The Gunnis project

A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 

Sponsors and the Committee of Management
Henry Moore Institute, Leeds and Yale Centre for British Art, London. A Committee of Management led by Adam White and comprising Penelope Curtis, Brian Allen, Ben Read,Malcolm Baker and John Physick met the team twice annually to chart progress and make suggestions.

Rupert Gunnis’s Dictionary of British Sculptors, 1951 (revised 1968), a remarkable achievement in its day, provides the starting point for the new dictionary, which also makes use of his extensive unpublished archive. Since his time much has been written on British sculpture and this dictionary draws on more than 3,000 relevant publications, original manuscripts, and information generously provided by the scholarly community, to rewrite all the major lives and add over 1,000 new ones. The aim has been to produce a work of reference that meets the highest modern academic standards, whilst retaining the humour and anecdotal flavour of Gunnis’s book. The new dictionary is intended as an essential starting point for the next generation of sculpture historians, but is also useful to those with a general interest in British cultural history.

The work was compiled on a database with the intention that it should go on-line, hopefully hosted by the HMI, one year after publication. A member of staff at the Institute is fully cognisant with its working.

Date span
Gunnis’s dates, 1660-1851, have been retained. This means that anyone active within the period is included. There is the odd sculptor who was working before the Restoration and plenty of long-lived Victorians who had, perhaps, only exhibited as students before 1851.

In addition to British-born sculptors there are entries for international sculptors working in the British Isles and others who produced work from abroad for British patrons. Modellers and carvers in a host of media, including ivory, wood and plaster, are included. Unlike Gunnis, we have for instance provided entries for Canova, Hiram Powers, and Thorvaldsen. There are entries also for many obscure practitioners, eg masons who carved memorial tablets or architectural details and entrants who showed with the various exhibiting societies, but of whom nothing further is known.

Copy writing
The book was written almost entirely in-house, with a handful of entries by contributing experts. The team comprised Ingrid Roscoe, editor and author, Greg Sullivan and Emma Hardy, co-authors. All copy came to Ingrid Roscoe electronically for editing and compiling on a complex database prepared by Barry Herbert. This is devised to go on line under the direction of the Henry Moore Foundation. Major entries were read by respected sculpture historians, including Adam White, Bruce Bailey, John Physick, Philip Ward-Jackson, Geoffrey Fisher, Kate Eustace, Helen Smailes, Hugh Honour, Marjorie Trusted and Nicholas Penny.

Each of the 3,125 biographies has a list of all identified works by the sculptor and gives details of dates, provenance, materials, exhibitions, known preparatory sketches and models, with bibliographical references.

This covers auctions of sculptors’ works and of relevant identified works sold by collectors, and relates back to the text.

Schedule and starting point
The project was intended to take five years. However one assistant editor remained in place for a sixth year and the editor (and co-author) took 8 years, part-time to complete, including copy reading. Copy was second-checked by Guilland Sutherland of the Mellon Centre, printed in India and publication is supervised by Sally Salveson of Yale UP (approx 1,500 pp). An index has been compiled by John Ingamells.

In year one Ingrid Roscoe notified some 300 scholars of the project, via letter and flyer, to keep them aware and to solicit information. Most registered their enthusiasm and in due course many helped in some way, both scholars and archivists. She sent flyers to major journals, auction houses and relevant dealers and wrote to all the regional archives offices. She then mapped out the writing plan, pinpointing authorship of the largest entries, which she believes must always be written first. She then began writing herself, concentrating on later 17th and earlier 18th century practitioners. (She has of course been in close contact with the two co-authors, the data-base provider, scholars and archivists ever since, keeping a tight control on material coming in and its application to the text)

In year one Greg Sullivan prepared the formidable general bibliography (some 60pp), adding bibliographic references under the Gunnis entries and the newcomers which formed the starting point. He then began writing, focusing principally on sculptors on the 18th century.

Emma Hardy began by working through the Graves volumes of exhibiting societies (British Institution, Society of Artists, Principal London Exhibitions, Loan Exhibitions, RA contributors). In year 2 she started working principally on 19th century sculptors.

As writing got under way, Gunnis archival references were checked where possible and new checks were made of such obvious primary sources as the Masons’ and other Livery Company records, Hoare’s and other bank records, Chatsworth, Woburn, Castle Howard, Longleat and other major privately held archives, Corporation of London records at Guildhall, accounts of several Oxford Colleges, Society of Arts, Wedgwood, Soane. The Gentleman’s Magazine, RIBA records and the Bristol Burgess Books (etc).
Greg Sullivan gave a number of talks on the project at the V&A, where he had his desk.

In 2007 Adam White wrote a major article for The Sculpture Journal, ‘Rupert Gunnis and his Dictionary of British Sculptors’, in part to act as a reminder to interested parties that the dictionary was forthcoming. 

Ingrid Roscoe

The publication date for the Gunnis dictionary is September 2009.