By the end of the 19th century an established vehicle for the promotion of artist’s activities had been established in the form of journals like Art Union, The Magazine of Art and The Studio. The audience for sculpture had also expanded with the inauguration of public museums and galleries. The industrial and mercantile prosperity in the second half of the 19th century created a class of potential art consumers which sought to have its tastes directed and expanded by informed and well illustrated journalism. As Edmund Gosse wrote in The Magazine of Art ‘Early Victorian Sculptore…kept up a sort of pompous mystery about their business, and could not stoop to the needs of their clients. Gibson pushed the solemnity of the craft to a pitch that was almost imbecile…’ The increase in art journalism and the formation of societies for the encouragement of the arts brought the activities of the sculptor into sharp focus.
The Art Union of London had been a crusading society for the encouragement of good taste among artists and manufacturers since 1837. One of its early fund raising initiatives was to offer prizes of reduced copies of statues by contemporary artists. The campaign was hugely successful and by 1860 The Art Union boasted that 313 statues had been produced under its auspices. Its activities became more adventurous and in the 1870s Britain was talked about as having its own ‘rising school in bronzed moulding’. The choice of bronze as the contemporary sculptor’s preferred medium and the increased market for reductions brought into existence firms of bronze casters which specialised in reduced editions. The publication of these art bronzes began to attract criticism from those who had at first promoted it. George Simmonds, First President of the Art Workers Guild explained, ‘These [art bronzes] are often copies of fine originals but most of their value is lost from the fact that they are cast in many pieces, which are then joined together, filed and chased up in a happy go lucky commercial style by a not over skilled artisan. Thus every trace of the original hand is lost’. Some artists began to realise the importance of quality control and thus became their own publishers, most notably Alfred Gilbert and William Hamo Thornycroft.
Alfred Gilbert was an artist who did much to resurrect the medium of bronze from its obliteration by decades of preference for marble. Gilbert became fascinated by the process of lost wax casting which he saw being done at foundries in Italy in the 1870s, and was lecturing on the subject by 1883. Between 1881 and 1892 Gilbert produced a series of works which explored the expressive possibilities of lost wax (Cire Perdu) bronze casting. One of the first among these was Perseus Arming of 1882. Gilbert said this of his work…’As at that time my whole thoughts were of my artistic equipment for the future, I conceived the idea that Perseus, before becoming a hero, was a mere mortal and that he had to look to his equipment’. Gilbert acted as his own publisher and monitored the reproduction of his sculptures. Between 1893 and 1920 Gilbert was associated with the Compagnie des Bronzes which satisfied his stringent standards and they first reproduced the statuette of ‘Perseus Arming’ in both full size and reduction.
William Hamo Thornycroft was another sculptor who elected to be his own publisher. The Saturday Review of May 1880 reported that Arthur Leslie Collie, a noted art decorator ‘published a bronze reduction of Mr Thornycroft’s “Gordon” last year and has been so encouraged by the success of that solitary effort that he has opened at his gallery a little collection of small bronzes’. (This was not the first time a work by Thornycroft had been published, In 1848, he made a reduction of a Bust of Queen Victoria for The Art Union). Thornycroft’s contract with Collie stated that Collie had acquired the copyright on a reduced version of the General Gordon statue for £50 plus one fifth of the net profits. The initial edition was set at 100. Initially the statuette sold well and Thornycroft’s misgivings that the project would not yield a profit were unfounded. His account book for the year 1890-91 records a profit of £179 10s 0d which represents a sale of at least 80 casts. The reduction market was however a limited one as Arthur Collie’s experience showed. Having advertised himself as a publisher of bronzes for 5 years he withdrew the service and in 1906 he disappeared from trade directories altogether. The copyright on the ‘Gordon Statuette’ then passed to another decorator Sidney Lee Fawn, but it seems his ventures with it were equally unsuccessful, as only two statuettes with his stamp have ever come to light. It has been suggested that the bronze statuettes which were initially heralded as the saviour of the sculptors art and which might make it popular for a wider audience were simply too expensive.