Date 1861-04-01
Publication Fraser's
Topic British sculpture past/present/future
AP display
RA display
Subject art
Keywords valuation
  ↳ public awareness
Standards truth
  ↳ authenticity
  ↳ Greek classicism
Notes Thanks W.B. Scott for praise in letter 28 April 1861.

Annotation details

61 April Fraser's


British sculpture, past, present future.


Rossetti, William M. "British Sculpture, Its Conditions and Prospects." Fraser's 63 (April 1861): 493-510. Web. 21 Sept. 2011.


Rossetti examines sculpture in general and British sculpture in particular, discussing the essential principles governing the art form as well as the current state of British sculpture and sculptors. In the process, Rossetti considers the interplay between art, artists, critics and the public, explaining the dynamic effect each component has on contemporary sculpture as an art form and the resulting art itself as a watermark of British culture.

Rossetti methodically explains what he sees as a crucial divergence between what artists profess and how they ultimately act despite their professed belief, plus some of the related causes for this divergence. This argument becomes the warrant for his claim regarding similar a divergence degrading the art form as professed in "the Government Schools of Art."

Rossetti builds a precise argument claiming that motivation in British sculpture among sculptors, critics and the public has become skewed for several reasons: sculpture itself must be rooted in contemporary authenticity, not imitation of "classic" forms; sculpture requires a proper setting which in England is lacking. This claim mirrors Rossetti's recollection of a conversation he had with John Ruskin around 1860, when Ruskin pointed out to Rossetti "that sculpture dissociated from architecture seemed to him out of its proper sphere" (Reminiscences I:105)

A further complication is that sculptors have no choice but to invest an inordinate amount of time and money into even the basic proposal of a project and therefore can only afford to conform to skewed Academy and popular expectations rather than authentic aesthetics; and finally, the British public appears to be largely uninformed and uninterested in the true ideal of authentic sculpture, preferring instead a cursory appreciation of the imitation of previous sculpting forms and conventions erroneously endorsed by both Academy and contemporary critics.

Rossetti discusses the marketplace interaction between key factors such as criticism, patronage, aesthetic authority including the Royal Academy, and public perception and valuation of aesthetics and sculpture which, he concludes, results in "the poor state of British sculpture at the present day."

Although Rossetti states that "it is in no part of our object to attack or criticize individuals," Royal Academy painter Gibson is mentioned as having been less than successful in the truest execution of sculpture; Foley is mentioned as having been only slightly more successful yet nonetheless short of the mark of true and authentic sculpture. Finally, Rossetti considers Thomas Woolner, "a non-academician," lauding his authenticity, truth in sculpting, his extraordinary works, and the reasons for Woolner's exceptional achievement in sculpting. This apparent favoring of PRB movement artists over Academy artists is an example of Rossetti promoting his Pre-Raphaelite cause, or as he termed it, "for a little tartness of tone to artists or writers in the opposite camp, or (what is still even more difficult to avoid) a little smoothing down of edges when friends had to be dealt with, I ought to perhaps apologize . . ." (Reminiscences 1:58).

In a letter to William Bell-Scott dated 28 April 1861, referring to the Fraser's article, Rossetti reinforces his thoughts on Greek sculpture, telling W. Bell Scott "even in my rabidest days of Preraphaelitism, I could only have expressed much the same opinion when it came to writing it down for the public." He also in that letter adds that he felt it necessary to include a strong reference to Woolner and that perhaps the reference came across too strongly but Fraser's editor Froude wanted it in the review as well (Letters 114).


polemicist, critic, historian


fine arts, professed beliefs, fundamental and universal canon of art, simple wrong-headedness, fatal motive, vanity, incapacity, monumental art, public indifference, bugbears, tradesman-like character, purblind reliance upon precedent, inanition

Standards of Judgment:

true art, truth in art, authenticity, sincerity; classic notions of beauty and truth; works of the classic "Grecian" canon of sculpture


The Royal Academy; Gibson; Foley; Thomas Woolner; Wordsworth; Falkener; Cordier; Browning; Watson



Writing technique/tone:

Deliberate, sometimes inverted ("[British] sculptors are the reverse of good"), deferential to his subject in wording but firm in intent, structured, logical


"Now, vanity is a very fatal motive for a work of art-as wholly fatal, perhaps, as any other that could be named." ". . . the divorce which has taken place of sculpture from architecture." ". . . if they cite the masterpiece, it is only to class it with the other guys and bugbears of our thoroughfares." "They commission futilities and commonplaces, and they get them." "Imitation is not art." "The imitator is fated and a serf from the beginning." "[imitation is] a bit in the mouth, not a spur in the flanks." "The inevitable result is that the average sculptor is not in any comparable degree imbued with the sense of love of human beauty, or incited to its embodiment."

Works Cited

Rossetti, William Michael. Some Reminiscences of William Michael Rossetti. Vol. 1. New York: AMS, 1970. Print.

Rossetti, William Michael. Selected Letters of William Michael Rossetti. Ed. Roger Peattie. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990. Print.