Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal
Signed B.Mackennal and inscribed with foundry mark
Hohwiller Fondeur Paris (Rodolphe Hohwiller, about 1901-1930)
Inscribed on base KIPKH (Circe)
Bronze, with rich dark brown patination
Height: 22 5/16" (56.5 cm)
Conceived 1893; this reduced version cast after 1906
Provenance: Robert Bowman Sculpture March 1999; Kemp - Potter Collection, acquired from the above June 1999
Born in Melbourne in 1863, Sir Bertram Mackennal played a pivotal role in the development of the English New School of sculpture. Taught by his father, a Scottish sculptor who settled in Australia. Mackennal came to England in 1883 where he studied at the British Museum before gaining a place at the Royal Academy. Trapped by academic teaching methods that he could not adapt to, he decided to abandon his studies and set up a studio for himself. He was then only nineteen, and obtained his varied tuition by visiting the studios of the several leading sculptors.
Mackennal gained his first major commission in 1889, having won the competition to decorate the Government House of Victoria in his native Australia He spent the next two years completing the project before returning to Europe and exhibiting La Tete d’une Sainte and Le Baiser d’une Mere at the Paris Salon of 1892. The following year, in Paris, Mackennal executed the model of Circe, derived from Homeric myth, the goddess, sorcerer and tempress whose famed beauty ensnares men so she can turn them into swine.
Circe was first shown at the Salon where it was greatly received with an honourable mention. The critic for the Revue des Deux Mondes, remarked that ‘the tense, restrained, but triumphant beauty of the sorceress bears itself with a firm and elegant alertness, which is free from every trace of vulgarity’.
Magazine of Art, 1895
It appeared the following year at the Royal Academy and caused a sensation. The Hanging Committee of the Royal Academy considered the scenes of Odysses’s men being enslaved, which decorate the base of the sculpture, too graphic. However, ‘courteous negotiations resulted in the diplomatic compromise of the retention of the statue in place of honour, and the covering of the base from public view with a swathing of red baize’. This review heightened the public’s curiosity and lead to considerable comment by the press, who reported that Mackennal’s sculpture ‘drew wondering and admiring eyes’. Mackennal imbued Circe with a confronting sexuality, mesmerising beauty and an undeniable sense of power. It was perhaps, ‘the irresistible supremacy of her nudity’ and her expression ‘of scorn for her victims’ that attracted the most attention.
Magazine of Art, 1895
The success of Mackennal’s allegorical figures in the 1890s was the result of his masterful ability to synthesise the major artistic tendencies both in England and France, revealing the distinctive influence on his work by masters such as Auguste Rodin and Alfred Gilbert. Indeed Graeme Sturgeon notes that Circe is ‘a careful composite of all the influences to which he (Mackennal) had been subject since arriving in England in 1882. In his treatment of Circe as a proud and self-sufficient individual, French influence can be detected, although the pose of the figure itself owed something to Alfred Gilbert’ and the ‘intertwined figures … could only have been conceived by someone who had inspected Rodin’s models for The Gates of Hell’.
As the Art Gallery of New South Wales's triumphant 2007 exhibition showed, Bertram Mackennal is arguably the most successful Australian artist of the early twentieth-century: the first Australian to be elected to membership of the Royal Academy, the first to have work purchased by the Tate Gallery and the first to be knighted.
Graeme Sturgeon, The Development of Australian Sculpture 1788-1975, London: Thames and Hudson, 1978, p. 63.
Michael Forrest, Art Bronzes, West Chester, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publications Ltd,1988, p. 67. Circe, illustration number: 8.67.
Jeremy Cooper, 19th Century Romantic Bronzes, London: David and Charles, 1975. Circe, illustrated p. 92.
Jope-Slade, R., 'An Australian Quartette', The Magazine of Art, London, 1895, vol. 18, p. 390