The Shelley Memorial

Image of a white marble statue of Percy Shelley's drowned body on a plinth.

Contributor: Nicholas Halmi

Location: University College, Oxford, UK

Description: This object is a striking marble and bronze sculptural ensemble commemorating Percy Bysshe Shelley and displayed since 1893 at University College, Oxford, from which the poet had been expelled in 1811. Commissioned in 1890 by Lady Jane Shelley, the widow of Percy’s and Mary’s son Percy Florence—the only one of their children who lived to adulthood—the work was created by the English sculptor Edward Onslow Ford (1852–1901), a practitioner of the naturalism characteristic of Britain’s so-called ‘New Sculpture’ movement. The work consists of two visually contrasting elements, an idealized effigy in white Carrara marble and an allegorical base in dark green bronze. The marble, a life-size nude lying on its side, represents the drowned Shelley after he had washed ashore at Viareggio in July 1822. His body, reposing on a pale-green marble slab, is supported by two winged lions, between whom, and in front of Shelley, sits the half-nude figure of a mourning Muse—also in bronze—leaning heavily on her broken lyre. Both the lions and the Muse rest upon a large dark maroon marble plinth labelled (on bronze plaques) with the poet’s surname and two phrases from stanza 42 of Adonais, his elegy to John Keats: ‘IN DARKNESS AND IN LIGHT’ and ‘HE IS MADE ONE WITH NATURE’. Originally Shelley’s head was adorned with a gilt-bronze wreath—a ludicrous embellishment that can only have detracted from the statue’s undeniably arresting appearance. A fragment of this wreath survives in the college archives.

Lady Shelley had intended the sculpture for the poet’s grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, to commemorate the centenary of his birth in 1892. By late 1891, however, Ford’s work was sufficiently advanced to make obvious that it would necessarily impinge on the neighbouring grave of Shelley’s friend Edward Trelawny (1792-1881). Trelawny’s daughter, Laetitia Call, refused permission for its installation. Seeking an alternative location for the thirteen-ton sculpture, Lady Shelley wrote to her friend Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol College, Oxford, who in turn presumably appealed to his former colleague Timothy Bright, then the Master of University College. The college was persuaded to accept the work, though with the caveat that it could not afford a suitable housing for it. Lady Shelley donated £500 for that purpose, and the college employed the architect Basil Champneys to design the glass-domed building in which the memorial, unveiled on 14 June 1893, still remains. In 2002–3 the space was relieved of its gloomy dark wood panelling and restored to its original design, with plaster walls painted brown and inscribed in gold leaf with Shelley’s name and dates and a further quotation from Adonais.

In the Oxford Art Journal in 1978, the art historian Francis Haskell plausibly suggested two prototypes for Ford’s sculpture of Shelley, one of which—Stefano Maderno’s recumbent (but clothed) Santa Cecilia of 1600, which adorns the shrine of her titular church in Rome—may help explain the much-remarked androgyny of the poet’s figure, which is especially noticeable from behind. The other prototype, which is more directly relevant to Lady Shelley’s efforts to shape the poet’s canonization, is Henry Wallis’s famous 1856 oil painting (now in Tate Britain) of the teenaged poet Thomas Chatterton lying dead on his garret bed after having poisoned himself. Both Wallis’s and Ford’s portraits are strictly fictional: there is no contemporary likeness of Chatterton, and Shelley’s body was so badly decomposed when it washed ashore, some ten days after his drowning, that it could be identified only by the copy of Keats’s poems still lodged in the pocket of his leather jacket. But however idealized—and Ford’s effigy was insufficiently idealized for some contemporary critics—both poets are depicted as dead. Not their living writings but their lifeless young bodies are being memorialized.

That the effigy’s nudity was intended to represent Shelley’s frailty and mortality is reinforced by the memorial that Lady Shelley had commissioned nearly forty years earlier from Henry Weekes for St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth, where Mary Shelley had been buried in 1851. Completed in 1854 and installed in Christchurch Priory after being rejected by St Peter’s, this white marble high-relief sculpture represents the semi-clothed Percy, with seaweed wrapped round his right arm to emphasize his posthumousness, being held by Mary—a pose clearly modelled on Michelangelo’s Pietà. Haskell notes the irony that a portrait of the author of The Necessity of Atheism should evoke a Deposition of Christ. But while Shelley was not above claiming parallels between himself and Christ—not least in Adonais, where his ‘frail Form’ appears among Keats’s mourners with a ‘branded and ensanguined brow / Which was like Cain’s or Christ’s’ (stanzas 31 and 34)—the Dorset and Oxford sculptures, together with their accompanying passages from Shelley’s elegy, convey the sense of a peaceful release from life rather than a violent martyrdom. To the extent that the figure represented piously by Weekes and more daringly by Ford can be considered the poet at all, it is not the dangerous radical whose poems were censored in the 1810s and circulated like samizdat in the 1830s, inspiring the Chartist movement, but the ‘beautiful and ineffectual angel’ of Matthew Arnold’s notorious description, ‘beating in the void his luminous wings in vain’. That was clearly how Lady Shelley wanted it: from her late Victorian perspective, his canonization required his depoliticization.

Date: 1893

Creator: Edward Onslow Ford

Subject: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Media: photo by Nicholas Halmi

Media rights: held by the photographer and University College, Oxford

Object type: sculpture

Format: marble and bronze

Language: English

Publisher: University College, Oxford