Alexander Stoddart

Monumental Sculptor

by Catesby Leigh

There are impressive classical vistas in Glasgow’s central district. George Square boasts a lofty column with a statue of Sir Walter Scott—the city’s answer to the Nelson Monument in London—and peripheral statues of other Scottish worthies. Erected late in the nineteenth century, the City Chambers building, with its lofty tower and spectacular sculptural decoration, faces the square, while the nearby Athenaeum, which dates to the same period, is endowed with an imposing Ionic order crowned by figures of Flaxman, Purcell, Reynolds and Wren. In front of the City Chambers lies a formidable memorial to the Great War in a somewhat spare, more abstract classical idiom, but nevertheless superb in its mass and sculptural detail. For half a century, this memorial looked like the Great Tradition’s final civic contribution to Glasgow.

No longer. A block from George Square, redevelopment of a rather non-descript, 120-year-old sandstone office building as a mixed-use complex called the Italian Center got underway in the late 1980s. Atop one side of the building, Alexander Stoddart’s free-standing Italia now holds a flowering wand aloft, a large cornucopia at her side. Her archaic facial profile, hair, drapery and castellated crown make for a handsome figure. Above another façade repose two very fine seated Mercuries, one holding the caduceus, the other a moneybag—emblems of art and commerce. On the street below, Stoddart’s exquisite standing Mercury, holding both attributes, relaxes with one forearm perched on a tree stump. Unlike the Italia, this is a thoroughly Hellenistic figure.

A few blocks away, Stoddart’s eleven-foot-tall Cynico-Stoic Athena, cast in plaster, stands in the glitzy modern lobby that resulted from another redevelopment project—the conversion of the Athenaeum, once the site of a reading room and concert and lecture halls, into an office building. Situated within an emphatically vertical atrium facing a compressed elevator-lobby space defined by the series of balconies above it, this helmeted Athena is a stunning presence, and yet her classicism is anomalous. She holds aloft the caduceus—thus proclaiming that the once culturally oriented Athenaeum has been converted into a commercial “Mercurium.” The other arm supports the club of Hercules, signaling her determination to fight for her turf in spite of the altered agenda. (Alas, Mercury has triumphed in the end, and the Athena is to be put up for sale to make way for a further renovation.) Her hair, vestments and an exposed sandal are beautifully handled, and the Gorgon’s head on her chest has a dramatic effect. But the rather muscular, masculine contours of the arm holding the club are at odds with the rest of the figure. This is a composite Athena—a somewhat jarring figure, and certainly a “literary,” postmodern one.

Completed a decade ago, the Italian Center and Athenaeum statues represent two persistent tendencies in Stoddart’s oeuvre—the perceptual and the conceptual, the decorative and the didactic. They also represent the classical counterpart to the heroic realism of his statues and busts of historical figures. Stoddart’s most conspicuous public statues to date are the David Hume Monument (1997) on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and identical casts of his John Witherspoon Monument (2001) at Princeton University and the University of Paisley, Scotland. (Witherspoon, an eminent Presbyterian divine, educator, and statesman, was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.)

In the last two years, Stoddart also has completed a sculptural program for the new Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, including an entrance-gallery frieze depicting Homeric episodes, as well as an allegorical frieze for the Sackler Library at Oxford. He is clearly the most important British sculptor of his generation, though that fact has hardly dawned on the United Kingdom’s arbiters of taste.

Born in 1959, Stoddart is the son of a graphic designer and has spent most of his life in Paisley, a Glasgow suburb. Classical music is his first love, and he plays the piano daily. Having decided he was not good enough to be a professional musician, Stoddart pursued painting in secondary school, and regarded himself as a realist when he entered the Glasgow School of Art in 1976. Fair-haired, bespectacled, and of medium stature, Stoddart’s bookish and somewhat unassuming appearance belies a fiercely combative nature, and his art-school career was largely a matter of collision with the status quo. Because the head of the painting department was a “sloppy impressionist” and an autocrat to boot, Stoddart switched to sculpture. Contemplating a cast of the Apollo Belvedere during his second year, he saw the Hellenistic masterpiece as his ideal. For tactical reasons, however, he modeled his student work on Rodin.

