Curating the Tate: full interview

In the May 2015 issue of yu magazine, Professor Jason Edwards talked about Sculpture Victorious, the exhibition he co-curated for the Tate Britain. We go in-depth into the development of the exhibition and just why Professor Edwards is so passionate about Victorian sculpture.

Tell us about your background – how did you end up at York University?

I’m an art historian, but it hasn’t always been that way – my degrees are in Literature. After my doctorate, I landed a post-doc at York where I was supposed to be thinking about Victorian writing about ancient sculpture.

As part of the terms of the postdoc, I had to teach a term of art history. When I arrived at York, I reminded them that I didn’t have a background in the discipline, but my colleague and mentor David Peters Corbett reassured me! He said many of the best art historians came from a literary background.

Honestly, it was thrilling. I realised within weeks that I wanted to be an art historian. All the close reading skills I’d built up as a literary person translated easily into close- looking skills. The rest is history.

I’d always been a specialist in the 19th century. My PhD was on the impact of Victorian evolutionary theory and molecular physics on the modernist prose of W.B.Yeats. So, essentially, I moved from thinking about Victorian literature and science to thinking about Victorian sculpture, painting and architecture.

Why did I end up working particularly on sculpture? Unrequited love had me used to looking at unresponsive bodies from afar!

How long have you been in your position at York Uni and what does it involve day to day?

This is, unbelievably, my sixteenth year at York. The highlights of any week are teaching for me: currently a survey course on Victorian sculpture and an MA course on the interrelation of sculpture, craft and the design reform movement in the 19th century.

In my other life, I’m the director of the university’s interdisciplinary Centre for Modern Studies. I love discovering the protocols of different fields and working out how they might fit together.

Then there’s administration, but let’s not waste any time talking about that!

How did you become involved with curating this exhibition?

About ten years ago, I had the idea of a putting together show on Victorian sculpture. I’d  already done a couple of small shows with the Henry Moore Institute and my original idea was to do something on a similar scale – about five to ten objects.

Through conversation with Michael Hatt at Warwick University, who was then the director of research at the Yale Centre of British Art, the pitch grew. The show started to become a more concrete reality when another Victorian sculpture specialist, Martina Droth, became head of research at Yale.

Martina was one of the few other people in the world at that time who cared about Victorian sculpture. This meant we suddenly had a curatorial team, and then a venue, and then a timescale for the opening!

The Yale Center is also always very keen to have a partner venue in the UK for its shows, and we had Tate Britain in our sights. It was quite a hard sell since it’s not a very Tate show in some ways, but Penelope Curtis, formerly at the Henry Moore, was now the director at Tate, and was a big advocate for sculpture and for our show. She’s never been afraid of an unconventional show. So the stars aligned.

What is the exhibition designed to show people?

How various, inventive, surprising and interesting Victorian sculpture is. It is the century in which sculpture suddenly becomes ubiquitous. It could be seen everywhere and by everyone, all the time, from parlours to urban parks, museums and great exhibitions. It was also in less predictable places – on furniture, as part of jewellery, and, of course, on coins, that most widely circulated form of relief sculpture.

We also want people to see how many different materials sculptors worked in. Of course there is plenty of bronze and marble, but there is also silver, glass, wood, gold, shell and even sheepskin.

We also wanted to challenge the myth that Victorian sculptors, in their alliance with industry, represented a kind of low water mark of bad taste. We had a different story to tell: of the endless inventiveness of sculptors’ working relationships with industrial firms. These enabled innovation and made the medium accessible, with no loss in quality.

In addition, we wanted people to think about the display contexts of sculpture, and of the ways in which images of sculpture were circulated throughout the globe as part of a range of new reproductive technologies, such as photographs.

Is there a difference between the Yale show and the Tate Britain show?

Both the Tate Britain and the Yale Center for British Art represent real coups for the exhibition. Both venues are world-leading, research-led galleries for the display of British art, and both venues were committed to the show in spite of the enormous expense and the logistical difficulties of transporting and installing sculpture.

We had a wonderful team at both venues, and the shows were different. The Tate version is larger with more objects. Because many of these objects have never been displayed together before, I was anxious about how they would all look together. It was like hosting a party. You invite everyone you love the most, and you hope they’ll like each other, but you can’t be sure.

Which specific exhibits really interest you and why?

I’ve got two current favourite exhibits in the show, but every time I turn the page of the catalogue I change my mind!

The first of my choices are two moulded sheepskin reliefs, one depicting a pair of dead birds, one depicting a range of more or less dead marine life. They’re small and extraordinarily detailed have never been on display since their first outing at the 1862 International exhibition.

