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Redefining beauty in the suburbs of Victorian London

The British Museum’s current blockbuster show, Defining Beauty: the Body in Ancient Greek Art, amasses a remarkable collection of classical sculpture focusing on the human body. The most intriguing part of the show for me was the second room, “Body colour,” which displays plaster casts of several Greek sculptures brightly painted in green, blue, yellow, red and pink.

The press has not known what to make of “Body colour.” It has been met with surprise, sneersor been entirely ignored in otherwise glowing reviews. Yet the public exhibition of painted classical sculpture is not quite as novel as responses to Defining Beauty suggest. Just over 160 years ago, slabs from the north section of the Parthenon Frieze were cast in plaster, painted, and proudly put on display in the Greek Court of the Crystal Palace, the great glass structure relocated from Hyde Park to the South London suburb of Sydenham after the close of the Great Exhibition in 1851.

Its creator, Owen Jones, emphasised the archaeological evidence behind his “polychrome” (many coloured) frieze. But polychromy emerged repeatedly in comments on the Crystal Palace at Sydenham as a symbol of the challenges of presenting classical sculptureoften regarded as the exclusive province of the eliteto a new mass audience. Its significance extended beyond archaeological credibility, and keyed into mid-Victorian debates about race, sex, class, and religion.

The original frieze, brought to London by Lord Elgin and purchased by the British Museum in 1816, was one of the most treasured of nineteenth-century British possessions. It was a controversial choice for a polychrome experiment. Samuel Leigh Sotheby, a Crystal Palace shareholder, memorably deemed the paint a “deformity,” and likened it to superimposing a dog’s head on a human’s bodya significant, if surreal, affront to conventional expectations. The painted frieze swiftly became the subject of debate in lectures to art students, outraged pamphlets, popular magazines and newspapers, high-brow journals, and archaeological publications.

Aphaia Trojan Archer, Archer from the Temple of Aphaia, Aigina (c. 490-480 BCE), by Marsyas. Currently on show at the British Museum’s Defining Beauty exhibition. Public domain, via Wikimedia commons.
Archer from the Temple of Aphaia, Aigina (c. 490-480 BCE), by Marsyas. Currently on show at the British Museum’s Defining Beauty exhibition. Public domain, via Wikimedia commons.

Open to the public from 1854 until it burnt down in 1936, the Crystal Palace at Sydenham was the first venue to exhibit a comprehensive selection of classical sculpture to an audience drawn from all social classes. Politicians, mechanics, artisans, cooperative societies, East End school children, and figures of the Victorian cultural establishment like John Ruskin and Charles Dickens all rubbed shoulders under its glass roof. By the late 1850s, two million visitors poured into the Palace each year, more than twice as many as recorded at the British Museum at the time.

Critics believed that painted sculpture was a crudely populist and ill-advised attempt to please the “ignorant.” It was dismissed as a “tawdry toy,” associated with mechanics’ tea gardens and sailors’ figure-heads. A similar discomfort is evident in today’s critical responses to polychromy in Defining Beauty, which demotes the painted sculptures to the status of “painted models,” and deems the colour schemes “garish and not especially pleasing.” Painted sculpture still seems to carry an air of vulgarity and childishness.

Some opposed the Palace’s painted frieze on moral grounds. Nudity in sculpture was acceptable if the body represented was ‘ideal,’ but the addition of colour would instantly render it dangerously ‘real.’ The nude horsemen on the frieze at Sydenham were painted pink, and thus were guilty of such a transgression. This was particularly troubling at the Palace, with its audience of people considered most morally vulnerable in mid-Victorian thought: the working classes, women, and children. All of the painted sculptures in the 2015 British Museum show are fully clothed, but eroticism is not far from the surface in reviews of these “teasingly bizarre” objects, situated in a room that “flirts with anti-climax.”

Anxieties over painted classical sculpture in mid-Victorian Britain were also related to racist ideas about the inferiority of “coloured” skin. At the Palace, painted plaster body casts of unclothed non-European peoples were exhibited in its “Natural History Department.” Their bodies were regularly viewed unfavourably compared to the sculptures on display in the Greek court, which many considered to represent the ideal human body. But the fact that both the “Natural History Department” plaster casts and the cast of the Parthenon frieze were painted also prompted connections between the two. Many critics found these associations troubling.

Painted sculpture was definitively associated within nineteenth-century terms—”primitive,” non-Western, and underdeveloped or declining art. The only other context in which Victorians encountered polychromy was in Catholic devotional statuary, which was particularly horrifying for the Protestant establishment. The Palace’s painted frieze moved sculptor Richard Westmacott Jr. and archaeologist Hodder Michael Westropp to denounce all painted sculpture as “barbarous” and “practised [sic] in the worst periods of art” in “Assyria, India, and Mexico.” According to these critics, the racially superior Greeks could never have painted their sculpture. The sculpture that represented them at Sydenham ought to be similarly unpainted and untainted with any possible connections to the non-Western.

Owen Jones, on the other hand, had intentionally situated painted Greek sculpture alongside examples from Egypt and Assyria. Unlike many reviewers of Defining Beauty, he did not regard Greek sculpture to be the “summit of human artistic achievement,” but saw it as one culture among many. He would doubtless have been delighted with Defining Beauty’s display of painted Greek sculpture alongside a painted cast of a Mayan fragment from the Lower Temple of Jaguar at Chich’en Itza in what is today Mexico (c. 1000 CE).

The idea that Greek sculpture was once painted continues to shock. Owen Jones’s 1850s protestations have not had much impact on centuries of celebrating white marble, and painted sculpture remains a genuine surprise for many viewers. But the Palace story demonstrates the wider cultural context and longer history of the display of painted Greek sculpture. In the nineteenth-century, these attempts were derided due to racist ideas about the superiority of white skin, its association with “primitive”, working-class, and Catholic cultures, and anxieties that it might encourage a sensual mode of art viewing, rather than one based on intellectual appreciation. Do these fears lurk unacknowledged behind anxieties about paint on sculpture today?

Featured image credit: “The Crystal Palace at Sydenham, c.1854”, by Paul Furst. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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