Roubiliac and the Eighteenth-Century Monument: Sculpture as Theatre.

Author:Johns, Christopher M.S.
 
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It has often been observed, by Barbara Stafford and others,(1) that the study of 18th-century visual culture has long been neglected by most art historians, especially by those in this country. Relatively few American colleges and universities offer a specialized survey course of the period in their curricula, and even in introductory classes it is often misleadingly characterized as either an enfeebled, late Baroque or, worse, an aristocratic frivolity that serves pedagogically only as a foil to the more didactic (and hence "better") art of the Neoclassical era. The one major exception to this state of affairs has been the history of architecture.(2) And the comparative indifference to the 18th century in the art-historical canon has an ironic corollary within the field; namely, the entrenched francocentrism of most specialists. Moreover, the cultural gallicanism of 18th-century studies has contributed to the privileging of painting over sculpture, since the lion's share of scholarly scrutiny has fastened onto Rococo and Neoclassical painting. Thus, a significant monographic study of the French sculptor Louis-Francois Roubiliac is a most welcome addition to the growing literature on 18th-century sculpture.

The term monograph, in its traditional sense, is a bit of a misnomer for the ambitious study by David Bindman and Malcolm Baker, which concerns itself only with Roubiliac's ecclesiastical monuments and which places them into a brilliantly researched and pains-takingly re-created context that, in itself, is a major contribution to our understanding of the period.(3) It is a far cry from the brief "background" section provided in traditional monographs so that, the unpleasant "history" quickly outlined, the serious task of tracing the stylistic development of an artist's oeuvre -- based almost exclusively on internal, formal "data" -- may begin. Indeed, this book could well serve as a paradigm for a contextualized, interdisciplinary approach that might intellectually reinvigorate the now moribund monograph.

Bindman and Baker have divided their book into three comprehensive sections subdivided into several shorter sections that are, in turn, divided into even shorter chapters. The disadvantages of this occasionally choppy format are far outweighed by the intelligence of their ordering and their ability to concentrate on a particular idea or monument without disrupting the larger narrative construct. Bindman's contribution, the first part entitled "Roubiliac and the Monument in a Changing Society," occupies fully half the book and treats three major themes: the monument's context in 18th-century Britain; the sculptor's profession in the middle decades of the century (including biographical data on the surprisingly elusive Roubiliac); and the iconography of the ecclesiastical monuments, which sheds much light on artist/ patron relations and gives some understanding about the motivations of patrons. Baker is responsible for parts two and three. The former is a fascinating account of the laborious process of designing and constructing Roubiliac's monuments and the latter is the highly useful catologue, written by Baker with some entries by Bindman and Tessa Murdoch.

The funerary monuments of Roubiliac and his better-known rival John Michael Rysbrack raise interesting questions about the response of the public to works of art and reveal much about class and gender relationships in mid-18th-century Britain.(4) Utilizing the notion of cultural site as a place of ideological exchange originally constructed by Harbermas, the authors carefully reconstruct the response of the artist to the expectations of both patrons and the wider public, supplying a copious number of contemporary reactions and their own incisive speculations. The nature of the evidence, however, indicates that the response was from the educated, privileged classes, so we are left to wonder what ordinary people would have made of the elaborate conceits of most of these monuments. The memorials to General James Fleming and to Major General William Hargrave, both in Westminster Abbey, are notable cases in point. Commissioned by the heir to both dead generals, John Fleming, these public monuments satisfied a strongly felt sense of obligatio, the neglect of which could have had serious social repercussions for the younger Fleming. Moreover, their placement in the abbey, which can only be described as highly conspicuous, gives the works and the sculptor a public profile that was not possible elsewhere. The nationalistic associations of the setting were also considerable for the two military heroes who lost their lives in the national service. More subtly, the monuments by the French Roubiliac must have made him seem a little less foreign to potential patrons.

Roubiliac's Westminster Abbey monuments also indicate the decidedly male character...

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