I love how strange these objects are, how very Victorian. Moulded sheepskin that looks like carved wood that looks like dead animals? There’s nowhere else within the history of art that you find that.

My second favourite exhibit is an equally extraordinary silver statuette made by the Indian silversmith Oomersi Mawji. It depicts Narcissus and it’s a silver variant of a statuette dug up at mid-century in Pompeii. It quickly became fashionable, with bronze copies circulated across Europe and the empire.

What I love about this object is its witty, aggressive response to the empire, with its sculptor basically saying to the imperial world, both the Roman imperial world and the Victorian imperial world: “anything you can do, I can better”. And he does!

What is it about the Victorian period that captures your interest so much?

I guess it’s the period in which I feel most at home in some ways. I like how culturally ambitious the Victorians were: wanting to know everything about everything at all moments, in all places, and at all scales.

It was the great age of discovery, whether scientific, naturalistic, artistic or historic. Everyone was peering down a microscope, or looking into a rock pool, or thinking about ferns, or looking up through telescopes at the sky.

It was a time when extraordinary exhibitions showcasing the natural and cultural history of the world were put on that attracted literally millions of people.

After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a world with Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, George Eliot, and Dickens, and or live without the Natural History Museum, the Oxford Science Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum, the V&A, and the St Pancras Hotel?

Why do you think exhibitions like this should and do interest the general public?

I’ll be fascinated to see the response to the show. I genuinely have no idea how it will go down. It’s full of beautiful, curious, surprising, often difficult things. I hope people come away thinking: “I’d never have thought of that.” I’m secretly confident that they will. And, honestly, anyone who doesn’t, the problem isn’t with the objects!

What’s next for the exhibition after the Tate?

The show has been a long time in the making and our objects have been on quite a journey from their home institutions to New Haven, then to London, before they go home again. Lots of them have never left home before. Most of them have never met before. And they’ll have been stuck in a bunch of rooms together, unable to escape each other, for quite a long time.

I hope they’ve found ways to rub up against each other, have some fun and avoid too much painful conflict. I’m sure they’ve had some adventures and I’m sure they’re looking forward to going home. I hope some of them keep in touch. I’ve certainly made some life-long friends with objects in this show.

How do you go about gathering the exhibits and how challenging is it?

This show represents a once in a lifetime opportunity for people to see a big Victorian sculpture exhibition. I know it’s hard to believe, but there’s never been one before.

And there are reasons for that. Victorian sculpture wasn’t fashionable throughout the 20th century. Curators have tended to stick to shows about particular stars from the period: Alfred Gilbert, Bertram Mackennal, for example, or dealt with small topics such as the late-Victorian statuette or the Pre-Raphaelite sculpture.

To make the kind of show we’ve put together takes extraordinary expense, meets logistical difficulties, and much commitment is required. It’s also important to be willing to make a show that fashionable critics might hate.

We’ve been extraordinarily lucky that a variety of institutions have been willing to loan us objects: museums and galleries, private collectors, but also army clubs, council offices, churches, businesses and even the house of Lords!

Many of our objects have never been seen by a gallery going public. I hope our show puts North Ayrshire and Louth, in Lincolnshire, where some of the objects come from, on the Art Historical map. Once you start looking there are extraordinary objects everywhere.

What’s your proudest moment in your academic career?

My favourite writer and thinker is a poet and literary theorist called Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Seeing Eve give a paper for the first time back in my early twenties was literally life changing.

Eve was the first person who really made me feel like life was a viable proposition. Also, Eve was very daring, in spite of being so shy in other ways, and the thought that “you can say that out loud?” has been my ambition ever since.  I’ve ended up writing quite a lot about Eve, whose work I love, and we became friends. There’s no topping that for me. Indeed, I still can’t quite believe I didn’t just dream the whole thing up.

What else do you do outside of academia and history/art?

I’m a sort of semi-reluctant allotment gardener. I’m definitely not a natural, but I grow fruit because it’s so easy and so delicious. I also have a small back yard that people tell me looks like a jungle. I’ve always taken that as a compliment: more is more. I like being outdoors. I like being in sunlight, the sound of wind rustling through plants, birdsong, frogs jumping and cats wandering by.

What are your ambitions for the next decade or so, within your field and outside?

I’m about to be on research leave for a year and am looking forward to starting some new projects, but also thinking about where I’d like my life to go next. I know I probably want to keep teaching and I can’t imagine I’ll ever want to stop reading and looking at things.