Bronze with dark and light brown patination
Height: 14" (37cm)
Conceived and cast circa 1850-1857
Although the critic Edmund Gosse did not coin the term ‘New Sculpture’ until 1894, Stevens’ work provided an early challenge to the somewhat stale state of academic English sculpture already in the mid-19th century. The artist not only assimilated influences from Renaissance Italy, but also managed to translate such influences into a host of architectural and industrial designs which would inform the next generation of sculptors, architects and designers. Indeed, even Leighton’s seminal Athlete Struggling with a Python owes much to Stevens’ own Truth and Falsehood with its twisting depiction of combat between man and beast.
Alfred Stevens, Truth and Falsehood, plaster, 1857, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Stevens joined his father’s decorating workshop at the age of ten, assisting him with house painting and joinery. In 1833, he was sponsored by the Rector Samuel Bet to travel to Italy and pursue an education in the fine arts. It was whilst studying in Rome and Florence that the young artist developed a strong inclination for the Italian Renaissance, particularly the work of Michelangelo.
In 1842, Stevens returned to England. He failed to secure the contract for the decoration of the Houses of Parliament, and thus he turned to teaching, spending two years as a tutor at the New School of Design in London.
In 1850, he took the position of chied artist at Henry E. Hoole & Co., manufacturers of ornamental stove grates and fenders. It was whilst in this position that Stevens designed the present firedogs, which were cast by the same firm in 1852. The models clearly show the influence of Michelangelo and, as the art-historian Susan Beattie asserts, these homely firedogs are ‘transformed into heroic figures that echo, in their freedom of power, the ignudi of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.’
Upon his return to London in 1852, Stevens was commissioned to design railings for the British Museum, topped with 25 ornate casts of lions. Following this he was given little large-scale work until 1856, when he started working on the Wellington Monument in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
Alfred Stevens, Wellington Memorial Monument, 1856-857, St Paul’s Cathedral, London
The forty-foot structure features a sarcophagus that supports the recumbent figure of the Duke of Wellington. A marble canopy overlooks the effigy, decorated in the style of the late Renaissance period. Stevens’ most famous works, the composite bronze sculptures of Valor and Cowardice and Truth and Falsehood, which echo the present firedogs, flank it on either side.
Alfred Stevens, Valour and Cowardice, plaster, 1856, Victoria & Albert Museum, London