David Hume Monument, 1997, Edinburgh, Scotland

Stoddart went on to graduate studies in art history at the University of Glasgow. Taking his grand tour in 1981, he visited the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen. The celebrated Danish neoclassicist Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844), who labored in the same vein as his better-known contemporary Canova, was a powerful influence on nineteenth-century Scottish sculptors, who considered his work “chaste” and “pure.” Stoddart himself employs these moralistic adjectives when speaking of art. Thorvaldsen is thus Stoddart’s professed modern exemplar—a fellow Hellenist from a northern clime. After completing his university studies in 1983, Stoddart was closely associated for five or six years with the noted Scottish modernist poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, who had himself become something of a Hellenist. Preoccupied with aesthetics and struck by modernist art’s failure to produce images resonant with the terribilità of classical figures such as the Medusa, Finlay created a garden to indulge his decidedly postmodern sensibility. Eventually dubbed “Little Sparta,” the garden (as shown in a 1998 monograph) is replete with classical architectural “incidents”—an obelisk and the obligatory broken column—as well as tablets, markers and other bric-a-brac, much of it inscribed with ironic epigrams. One of Stoddart’s contributions is a classical male head, lying on the ground with an inscription on its forehead. Finlay and Stoddart parted ways around 1989, when the sculptor got to work on the Italian Center project, and are not on speaking terms. But, curious as it may seem, their association only strengthened Stoddart’s classical convictions.

The conceptual, didactic qualities of the Cynico-Stoic Athena reflect Finlay’s influence. So does Stoddart’s Heroic Bust: Henry Moore, which was modeled in 1990 and cast in bronze two years later. This portrait bust is now in the collection of the Dean Gallery, a modernist redoubt and one of the National Galleries of Scotland. It is imbued with the sort of heroic realism one encounters in Hellenistic sculpture. Moore’s eyes gaze upward as if he were a Roman emperor envisioning his imminent apotheosis. Drapery covers his left shoulder. His features are particularized, but treated in a schematic manner that is canonic in certain respects—as with the hair—and exaggerated in others, as with the generously furled flesh on Moore’s brow and the nearly dead-horizontal lower lip. The bust rests on a round socle perched on a truncated column bearing the inscription “MORUS” in Trajanic letters. Despite its exaggerations, the bust looks good. It is also hilarious—or as Stoddart puts it, “satirical and histrionic”—deriding as it does the fashionable notion that Moore’s modernist sculpture is somehow classical.

Stoddart’s most recent didactic work is the bronze frieze at Oxford’s Sackler Library, an addition to the Taylor Institution and Ashmolean Museum complex designed by the neoclassicist C.R. Cockerell in the mid-nineteenth century. Architecturally, the modernized classicism of the Sackler, inspired by Gunnar Asplund’s Stockholm library of 1928, falls far short of the grandeur of Cockerell’s masterwork. And one would vastly prefer a marble frieze—or at least a material imitating marble—in a mostly stucco façade that imitates stone masonry. But Robert Adam, the library architect, had to fight to get Stoddart’s work included at all. An ironic, anti-modernist relief portraying the triumph of the twentieth century, to be executed in the manner of Whig-era neoclassicism, was flatly rejected by Oxford’s building committee, which insisted on a purely decorative scheme. Stoddart responded with an allegorical composition whose unadorned central urn testifies to this official insistence on meaninglessness. The composition opposes the heroic, epic-creating impulse in culture and the satirical, blasphemous, nihilistic impulse. These are represented, respectively, by relief portraits of Homer and the lyric poet and satirist Archilochus on urns at each end of the frieze. Female figures symbolize libraries of different types and their arrangement indicates their affinity with one tendency or the other. A figure representing the ancient library at Alexandria veils her eyes from the sight of the blank urn next to her, while youths feed griffins with the elixirs of epic and satire. Females, youths and griffins all derive from Cockerell’s decorative scheme. Fortunately, the eccentricities of Stoddart’s frieze and its setting do not deprive the work of aesthetic resonance.

Entrance-gallery frieze depicting the Rage of Achilles, 2002, with Calchas at right.  Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London.

