collection at the Royal Academy, as Sotheby's does not allow you to download images, but the two works are seemingly identical based on a visual comparison of the two, which you can see here and here.

The subjects of both works come from the mythical tales of Eros/Cupid, the winged god of love, and the young woman Psyche, with whom he unexpectedly fell in love. The full love story is beyond the scope of this blog post, but it was a love fraught with challenges, and in the end they were united in the heavens, with Psyche being turned into a goddess and granted butterfly wings to join her spouse. Their love story was a popular subject in art at the time, so Gibson was no different from many of his fellow painters and sculptors in trying to capture an interpretation of their story of young love. He worked the subject in marble, in fact, in three different bas reliefs--the two named above, and a third entitled simply Cupid and Psyche, showing the two in a more passionate embrace. The dates of the original designs for all three reliefs probably originate in the late 1830s, for we know that Queen Victoria commissioned one of the earliest marble versions of The Marriage of Psyche and Celestial Love (seen here: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014). It was intended as a wedding anniversary gift for Prince Albert, but she instead gave it to him for Christmas in 1845. Although this 1844-45 version and that commissioned by the Duke of Northumberland seem almost exactly the same, in fact Gibson changed where he put his signature. On the version in the Royal Collection, he signed his name on the bottom of the lyre; in the version for Northumberland, he signed it along the lower left.

Algernon Percy, the 4th Duke of Northumberland (1792-1865), and his wife, the Duchess Eleanor Grosvenor Percy, commissioned the two bas reliefs from Gibson in early 1854, when they were on holiday in Rome and visiting his studio. Gibson noted in letters that he was warmly received by them. In his memoirs, he even credited the Duke with giving him the idea of keeping his famous Tinted Venus statue on display in his studio longer than he intended to help market this masterpiece. The Duke said to him: "If you could keep the Venus in Rome for a considerable time, she would be visited by travellers [sic] of different nations, and they would spread her fame for you." (The Biography of John Gibson, R.A., Sculptor, Rome, ed. Thomas Matthews [London: Heinemann, 1911], p.184). He followed the Duke's suggestion and kept his polychrome Venus for another five years, until the owner, Mrs. Preston, demanded he send the sculpture to her in England as promised.

Gibson kept up good relations with the Duke and Duchess. Extant correspondence shows that he was invited by them to visit them in England in 1855, and he probably did on his visit there that Fall. Other correspondence and his journal at the Royal Academy show that he also visited them at their famous home of Syon House in the suburbs of London from August 1st through 3rd, 1863. These two bas reliefs may have been installed in any one of their homes, as they could be moved and presumably were not integral to the architecture of a particular room. The separation of them from the descendants of the Dukes of Northumberland today is but one of a number of important works in their collection that critics say are sad to see go, but real life often forces even the aristocracy to make sacrifices in order to pay debts and repairs so as to maintain the grand manor estates one wants to visit when abroad.

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