So, the Victorians were anxious about sex and race? Seriously confused, more like

James Eliott's The Captive, c. 1860 - V&A
James Eliott's The Captive, c. 1860 - V&A

These days, you have to visit regional galleries to witness the wilder excesses of Victorian sculpture. At the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, Merseyside, visitors are greeted by Salammbo (1899), Desiré Maurice Ferrary’s life-sized marble statue of a nude Carthaginian princess draped in a bronze snake, which the gallery’s soap magnate founder apparently felt was appropriate fare for his factory workers’ families.

Such things are better in small doses, which is why modern galleries rarely attempt whole exhibitions of them. But the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds has gone the whole hog with a daring new show exploring Victorian attitudes to sex and race as reflected in the 19th-century revival of polychrome sculpture. The Lady Lever hasn’t lent Salammbo, but there are plenty of nudes.

The show’s premise is that the Victorian era was an age of anxiety; at a time of unprecedented social change, there were particular anxieties about miscegenation causing degeneration of the gene pool, and women’s education damaging their reproductive prospects. But the impression given by the work gathered here is that the Victorians were not so much anxious as seriously confused.

Looking today at John Bell’s bronze statuette of a Manacled Slave (1877) or his life-sized marble statue of an Octoroon (1868), it’s hard to know quite what reaction these chained nude maidens were meant to induce in the Victorian viewer: sympathy, titillation, or a bit of both? In the case of Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave (1844), it was obviously shock at a Christian girl being traded – horror of horrors! – in an Ottoman slave market. Minton issued all three sculptures as porcelain statuettes for the middle-class collector; there was money in the slave statuette market. Stereographic images offered a cheaper thrill.

Unlike English sculptors, who clung to classical features, the Italians and the French made their slaves look African. Luigi Pagani’s bronze and marble busts of the lovers Nelusko and Selikea (1877-9) from Meyebeer’s opera L’Africaine were clearly based on African models, as was Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s dramatic Why Born Enslaved! (1868). But it was Charles Cordier, commissioned by Napoleon III to tour North Africa researching racial types, who cornered the market in ethnographic sculpture. “Beauty is not the province of a single, privileged race,” he decided. “Every race has its beauty, which differs from that of others. The most beautiful black person is not the one who looks most like us.”

George Frampton's Lamia, 1899-1900 - RA/Paul Highnam
George Frampton's Lamia, 1899-1900 - RA/Paul Highnam

Cordier’s astonishingly contemporary-looking bronze bust of a Vénus Africaine (1852), modelled by a freed Gaudeloupean slave, was acquired by Queen Victoria for the Royal Collection. As haughty as she is beautiful, this challenging Black Venus was probably too much for the Victorian male collector. On the evidence here they preferred their women, when unchained, to be either expiring – like Baron de Triqueti’s ivory and ebony Cleopatra Dying (1859) – or deadly – like George Frampton’s Lamia (1899-1900), a Tilda Swinton lookalike with an ivory complexion fabulously set off by black patinated bronze studded with blue opals.

Alfred Gilbert contributes the most moving image: the sadly prophetic Maquette for the Head of Icarus (c1884), modelled in wax by a 30-year-old prodigy whose highflying career would end in bankruptcy. Victorian racial and sexual anxieties may seem alien today, but financial anxiety we understand.

Until Feb 26 2023; henry-moore.org