Conceived as an allegory of the Cold War, the
Iliad panel portrays the Rage of Achilles. It includes a priest of Apollo calling on the god to punish the Greeks for the abduction of his daughter, the resulting plague on the Achaeans, Agamemnon and Achilles drawing swords against one another, and the seer, Calchas, who has told the Greeks that the girl Agamemnon took for his prize is the reason for the plague. The Odyssey panel portrays Odysseus’ path, after a shipwreck, to the royal court of Phaeacia—symbol of Britain’s benevolent monarchy—where he arrives as a supplicant. It is through the good graces of the island’s rulers that the hero will return at last to “rocky Ithaca.” Stoddart calls the Homeric panels Discord and Concord, respectively. In the minor panels, we have Saint George and a natural philosopher with a sundial, as well as Saint Andrew facing a male figure with a Gaelic harp who symbolizes poetry. (Scottish isles loom in the background of the latter panel.) Saint David, the Welsh patron saint, blesses the bees, and Saint Patrick casts out the serpents, which are treated in a charmingly ornamental manner.Three-and-a-half feet high and over sixty-five feet long, the frieze panels in the entrance hall of the Queen’s Gallery are more conventional, more purely perceptual works. In addition to episodes from the Iliad and Odyssey in the two major panels, Britain’s patron saints are portrayed in four minor ones. Here again the setting is problematic. The architectural frames for the frieze are too high, and the cornice at their bottom protrudes too much. The panels therefore had to be smaller than their frames, and this makes them look a bit like archaeological artifacts on display. But their brilliance is what holds one’s attention.

The figures in the Queen’s Gallery frieze are very fine on the whole, and the beauty of the female figure of Cymru (the Welsh name for Wales) in the St. David panel is particularly striking. There are instances, however, in which Stoddart’s modeling is lacking in Hellenic fluidity and restraint, as with the overwrought musculature of the plague victim’s torso. In a case of excessive stylization, the modeling of the leg muscles of the departing torchbearer in the St. Patrick panel, who represents the pagan culture Christianity displaced, is too rigid and schematic, while his wind-blown hair too obviously replicates the flame. And whereas the Hellenic tendency in friezes is toward narrative monotony, the quite theatrical depiction of Agamemnon and Achilles drawing their swords steals the Discord show. Such theatricality, like the treatment of the torchbearer’s hair, is Romantic rather than Hellenic. But then Stoddart is essentially a Romantic.

The entrance hall of the Queen’s Gallery also includes two gorgeous genii, or winged youths, bearing torches above the portal leading to the stair hall. These figures are celebratory counterparts to Canova’s pair of mourning angels for his cenotaph of the Stuart pretenders at St. Peter’s in Rome. The exquisite technique of Canova, Thorvaldsen and their Hellenistic forebears was the inspiration for Stoddart’s genii, whose graceful contours strike a deliberate contrast with the more severe classicism of the frieze, and the crests of hair above their foreheads hearken back to the Apollo Belvedere.

Aside from the Queen’s Gallery decoration, Stoddart’s most conspicuous work in Britain is the bronze Hume on the High Street in Edinburgh. Completed in 1997 and situated close by St. Giles’s Cathedral, it offers a particularized likeness in the Hellenistic manner. But the seated philosopher wears antique drapery rather than the Witherspoon’ skillfully handled period costume. For Stoddart, true philosophers are concerned with timeless questions, and sculptors should therefore represent them without recourse to period trivia. Hume is shown in what Stoddart calls an “Epicurean slouch,” but he is a commanding figure. On the rear of Hume’s seat a composite Helio-Medusa figure symbolizes Stoddart’s ambivalent attitude toward the legacy of the Enlightenment, which, he has written, promotes free inquiry by the likes of Hume, on the one hand, but weakens “the votive instinct in society,” fosters “irreverence and debunkery,” and thus undermines the monumental impulse. Stoddart’s Witherspoon is an even more inspiring work, showing the great preacher and educator standing alongside a lectern that consists of a shaft configured as a bundle of fasces crowned by a small globe on which an eagle is perched with its wings spread. Witherspoon is an unambiguous embodiment of authority, not least because Stoddart’s tremendous feeling for nobility of bearing and gesture shines through.

