Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stevens, Alfred

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

STEVENS, ALFRED (1818–1875), artist, baptised on 28 Jan. 1818 at Blandford in Dorset, was the younger son of George Stevens, house-painter, by his wife Susan, daughter of a neighbouring farmer. Alfred claimed relationship with George Steevens [q. v.], the editor of Shakespeare, asserting that his father had dropped the second ‘e’ of his surname.

Alfred was educated at the village school, and after the summer of 1828 assisted his father in his trade, devoting his leisure to copying pictures. In 1833, through the assistance of Samuel Best, rector of Blandford St. Mary, who was attracted by his artistic promise, he was able to proceed to Italy, where he studied for nine years at Naples, Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice. From an early period he was a strong advocate of the unity of art; painting, sculpture, architecture, and decorative design all shared in his unremitting application. He received his entire artistic training during his stay in Italy, and never studied in an English school. Even in Italy only a small part of his time was spent in studios, most of it being devoted to the independent study of Italian works of art; and it is said that he was well acquainted with every monument in the country. In 1841 he was employed in Rome by Thorwaldsen, and, after working for him for more than a year, left Italy at the same time as the Danish sculptor in 1842. After two years' residence at Blandford he came to London, and on 7 Oct. 1845 obtained a post in the School of Design as teacher of architectural drawing, perspective, and modelling. He resigned his appointment in 1847, when extensive changes were made in the staff; but even in two years he exercised considerable influence on younger English artists. Among his pupils were Richard Beavis and Godfrey Sykes [q. v.] His chief work at this time was the design of the doors and doorways of the School of Mines in Jermyn Street, which, however, was never carried into execution. The drawing is preserved at South Kensington Museum. Most of his time was devoted to the conception and execution of decorative designs. In February 1850 he obtained the position of chief artist to H. E. Hoole & Co. of Green Lane Works, Sheffield, workers in bronze and metal. His designs, some of which are still in use, secured the first place for his firm at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in the following year (cf. Wyatt, Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century). During his stay at Sheffield he exercised a profound influence on the higher branches of metal working, raising the artistic character of the trade. Previously manufacturers had depended on impure rococo ornamentation introduced by second-rate foreigners. Returning to London in 1852, he designed among other things the vases on the top of the railings in front of the British Museum, and the lions sejant on the dwarf posts in front of the grille. The lions have since been placed within the museum.

In 1856 he entered into the competition for the Wellington monument to be erected under one of the great arches of St. Paul's Cathedral, at the cost of 20,000l. On 7 Aug. 1857 Stevens's design was awarded a premium of 100l. and placed sixth in order of merit. On proceeding, however, to consider the fitness of the selected models for the site it became evident that Stevens's was the only design in any way suitable, and, in consequence, the execution of the monument was entrusted to him, 6,000l. being deducted from the amount placed at his disposal, and devoted to other commemorative work in order to compensate unsuccessful artists. Partly through his own procrastination, but chiefly through the hindrances thrown in his way by officials and the inadequacy of the money placed at his disposal, the work was not entirely finished at the time of his death. For many years the monument was suffered to stand in an unfavourable position in the consistory court of St. Paul's, but in 1892, owing to the emphatic recommendation of Sir Frederic (afterwards Lord) Leighton, who raised and contributed to a fund for the purpose, it was placed in the position originally intended for it. The monument has been characterised as ‘probably the finest plastic work of modern times,’ and consists of ‘a sarcophagus supporting a recumbent bronze effigy of the duke, over which is an arched canopy of late Renaissance style on delicately enriched shafts. At each end of the upper part of the canopy is a large bronze group, one representing “Truth tearing out the Tongue of Falsehood,” and the other “Valour trampling Cowardice under foot.”’ The beauty and vigour of these groups alone are sufficient to place their maker among the foremost of modern sculptors. An equestrian statue of the duke, which was designed to surmount the canopy, was never executed.

Stevens died unmarried at his house on Haverstock Hill, London, on 1 May 1875. During his lifetime his merits remained almost unappreciated by the public, and even now the greatness of his genius is not fully realised. His exclusively Italian training and his exemption from English influence help to explain his excellence at a time when English sculpture was at a low ebb. Although the Wellington monument afforded him his only adequate opportunity, his other work was highly meritorious. Some of the best of it may be found in Dorchester House, Park Lane, the residence of Captain George Lindsay Holford, and includes painting on panels and ceiling, ornamental metal work, and especially a noble mantelpiece in the dining-room supported by nude caryatids in a crouching attitude. Among conceptions which remained unexecuted were a scheme of decorations for the reading-room of the British Museum, the model of which is preserved at the South Kensington Museum, and designs for the decorations of the Houses of Parliament, including a fresco painting of incidents from the life of Alfred the Great. ‘He designed in all materials, in silver, bronze, iron, marble, and for many purposes—for furniture, churches, porcelain, and mantelpieces.’ He was also a painter, though he produced few pictures, owing to his habit of destroying his own work; portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Collman are among those that survive. A portrait of Stevens, painted by himself at the age of fourteen, was in 1891 in the possession of Mr. Alfred Pegler of Southampton. Another portrait of him in later life is prefixed to Hugh Stannus's ‘Memoir.’

[Stannus's Alfred Stevens and his Work, 1891, fol.; Armstrong's Alfred Stevens, a biographical study, 1881; Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th ed. xxi. 561; Athenæum, 1875, i. 630; Academy, 1875, p. 487; Bryan's Dict. of Painters and Engravers; Redgrave's Dict. of English Artists; Ward's Men of the Reign; Chambers's Encyclopædia.]

E. I. C.