Forgotten Sculptor of
The Victoria Memorial
(Victoria and Albert Museum)
Thomas Brock's specialty was statuary that pigeons adore (and adorn), that Victorians eulogized, and that most of us with any taste find extremely funny.
Brock was forever and a day creating tributes to those fanciful ideals so dear to the late 19th Century --- usually observed in the absence: "Truth," "Honor," "Virtue. " In his statues men were Teutonic, with helmets, swords, armor, and veil-like marble hiding their most private parts. The women almost always had one breast bared, often more, and were invested with the same marble filagree to keep their secret parts at bay, barley (but barely) out of sight. All were retrofitted with wings, and not dinky wings at that [see Fig. 1]. These were huge full-feathered spreads,. Angels abounded and bounded about them --- sweet fat little bellies, plump little legs, chubby little cheeks.
Outside of angelic poses, Brock was great at majestic faces. Baron Russell of Killowen --- one of the Justices of the Royal Court --- looks just like he ate a bug. Sir Richard Temple, a good man who did yeoman service in India during the famines of 1874 and 1877, looks like he badly needs a shave, at least a trim of his corkscrew moustache. And the figure who would most always be associated with the sculptor, Queen Victoria --- he completed twenty-two busts, statues and plaques in her honor --- can be seen at her best (or worst) in the huge Victoria Memorial at Buckingham Palace.
She squats there below the angel of Victory, looking quite sulky, eyes half shut ... as if Prince Albert had just told her that this was going to be his night off. Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.
Unusual for Brock, she is fully clothed, outfitted as if for a dark, windy winter on the wilds about Balmoral Castle: she's thoroughly bound up in capes, tunics, and various veils and drapes hanging about here and there.
To make up for her prudish presence, a variety of other figures sit or lie around her au naturel, including a mermaid, for god's sakes, swimming below in a fount of icy water.
"Agriculture" appears, complete with full-sized lion. "Industry" (also with snarling lion) shows up, along with four handsome young men with helmets --- bare-breasted males (bare-assed, too --- nicely so). These represent "Army and Navy" on the one side, and "Art and Science" on the other. Best of all, "Justice" and "Truth" pop up, the former with sword, the latter with scroll, both weighted down with wings and breasts --- four between the two of them --- accompanied by angel consorts, and, in Truth's case, a dismayed snake getting squashed underfoot. The figure atop all these figures rides up there alone in gorgeous gold, putting the marble below to shame. She is "Victory" with "Constancy" and "Courage" riding along just below, both quite mammary, both looking off into the distance with obvious discomfort; perhaps at being so exposed.
And 180 degrees around from our gimlet-eyed Queen sits sweet "Motherhood." She's busily nursing a babe, fending off two more at her knees who are but trying to get their share of the milk of human kindness.
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When Brock was offered the commission for the Victorian monument, his son tells us he retreated to his studio and in one day, with a sketch pad, roughed out a model, which was then shown to the Victoria Memorial Committee, and --- with their approval --- to King Edward. It is said that the king himself visited the studio, where he viewed the model for some time in silence. He then said, "That is to be the monument." The notes here do not inform us if this was in the form of of a question or a statement. Brock presumed the latter, and he then proceeded to dawdle along with the whole weighty mess for almost ten years, despite letters from the king begging him to to get his ass in gear. Finally it was done, at the usual great cost, and dedicated in 1911.
Brock's son tells us that at the construction of the beast, one worker got squashed; perhaps by a falling angel. "The stagings were of great size, the timbers of great strength, the entire erection was put together in the most perfect manner possible." The whole was unveiled by King George V on 16 May. After the ceremony --- attended by all the important political and religious figures of the empire --- the sculptor was awarded "the insignia of a Knight Commander of the Bath."
To look at it now, one may well think of it as a monument to overkill. There is just too much going on, too many figures hanging about, that alarming golden Victory up there at the top, flourishing her diaphanous self; the all-too-busy figures below, And at the bottom, the stolid, heavy-lidded, dumpy Victoria, casting a pall over the disporting figures around and above her.
It's probably not unlike the Empire at the turn of the century. The colonial territories were beginning to stir, and with the Boer War --- South Africa was the place where "concentration camps" were invented --- there were hints of disasters to come. If Brock were a bit more honest, he might have worked in a couple of figures to represent "Greed" or "Rapine." He might have shown us an imprisoned Boer; a starving child in India or Rhodesia; one of the much-abused Aborigines of Australia; a black diamond-miner in South Africa --- sweating, crouched over.
The over-busy-ness of this monument was a hint for those who knew the price of the Empire; who knew that it was costly. Maybe its confusion is a hint of the vision that in just three short years there would be an upheaval that would put paid to the lovely Edwardian world and its dying fall.
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Thomas Brock lists almost 250 statues, memorials, effigies, and medallions designed and executed by him. The 1920 "Titanic Memorial" in Donegal Square, Belfast, shows the usual standard noble figure (with wreath) atop what looks to be a swirl of drowning people, half-formed but clearly disappearing below a representation of the sea. And a figure of Eve, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum, is simple, humble and touching [See Fig. 2]. From these we can see that when Brock was not touting outdated, pompous, colonial values, but --- rather --- honoring the plain and the unostentatious, he could be astonishingly dramatic, even artful.--- Lolita Lark