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Alfred Stevens – a largely forgotten Victorian artist

Alfred George Stevens, Victorian painter and sculptor, might have been far better known if he had managed to be more skillful as a businessman. He must go down as a failed genius because of his inability to finish much of his work, this being due largely to the exacting standards that he set for himself. 

He was born in Blandford, Dorset, on 31st December 1817, the son of a housepainter. He was largely self-taught, having spent the years from 1833 to 1842 studying classical and Renaissance art in Italy.

On returning to England, he taught design and worked on a number of projects, including designs for the lions that adorn the railings outside the British Museum and the four mosaic prophets inside the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. 

He also worked on more prosaic designs, such as for domestic stoves and fenders on behalf of a foundry in Sheffield.

Alfred Stevens worked for six years on designs for murals for Dorchester House, on Park Lane. These were never completed, and would have been lost in any case when the house was demolished in 1929 to make way for the Dorchester Hotel. However, some of the cartoons (preliminary artwork) survive, and can be seen at Tate Britain, on Millbank. His style was not so much an imitation of the forms of the Italian Renaissance as a reincarnation of its spirit. 

As a painter, Alfred Stevens specialised in portraiture, although no more than 17 of his works are known to have been completed. These were technically excellent, although other portrait painters of his time may have had a better understanding of character. He demonstrated a mastery of colour and of how to apply paint.

The Wellington Memorial 

However, the project that occupied him for most of the latter part of his life, and for which he is best known today, was the memorial monument to the Duke of Wellington (who died in 1852) that can be seen in the North Aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1856 a competition was announced for the commission, which Stevens entered. However, his design was well down the list of preferences, and he was only awarded the commission when proper consideration was given to how the memorial would be placed in the cathedral, framed by one of the aisle archways. 

There were difficulties from the start, including Stevens’s totally unrealistic estimate of what the project would cost to complete. He also agreed to produce a full-scale plaster model in situ, which naturally led to much debate over the design, with his intentions being queried at every turn. When the money ran out, Stevens found that he had no choice other than to finance the project himself.

In 1870 there was only the plaster model to show, and the commissioner of works had Alfred Stevens’s contract terminated and his work impounded. No other sculptor could take on the task and Stevens was brought back to the project, under supervision. However, Stevens did not live to see the memorial completed as he died suddenly, in his studio, on 1st May 1875, at the age of 57. There is a suggestion that he may have committed suicide out of despair. 

The monument was eventually completed in 1912, some 56 years after it was begun. Much of the work was done by Hugh Stannus, who unveiled an incomplete version in 1878, and John Tweed, who completed the piece to Stevens’ original design, or as close to it as was possible. Finance was the main problem, with various arms of government refusing to take responsibility or to find the funds. There was also considerable debate over what had been Alfred Stevens’s intentions, as it was well known that his plans had changed at various stages. The monument was to be surmounted by a massive bronze horse and rider, but there were doubts as to whether the structure would take the weight. 

The 40-foot-high monument comprises a sarcophagus with a bronze effigy of the Duke of Wellington lying on it. A marble canopy, supported on slender pillars, rises above it. On one side of the canopy is a sculpture, cast in bronze, of Valour overcoming Cowardice and on the other side is Truth defeating Falsehood. The influence of Michelangelo is easy to see in both these bronzes. Other sculptured figures can be seen at the base and on other parts of the edifice. Surmounting the whole structure is the bronze figure of the Duke riding his favourite horse, Copenhagen, as mentioned above. 

One difficulty with getting the monument completed was that for many years the unfinished work was placed in a side chapel of the cathedral where it could not be seen to advantage, with some of the excellent sculptural work not visible. However, the full splendour of the monument is now on display in its rightful place. Stevens’s original 10-foot high plaster model of the monument, made for the 1856 competition, can also be seen, but at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.

Alfred Stevens has been regarded by many as the finest sculptor of his age, although the quantity of his work is such that it is not easy to judge its quality. What we do know is that his meticulous attention to detail and destruction of anything that he considered to be at all sub-standard means that the work that has survived is the very best that he could do, and, had he left more such work behind him, it would have been equally good.

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