Our next conversation with Cubitts The Modern Spectacle Maker focuses on the theme of tools and craftsmanship. We take a close look at Alfred Gilbert’s modelling tools, presented in their original pouch from the Archive of Sculptors’ Papers at the Henry Moore Institute.
Errin Hussey (Archivist, Henry Moore Institute): These are the tools of Alfred Gilbert. He was part of a movement called The New Sculpture movement - it was quite controversial because it focused on naturalism, and was about myths and fairy tales. It was quite a departure from what was going on at the time in the 1920s. These are all of his tools.
Cubitts: There’s a bit of everything isn’t there. Would every sculptor have a toolkit?
Errin: Yes, a lot of them would. We have some more individual tools in the archive but this one is a lovely set.
Having a toolkit enabled sculptors to move and go anywhere – they had their studio space but if they wanted to work elsewhere this was a way of just packing up and going.
Tools haven’t really changed much over the years, over the decades or generations – if you’re carving with wood or clay you’re using the same tools. Nothing has changed much because the traditional tools are still the best.
Cubitts: You said you have lots of individual tools too?
Errin: Yes, we have many – which is another thing that people wouldn’t necessarily expect that we have in the archive. There’s one thing seeing a sketch or a photograph of a sculpture in our older collections, but to see the tools used to make these sculptures and to think that artists were holding them brings work more to life.
Cubitts: And the sculptor who owned these tools, Alfred Gilbert – does he have any work in Leeds?
Errin: Yes, there is some of his work in the Leeds collection. That is how a lot of the items come into our collection, the sculpture and tools often come together. The sculpture will arrive in the archive and the artists’ family will often offer some of their sketchbooks and tools – although they do sometimes question whether we genuinely want these extras.
Cubitts: That’s interesting. I suppose if it’s always been in your family then you don’t necessarily see it as a legacy piece, whereas everyone else does and views it as an incredible artefact.
Cubitts: We feel like there was a big movement towards the digital and 3D printing, but a lot of people are now looking back again to handcraft. It’s refreshing to have these traditional tools in the collection and to see how the process works through them.
Errin: These were more for the individual sculptor - when you have large scale sculpture, you’re likely to create pieces by casting or using a foundry. When we look at tools like Gilberts, they’re quite intricate and there would only be one person in the studio using them. As soon as you want the sculpture to be cast in bronze, or anything along those lines, you would have a full team of people working away creating these large scale sculptures with a lot of different tools.
Cubitts: I can imagine it differs depending on who the sculptor is - would they employ a team of people to help them create a specific project?
Errin: Yes, you see the same foundries come up again and again. This is the Galizia Foundry and another big one was the Singer Foundry - we have ledgers for both of them and you can see the same artists returning with different projects.
Cubitts: So they would book themselves in for specific work?
Errin: They would have formed their sculpture in a material and then they’ll send it to the foundry to be recast and cast again. This was very much like Henry Moore – he would make a one off and then you would see them all around the world as reproductions.
Cubitts: That’s brilliant. Are these tools here handmade? They seem to have wire wrapped around some of them.
Errin: Yes, it does look like that - they appear to have been molded into a particular shape.
Cubitts: It doesn’t look like a mass produced tool – it could have been made specifically for a project.
Our Alfred Gilbert Collection
The Alfred Gilbert archive is one of the smaller collections in our Archive of Sculptors’ Papers, but it nonetheless provides valuable insight into his working practice. Sir Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934) was an English sculptor and pioneer of the New Sculpture movement, a late nineteenth century movement exploring mythological subjects and naturalistic poses. One of his more well-known works is Perseus Arming. This piece was created in 1882, cast in bronze in 1910, and has been part of the Leeds sculpture collection since 1925.
Gilbert’s archive comprises of five boxes holding his toolkit and many photographs, letters and postcards relating to his work.
Image: Alfred Gilbert, Perseus Arming, 1882
Visiting the Archive of Sculptors' Papers
The archive is open via prior appointment only, Tuesday to Friday, 10am-5pm.
Alfred Gilbert's Modelling Tools. Courtesy of Leeds Museums & Galleries (Henry Moore Institute’s Archive of Sculptors’ Papers).
Photographs and papers of John Galizia and Son Ltd. Courtesy of Leeds Museums & Galleries (Henry Moore Institute’s Archive of Sculptors’ Papers).
Photos: Joanne Crawford
Alfred Gilbert ‘Perseus Arming’ (1882 (cast 1910), bronze). Courtesy Leeds Museums and Galleries. Bequeathed by Sam Wilson, 1925.