Description: In 1797, a marble monument to David Garrick was erected in Westminster Abbey on the west wall of Poets’ Corner. Charles Lamb encountered the monument in 1811 and became so rankled by it that he authored, in protest, one of the signature critical essays of the Romantic period: “On Garrick, and Acting” (1811), better known by its revised title “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare: Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Representation” (1818). Lamb’s essay—famous for its claim that to stage Shakespeare’s plays is to alter and diminish them—not only opposes assertions such as Denis Diderot’s that “A play is not so much to be read as to be performed” (Entretiens sur Le Fils naturel, 1757) but also objects to the cultural elevation of the art of acting that the Garrick monument symbolizes. Just years after Garrick monument was installed in the Abbey, Lamb marshaled a set of arguments against it: for book over body, poetic vision over theatrical spectacle, and individual readership over audience membership. Seen through Lamb’s eyes, the Garrick monument appears as a vulgarising throwback, and its monumental continuity actively counter-Romantic.
Location: National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington. Gift of Molly F. Sheppard
Description: An encounter in Rome in 1853 between the Brownings and the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer resulted in a life-long friendship and in this plaster cast of the poets’ hands, a year after Hosmer had become apprenticed to the English John Gibson in Rome. The Brownings had married in secret in London in 1846 and eloped to Italy, where they settled in Florence. The life-casting of their hands, subsequently joined into one compact piece, is a peculiar artwork, metonymic, truncated, indexical. The imprint of Elizabeth’s aging nails, thin veins, and atrophied right hand resting in Robert’s larger, firmer hand conveys the texture of skin and bone structure, giving the modern spectator a sense of being unusually close to the two long-dead poets: Elizabeth was 47 years old, Robert 41, when the casts were taken, and the eeriness of these hands, detached from their respective bodies, make us wonder about the purpose of this piece of sculpture.
Description: This specimen of Romantic statuary can be found, albeit with some difficulty, in a remote lower corner of the garden attached to the site of William Shakespeare’s long-demolished house New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon. Although partly sheltered under a pediment, its three life-sized figures display symptoms of long-term exposure to acid rain, since this work has always been positioned outdoors. It was designed to adorn the entrance of a pioneering art gallery in London, and both the artistic agenda it was intended to advertise and the fate which ultimately befell it have much to say about the tensions within European romanticism between the assertion of the native and the celebration of the transcendent.