GEORGE A. LAWSON

G. A. LAWSON
<em>Cleopatra</em>

G. A. Lawson, Cleopatra at the Edinburgh Exhibition, 1886. F. G. Stephens writes, "It is needless to describe the large draped statue of Cleopatra, which was at the Academy in 1881; it appears in the view of the studio, and is in the act of leaning back in the chair while the asp’s poison works its will."

This photogravure was made from a photograph by J. P. Mayall of the Scottish sculptor George Anderson Lawson, circa 1884. Mayall took the photograph in Lawson’s home at 6 Marlborough Street, St. John’s Wood, London.[1] The wide open space, plain floors, and unadorned walls are fitting for the studio of a sculptor, and the decadent clutter visible in so many of the images in Artists at Home is distinctively absent here. Instead, numerous sculptures line the edges of the studio, their pale marble bodies juxtaposed with the dark paneled walls. The overall effect is powerful and a bit eerie. The sculptures dominate the composition with their emotive poses and in their sheer volume.

Lawson sits at the right of the frame with one leg on the floor and the other placed awkwardly on the rung of the stool in front of him. While his body is oriented toward a bust on a tall stool, his head is turned so that he gazes directly at the viewer. Lawson holds a sheet of paper, perhaps a reference for the sculpture beside him, which F. G. Stephens identifies only as “the late Mr. Dorman.” This bust is in a state of elegant and purposeful unfinish. The face has been smoothed and refined, but the bits of clay that have been hurriedly scraped over the chest and shoulders give the sculpture the novelty of a work in progress. The photograph’s composition sets up a direct comparison between the artist and his art because the heads of Dorman and Lawson share several features, such as a full beard and moustache, a receding hairline, and hair parted to the right. This blurring of lines between the artist and his work is a recurring theme in the photographs in Artists at Home, so it may be that Mayall was actively creating compositions that encourage the audience to make these connections.

Every sculpture in the photograph is an identifiable work by Lawson. Other than the bust of Dorman, the sculpture most prominently displayed is Lawson’s 1881 statue of Cleopatra, who slumps back in her seat, arms limp and head lolling back: she is either dead or dying. His sculptures are often emotive and narrative, yet quiet and intimate. This introspective, narrative quality can also be seen in The Girl and Tortoise (1883), directly to the left of Cleopatra, and Nymph at the Pool, above Lawson’s left shoulder. This is not to say that this was the only type of sculpture the artist produced, however. Retiarius, a model of which can be seen in the bottom right, with one arm raised, is an example of a work that portrays more action and drama.

From left to right, the sculptures pictured in this photograph are: Lord Beaconsfield, Girl with a Tortoise, Cleopatra, a bust in progress of the late Mr. Dorman, Come Until these Yellow Sands, The Nymph at the Pool, Jeannie Deans, Hubert and Arthur, The Maiden’s Secret, a model for Retiarius, and an unidentified statue of a man that had not been exhibited by the time Artists at Home was published.

Karuna Srikureja

[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Lawson, George Anderson (1832–1904),” by S. E. Fryer, rev. Robin L. Woodward, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/34445, accessed 4 Oct 2016.

G. A. LAWSON

Note

Stephens identifies the statuette behind and to the side of Lawson, "on the ground with one arm raised on high," as "a small model for the Retiarius in the act of swinging his ponderous trident, while he cries 'Ave Caesar!'" The finished work had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1884 to ambivalent reviews. Here is the judgment of The Saturday Review, comparing Lawson's piece to Alfred Gilbert's Icarus:

In passing from the study of this statuette to that of Mr. George A. Lawson's 'Ave Caesar' (1809), we traverse the space that divides a masterly work, fully carried out in every part with the artist's utmost ability, from a spirited and ambitious sketch by a sculptor who can never to persuaded to carry his work far enough. Mr. Lawson's Retiarius is brandishing his three-pronged fork with exaggerated vehemence, while his net, by an unlucky subterfuge, is drawn up at his side so voluminously as to form an obvious support to the figure. These things are evidence of haste in composition, of too great readiness to be satisfied; but the statue has excellent qualities, nevertheless.

"Sculpture in 1884," The Saturday Review (London) 57 (May 24, 1884): 678.

LM

GEORGE A. LAWSON