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Bevis Hillier

Eros Restored : For a Mere $250,000 You Can Own a Life-Size Casting of One of London's Best-Known Statues

May 31, 1987|Bevis Hillier

The Fine Art Society in London is issuing replicas of one of London's best-known statues, Eros (1893), the graceful winged figure that stands atop a fountain in Piccadilly Circus. In making the copies, the society's chief consultant has been 84-year-old George Mancini, who in the late 1920s worked with the sculptor of Eros, Sir Alfred Gilbert. It is one of those romantic links that contribute to the indivisibility of art history.

Tourists who sit around the Eros fountain when its waters are not dribbling over the steps may charitably assume that Eros stands for "selfless love"; or they might less charitably wonder whether the sculpture has something to do with the prostitution that has thrived in Piccadilly and the nearby Soho area for centuries. But "Eros" should properly be referred to as "the Shaftesbury Memorial." It was set up as a monument to Anthony Ashley-Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, who rescued many street children from Dickensian squalor.

Shaftesbury died in 1885. A committee established to commemorate him decided that he should have two memorials: a life-size marble statue in Westminster Abbey and a bronze portrait in one of the most frequented streets in London. Both commissions went to Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, a fashionable sculptor who had given art lessons to Queen Victoria. Boehm had already sculpted a head of Shaftesbury while the philanthropist was alive. All he now had to do was put his atelier to work to set the head on a dignified frock-coated figure, adding a few master touches himself. The Westminster Abbey figure was ready for unveiling within a year.

Alfred Gilbert had been a pupil of Boehm. In 1886 Gilbert was sculpting for Westminster Abbey a monument to the liberal politician Henry Fawcett, Britain's only blind postmaster-general. Boehm was so impressed with the Fawcett memorial that he generously turned down the second Shaftesbury commission in favor of his former pupil.

Gilbert refused to have anything to do with the frowsty Victorian tradition of portrait sculpture--the "coat and trousers style," as he called it. His first idea was for a covered font in the Gothic style, based, as Gilbert's biographer Richard Dorment has pointed out, on a baptismal font by Donatello (Donato di Niccolo Bardi) in Siena Cathedral. But in 1888 Builder magazine announced that the memorial was to be a bronze fountain. Gilbert's style changed between the late 1880s and the early 1900s. During that period he designed a magnificent gold and silver epergne for Queen Victoria. "This," Richard Dorment writes, "certainly encouraged him to think in bolder, more ambitious forms, not the tight, linear gothic of the Fawcett Memorial."

Gilbert had Eros made of cast aluminum--the first use of that metal on a public statue. The shining figure would stand out in those "pea soup" London fogs through which Sherlock Holmes rode in hansom cabs. Inevitably, Gilbert's conception of what was proper for a Shaftesbury Memorial caused public controversy and rows with the memorial committee. He himself thought that the compromises the committee forced upon him ruined the fountain. But modern critics take a kinder view of the sculpture. "Eros himself," Dorment writes, "the rollicking merbabies and scaly flying fish, are each a triumph, masterpieces of modeling, casting and polychromy. The ensemble rocks with movement and bursts with exuberance."

In 1983 the Greater London Council examined Eros and found it in need of repair. During the restoration, a set of plaster casts for the statue was found in the basement of the Victoria & Albert Museum. They had been given to the museum in 1937 by Gerald Keith, Sir Alfred Gilbert's former attorney. George Mancini supervised the restoration of the plaster casts. There was evidence that the Eros figure in Piccadilly had been bent. Eros returned to Piccadilly, fully restored, in February, 1985. At that time, Richard Dorment was organizing an exhibition of Gilbert's work at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

The Fine Art Society (founded 1876), which had been Gilbert's agents from 1919 onwards and which had held a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1932 and a memorial show in 1935, the year after his death, decided to produce an edition of up to 10 casts of Eros. George Mancini advised on chasing and patinating the new casts. He used Indian ink on the aluminum to give shadow and tone.

"It was Alfred Gilbert who taught me to be a perfectionist," Mancini told art historian Isabelle Anscombe. Mancini worked with Gilbert in 1926 on the figures of the Windsor Castle tomb of Queen Victoria's son, the Duke of Clarence. Mancini added: "I knew Gilbert when I was very young. To think that I'd be working on his Eros in 60 years time--I wouldn't have believed it."

The Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond St., London, is offering the 10-foot-high Eros casts at about $250,000 each.

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