Sunday, 24 February 2013

O, Isis and Osiris



I think I first came across the name of the Gahagan family of sculptors in relation to the figures of Isis and Osiris on the facade of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. Built in 1811 to a design  by PF Robinson to house William Bullock's Museum, it was later used for all kinds of things, including, simultaneously, the paintings of  Benjamin Robert Haydon, and the celebrity dwarf "General Tom Thumb". It was  the home of Maskelyne's magic show around the end of the 19th century and demolished about a hundred years ago.




Anyway, squeezed between two plain Georgian facades (actually built at the same time), was a kind of temple front, giving the idea of a kind of Pylon shape, with  two massive figures of Egyptian gods.
The statues now belong to the Museum of London, I must have seen them, as they were, apparently, displayed  near the entrance of the museum for a few years, but they're now in storage [or so I thought: see comments]. They're made of stone, and they're more than three metres high, including the bases  and head-dresses.


They are variously described as being by Sebastian Gahagan, or by his father Lawrence. (The museum attributes them to Lawrence.) Sebastian had two   brothers  called Lucius and Vincent  were also sculptors, and there might have been one or two others; it gets complicated. Sebastian hasn't been written about much, but the outline of his life and work seems fairly clear. He was an assistant to Joseph Nollekens at one point, so he gets some mentions in JT Smith's biography of him (Smith also worked for Nollekens, and  knew Sebastian personally). He did a few high profile commissions: an elaborate monument to  Sir Thomas Picton in St Paul's Cathedral, a statue of the Duke of Kent (Queen Victoria's father) in Portland Place, and one of of George III for the Royal Exchange, presumably destroyed when the building burned down a few years later. These works seem to have had a better critical reaction than a lot of public sculpture, but his career doesn't really ever seem to have taken off. He died in 1838 at the age of  60; he wasn't the one crushed to death by Richard Westmacott's statue of George Canning, but let's leave that for another time.

His father Lawrence is more enigmatic. There seems to be a decent amount of information about him around, but most of it seems to crumble when examined. According to Strickland's 1913 "Dictionary of Irish Artists '', he's first recorded in Dublin  in 1756 as "L. Geoghegan," of Anglesea Street, Dublin. In that year he was given a premium of four pounds by the Dublin Society  for "a piece of Sculpture", probably  a signed and dated marble statuette of Rubens, which, in 1913  belonged to one Mr. W. T. Kirkpatrick of Donacomper, Celbridge.

After this, Strickland says, he went to London,  and altered his surname to "Gahagan." In 1777 he received a "premium" of thirty guineas from the Society of Arts for "a cast of a Figure". Then, in 1798, aged about 63 he exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time, showing busts of Admiral Sir Thomas Paisley and Sir (not yet Lord) Horatio Nelson. This version is accepted by "Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660-1851", published on the website of the Henry Moore Foundation, which says "he exhibited sculpture at the Royal Academy from 22 Dean Street in 1798, Pershore Place, New Road in 1800, 5 Little Tichfield Street in 1801 and 12 Cleveland Street, Fitzroy Square from 1809 until 1817". But  the Royal Academy catalogues don't refer to "Lawrence Gahagan", merely to "L. Gahagan". The actual identity of the scullptor of the bust of Nelson comes in an advertisement published in the "Morning Chronicle" on 12 April, 1806 (found on the British Library 19th century newspapers database):
LUCIUS GAHAGAN.– respectfully informs the Nobility and Gentry, that he is the only Professional Sculptor who ever was honoured with sittings for a BUST of the great LORD NELSON, having already sold upwards of 300 Casts, and also executed them in Marble and real Bronze, he hopes will be sufficient proof of the likeness being satisfactory. Casts of the above may be had of the Artist, No.5. Bentinck-street, Berwick-street, Soho, and nowhere else. Price one Guinea, or the size of Life Three Guineas each, to be paid for on delivery, The BUST of the Right Hon. WILLIAM PITT will be published in a few days.
Mezzotint after L. Gahagan's bust of Horatio Nelson

