Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Gibson the Designer

One of the articles I have been working on for the past few months has now been published in electronic format. Although e-journals still have not garnered the respectability of print journals, particularly in academia, one of their advantages is that the process of writing to publication is much faster than in the traditional print world. (Indeed, another essay I started on back in 2010 still has yet to be released in print format!) A second advantage, in this particular case, is that the article is freely available to the public and is part of the open-access trend in academia, where few ever receive payment or compensation for their scholarly work. bklynbiblio readers will recall my last post about my article in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, another free, open-access e-journal. This latest article is entitled "John Gibson, Designer: Sculpture and Reproductive Media in the Nineteenth Century" (available here for free) and it has just been published in the December issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Art Historiography. At 50 pages with 138 footnotes, clearly there was much to say; fortunately, e-journals make it easier to publish lengthier essays. This essay discusses the sculptor John Gibson (about whom I have blogged before) by re-contextualizing his body of work from the perspective of reproduction--the making and dissemination of multiples rather than single, unique works of art. In the nineteenth century, it was more common for artists to make copies and repetitions of works (read the article to discover the difference between copies and repetitions) than it is today, although sculpture by its very nature, as numerous scholars have noted, is a reproductive media and needs to be studied as a multiple, taking into consideration every part of the work in various media. Taking this premise further, I demonstrate in the essay how Gibson emphasized his role as a designer by the mid-1800s, enabling his drawings (but conceptually also his ideas) to be reproduced by others in the forms of porcelain statuary, cameos, and engravings. In emphasizing his role as a designer over that of a sculptor (i.e. a maker just of works in stone), Gibson was able to disseminate his subjects to a wider audience with different socio-economic backgrounds, reinforcing his role as one of the most famous sculptors of the nineteenth century.

Back in February 2013 I had written up MWA XII: Gibson's Cupid. Since then, I have made more discoveries about his sculpture Cupid Disguised as a Shepherd Boy, and these are included in the article as a compendium. This statue was commissioned in marble at least 9 times, making it one of the most popular (quantitatively) of all nineteenth-century sculptures. The image you see above, however, is but one example of a work designed by Gibson but made by someone else, in this case the cameo maker Tommaso Saulini. This shell cameo was produced after 1850 and depicts Gibson's design of Phaeton Driving the Horses of the Sun, the original drawing for which is in the Royal Collection, signed and dated 1850. He also made a marble relief sculpture with the same design for Earl Fitzwilliam, and an engraving was made of this design in 1851. A copy of this cameo was exhibited in London at Saulini's booth at the International Exhibition of 1862, for which the cameo maker won a medal. The subject tells the story of Phaeton, the son of Apollo, the sun god, who asked permission to guide the chariot of the sun across the heavens. Apollo feared for the boy's safety and begged him not to do this, but Phaeton insisted. He did his best to control the horses, but inevitably the boy was unable to handle the reins, and he plummeted from the heavens to his death on earth. For the ancient Greeks this myth taught a lesson about obedience and hubris. For Gibson, the story provided him with an opportunity to depict a dynamic scene and spread the idealism of Greek art to his contemporaries, not through a large sculpture but through a work of art that would have been worn by women in their diadems or comb mounts.

(Image: Phaeton Driving the Horses of the Sun, carved by Tommaso Saulini after design by John Gibson, after 1850, shell cameo, approx. 2 x 4 in., London: British Museum)

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