‘England’s Michelangelo’ comes to Canterbury!

To coincide with the Studio 3 Gallery’s Alfred Drury exhibition, the Beaney Art Museum in Canterbury – also a finalist for the Art Fund Museum of the Year award in 2013 – has set up a small exhibition on yet another Alfred: that of Alfred Stevens. Dubbed ‘England’s Michelangelo’ this one room display features the working drawings of this incredible Victorian artist, taken from Alfred Drury’s personal collection.

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Alfred Stevens, Two putti, one emptying a pot of water over another, 1860-65. Own photograph.

Why is he compared to Michelangelo? Stevens himself, too, was a sculptor. As a young man he spent nine years in Italy where he had the opportunity to study Renaissance art, training also in Florence at the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts). Coincidentally, Michelangelo Buonarroti also trained there, alongside sculptors such as Giambologna and Benvenuto Cellini. By 1842 he left Rome and returned to England where he found work in 1844 at the School of Design in Somerset House, London.

Many of the drawings on display are sketches for public commissions. He is best known for his Wellington Monument which resides in St. Paul’s Cathedral, a commission that he won by offering a rather low fee of £14,000 in exchange for undertaking the commission in 1857. Sadly, he didn’t live to see it completed – it was completed later by John Tweed, a.k.a. the ‘British Rodin’ – dying in 1875 at the age of 68.

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Alfred Stevens, The Wellington Monument, 1912. Image via www.victorianweb.org.

Several of these studies were for the décor in the dining room of Dorchester House, a mansion in Park Lane, London, which was demolished to make way for the present Dorchester Hotel. His most important contribution was to the chimneypiece, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, featuring two marvellous caryatids on either side of the fireplace. However, the focus of these Dorchester House studies is not on the chimneypiece but on his designs for the decorated walls. A sheet of compositional sketches for Corineus throwing Magog into the Sea (1858-62) shows Stevens’ exceptional grasp of form and movement. His crawling men are perfectly sculpted – fortunately, with a ‘normal’ set off muscles, unlike the Renaissance master – and his seated women are crafted like Venuses with a slight reminiscence of the Sistine Chapel sibyls.

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Alfred Stevens, Man crawling, 1846-80. Own photograph.

His influences are made known by a display of drawings based on Old Master works. There are a few sketches focusing on Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, specifically of the gasping crowd beneath the Virgin Mary. Two scenes featuring centaurs are clearly influenced by Michelangelo’s relief of the Battle of the Centaurs (c.1492) while a drawing next to these attempts to copy Raphael’s central ceiling panel in the Stanza della Segnatura, one of four Raphael Rooms in the Vatican in Rome. Aside from these dynamic, mythological scenes we can also see intricate designs for the fittings of ceilings and architectural plans.

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Left to right: Alfred Stevens, Preparatory drawing for the Ascension of Christ, 1844; Titian, The Assumption of the Virgin (detail), 1516-18. Own photograph; www.wikipedia.org.

The exhibition shows the beginnings of Stevens’ commissions, as opposed to over-emphasised final pieces. These rapid, detailed drawings with chalk and graphite allow us to witness his understanding of form and dynamism, from depictions of cute, playful putti to classical representations of suffering men and graceful women. Being a free exhibition hosted by an Art Fund recognised institution in a historic city, what more could you want? Christmas. Always Christmas.

‘England’s Michelangelo’ Alfred Stevens runs until 1st December 2013 at the Beaney, House of Art and Knowledge, Canterbury, www.canterbury.co.uk/Beaney.

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