So the sculptor of the Nelson bust was Lawrence's son, Lucius, and unless I'm missing something there doesn't seem any reason to assume that the other Royal Academy exhibits weren't by him either. (Obviously, I was hoping I'd made a great art historical disovery, but it turns out that the British Museum have correctly catalogued a mezzotint of Nelson's  bust as showing one by Lucius Gahagan. Oh well). Lucius later left London, and established himself in Bath in around 1820. He seems to have moved west earlier than that though: the Royal Academy catalogue for 1817 list an "L. Gahagan"  of College Green Bristol, and an L. Gahagan Jnr. of Swallow Street in London. The latter is often assumed to be Lucius, but it seems more likely to be his son, Lucius Junior, who later followed his father to Bath. Census records, of at least the versions of them I can get free, say he was in Charlton Kings in 1841 and Bath in 1861.

The "Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain" goes on to say
The full extent of Gahagan’s output cannot be gauged, since most of the works credited to him are undated and are identified only as being by ‘L Gahagan’. Some of these may be by his son, Lucius.
The weakness of the evidence provided for Lawrence's authorship of recorded works makes it seem possible that  this is an understatement. The "Biographical Dictionary" continues:
The title page of a second major source for Lawrence's work, [in addition to the Academy catalogues]the sale catalogue of a Miss Fenton of Chandos House, Westgate Buildings, Bath, also fails to give a full first name. It reads ‘Catalogue of Works of Art ... by the late L. Gahagan, sculptor’. There is a pencilled notation ‘1840’, and if the date is accurate, this opens up the possibility that some of the many busts, a few figures and a number of reliefs may be the work of Lucius. Indeed one of the subjects, a group of Maria Bagnell and her murderer, Gilham (described as Gillingham in the sale catalogue) illustrates a notorious murder that took place in 1828 and so must be by Lucius, for Lawrence had by then been dead eight years. Another subject, a bust of Mayor Goldney of Chippenham, depicts a worthy who did not come into office until 1853. It seems likely that Miss Fenton’s sale was principally of Lawrence’s work, but that Lucius, who, like Miss Fenton, had lodgings in his later years at Chandos House, included some of his own sculpture in the sale, including the Bagnell tableau and Goldney bust. It is possible that sculpture by outsiders was included in the auction and wrongly credited to L Gahagan.
Well, maybe. But it seems a convoluted  way of looking at it. A pencilled date doesn't seem much to go on. It would be much simpler to assume that the catalogue was published after Lucius's death in 1855, and that the collection it lists was all his work. The date of Lucius's death is firmly established by his obituary  from the  published in "Cheltenham Gazette", on the 19th December of that year and reprinted in the "Biographical Dictionary". Apart from the date, it provides more pathos than information:
Dec 14 at Chandos House aged 82, Mr Lucius Gahagan, sculptor of this city. His reward will be hereafter. In this world he has passed a long and strictly virtuous life exemplifying abilities which only the very few appreciated and which the many failed to reward. More than half his life has been, as to worldly means, that of mere subsistence and in poverty he has resigned his temporal difficulties. His son, who inherits his father’s talents and who will, we understand, continue the profession in this city, will, we trust, live to see a change for the better.
To speculate a little, it  seems most plausible that Miss Fenton accepted the sculptures in payment for a debt from the impoverished Lucius and sold them soon after his death. The reference in the catalogue to a group commerating the murder of Maria Bagnall  is interesting. A report in the "The Ipswich Journal" for the 9th February 1828 (but presumably reprinted from a more local paper) shows that Lucius Gagahan's knowledge of the case was unnervingly intimate:
Early on the Monday Morning succeeding the murder, Mr Gahagan, the sculptor, residing in the Walks, took a model of the body of Maria Bagnell as it lay in the kitchen in its blood, and the resemblance in every particular is understood to be remarkably accurate. Mr. G. likewise took a model of her head after the hair was cut off, which shows all the wounds that were inflicted....
Sculptors were used to taking death masks, but this sounds like something beyond the usual call of duty. But back to Lawrence, and the "Biographical Dictionary":
In 1801 he was employed on decorative work at Castle Howard  and in 1806 he submitted a model for the proposed monument to Pitt at Guildhall. His design was rejected and he later wrote to the Committee that he had ‘made four applications at your office for my model, but could not obtain it until last Saturday and then in a very mutilated state’ . Gahagan’s two colossal statues of Isis and Osiris, commissioned in 1811, formed part of the fa├žade of William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly.