Portrait busts figure conspicuously in Stoddart’s oeuvre, and last fall a two-month exhibition of ten Busts of Men was mounted at the City Art Gallery in Leeds. All are realist portraits of men who have contributed to Stoddart’s career as mentors, patrons or professional associates. The bust of the Cambridge architectural historian David Watkin is an impressive exercise in characterization. The mouth slants downward to one side in a way that conveys a sense of intellectual self-assurance.

Heroic Bust: Henry Moore, 1990–92 The Dean Gallery, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

Watkin is well into middle age, and the bust emphasizes the folds and wrinkles of the flesh. In contrast, the bust of a younger man, the architect Robert Adam, features broad planes in face, neck and torso. The Adam bust is simply sheared off inside the shoulders, and the minimally articulated base—very different from Watkin’s—reiterates the mass of the torso and head, making the subject appear a forceful man of affairs. In some busts, the hair is prominently and schematically treated, as with the philosopher Roger Scruton, whose short locks erupt in lush profusion from a vortex on one side of his scalp. Time and again, mouths are very sensitively modeled and serve to galvanize the visage, not least in Scruton’s case. The bust of “Anonymous” portrays an older man, balding, with fleshy cheeks and a prominent forehead, his head tilted downward in a gesture that might read as diffidence, modesty or disillusionment. The subject’s features are sparingly treated in this case, enhancing the portrait’s effect, but in the bust of a venerated Glasgow classics teacher the wreath atop the altogether too naturalistic head makes the subject look less like the epitome of the noble pedagogue and more like Grandpa masquerading as a Bacchic reveler.

Most of the Busts of Men, though realist, do transform their subjects, making them read as types. With the portrait of the classics teacher Stoddart seems to have succumbed to excessively literal representation—always a snare when work is modeled from life. Significantly, Stoddart’s statues and reliefs are not so modeled. “You can’t get a man to stand the way a statue wants to stand,” he says. “Statues teach you how figures stand not in nature, but in sculpture.” Stoddart thus relies mainly on the study of precedents for his monumental work, using models—often his own reflection in a mirror-to study details such as “the anatomy of strongly expressed joints” and instances of “pathology” in the human figure. “I try to resolve and as it were classicize the anatomy and stabilize the form,” Stoddart says.

The challenge is greatest in modeling the figures of old men. Currently, Stoddart is working on a statue of Kant in his last years that has been commissioned for a private estate. The prototype is the well-known Hellenistic statue of the aged Stoic Chrysippus. Typical of the Hellenistic interest in representing pathology—whether an elderly thinker’s degenerating physiognomy or the scars on a boxer’s face—Chrysippus was portrayed with the depressed thoracic area encountered in old people. Stoddart retains this pathology in the Kant’s upper chest, but he has modeled a rather formidable exposed shoulder, while building up the pectorals and articulating the external oblique, the lateral muscle above the pelvis, in a way they would never appear in nature. “It’s a matter of heroic anatomical expression,” Stoddart asserts. “It’s a battle-royal against pathology, against nature, going on here. It’s nerve-wracking work.” The battle is evident in the modeling of the Calchas in the Discord panel, where the effort to properly express the parts has taken a toll on the unity of the figure as a whole.

Despite such daunting problems, Stoddart’s higher aims are clear. He is trying to recapture the abstract qualities in sculpture that bring it closest to music. The perceptual dimension of his work has assumed priority over didactic content. Moreover, Stoddart realizes that the mere transcription of natural appearances, no matter with what degree of finish, will never lead to the fulfillment of art’s highest possibilities. And he knows that the loftiest music sculpture can offer is to be found in concert with architecture. Even with the statue, the design of the architectural element, the plinth, is crucial. Stoddart rightly insists on monumental grandeur as civic art’s highest aim—not least because such grandeur, grounded as it is in ancient wisdom, contests modernity’s rosy notions of human redemption through technological progress. “The monument is the crown on the public realm, and you only get to the monument through sculpture,” Stoddart says. “The classical rebellion will never hit critical mass—it will never be articulated—until a body of sculptors hits critical mass.” How true. And the more sculptors that pursue the classical path Alexander Stoddart has chosen, the better.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2003, Volume 20, Number 2.