Gahagan was known for his portrait busts of celebrities, many of them produced as multiples available in a variety of materials and sizes. His subjects included members of the Royal family, statesmen, national heroes  and the poet Byron. Mary Anne Clarke, the Duke of York’s mistress, who was depicted like the Antique Clytie, rising ‘roguishly feminine from a sunflower’ .... Madame Catalani was a noted opera singer  and Sir Edward Parry, a famous explorer. Other subjects had a particular appeal for West Country clients: George Whitfield, the preacher and missionary, came from Gloucester, William Jay was a popular Bath preacher and Sir William Struth was Mayor of Bristol. Gahagan’s subjects evidently respected his work, for the Chandos House catalogue relates that in 1798 Lord Nelson honoured the sculptor with seven sittings for his bust, which was later engraved by Barnard. A trade card issued in 1815 by ‘L Gahagan’ informed the public that ‘the only Bust to which His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of all the Russias, ever condescended to sit is on view at the sculptor's study, 12 Cleveland Street, Fitzroy Square’.
Marble bust of Mary-Ann Clarke (National Portrait Gallery, London)

It seems infinitely more likely that these subjects with a West Country appeal were made by Lucius in Bath, than Lawrence, who was never recorded there. Anyway, Lucius specifically identfies himself as the sculptor of the multiple Nelsons, and produced, according to his advertisement, a new bust of Pitt in 1806, the year in which the "Biographical Dictionary" says Lawrence made a model  for a monument at the Guildhall. Neither of the main sources for Lawrence's work, the R.A. catalogues and the Chandos House one seem at all credible  as evidence of his production.

So most if not all the works thought to  be by Lawrence are probably by Lucius. Does that clarify things? Probably not. There are no known works by Lucius Jnr, and its quite possible that some of his father's apparent oeuvre should be given to him.

Who made Isis and Osiris then? Bullock had a connection with the Gahagan family before he opened the Egyptian Hall, having shown the works of one of its members at his previous museum in Liverpool. His 1799 catalogue records a selection of sculptures made, rather bizarrely of rice paste. They include "Busts of the four following British Admirals, modelled from life, in their naval uniforms, by Mr. Gahagan,—Lord Hood, Lord Bridport, Lord Nelson, and Sir Thomas Paisley" and "Rev. Mr. Romaine, from life, by Gahagan." From the inclusion of Nelson, this can only have been Lucius, who also had connections with the Hood family, having made the admiral's monument at the church in Butleigh. 

None of this should be taken as criticism of the "Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660-1851", which is an admirable project, a wonderful and thorough and free thing without which I couldn't have begun to research the subject. And unlike more traditional encyclopedias it provides the evidence for its assertations, for the reader to judge.

2 comments:

  1. I came across these figures of Isis and Osiris in the same way as the writer, via descriptions of the Eqyptian Hall; and I was delighted to see them set up on either side of the entrance to the Museum of London, as they used to be. I also researched the statues and the Gahagans, though in rather less detail. The statues are not exactly "in storage" now; but they have been banished to the museum's underworld. They stand by the entrance to the museum from its underground car park, and may be seen by anyone who uses that entrance or enters the NCP car park from London Wall.

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    1. Thanks for that, its ages since I've been to the MoL, and it'll be interesting meeting them again with a little more background knowledge.

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