For the silly season I've given myself the task of visiting a different art exhibition on every day of August and writing a blog about it.

Sunday 30 August

Exhibition: The Campbell Sisters Dancing the Waltz
Place: The Victoria and Albert Museum


Two teenage girls twirl to the music of the waltz, each with an arm around the other’s waist, their flowing dresses pressing against their bodies. This beautiful double-figure sculpture of Emma and Julia Campbell practising for a ball has just been put on display at the V & A, having been acquired jointly with the National Gallery of Scotland, after money was raised by public subscription and a donation from the Art Fund. 

Char_Campbell_after_Lawrence.pngLady Charlotte Campbell / after Thomas Lawrence

The girls were daughters of an undistinguished Scottish army officer and MP (by now dead) and a remarkable mother, Lady Charlotte Campbell (1775-1861) who was styled Lady Charlotte Bury after he second husband. She had been a well-known society personality and beauty in the Regency period, and her portrait was painted by many of the top artists of the day, including Tischbein, Hoppner, Opie and Lawrence. But the clearest indications of her celebrity are two caricatures by the scabrous cartoonist Gillray, satirising a passing fashion for wearing extravagant feathers in your hair.

Lady_Char_Campbell_Gillray.pngLadies’ dress as it soon will be/ Gillray

The sculpture of her daughters is just a little more decorous, but still quite daring. The sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini made it at his busy Florence studio in 1820, when the girls were aged between 13 and 17. Their widowed mother’s marriage to her eldest son’s former tutor, the Reverend Edward Bury, who was 16 years younger than his wife, had been a minor scandal in English society. One reason for living in Italy was that people there were more relaxed about such things, but Italy was also cheaper than London, and Lady Charlotte didn’t have much money. She could hardly have afforded Bartolini’s large fee of 500 luigi (equivalent to £500) so the work was paid for by her brother the Duke of Argyll, who installed it in his Scottish castle at Inverary where it stayed for almost the next 200 years.

Bartolini was well known for loosening and naturalising the style of his older rival Antonio Canova, who had recently died.  Compare Bartolini’s marble with Canova's The Three Graces, made only five years earlier and acquired by the same two museums in 1994.

3_Graces.pngThe 3 Graces/Canova

Canova had gone for the stasis of classical nudity, while the more dynamic effect in Bartolini comes from the use of the sisters’ dresses to give flow and movement. Obviously he couldn’t have carved Emma and Julia naked in any case; yet he does manage to suggest their sexiness by showing that they’re more or less nude beneath their dresses, which in itself was daring in a portrait.  Speaking more primly, the government experts who put a hold on this sculpture’s export last year said it is “an unmistakeably early 19th century work, but simultaneously breaks away from the conventional sculpted portrait [by] suggesting the youth and vibrancy of the two sisters”. 


About the remainder of the two girls’ lives, we know that both married (Emma to a cousin of the British Prime Minister Lord John Russell) and both predeceased their mother. Lady Charlotte herself lived to the age of 86 and, still struggling for money, took to writing popular novels to augment her income, as well as publishing a rather scandalous account of life in the Regency court, based on her own diaries. One of her two children by Rev Bury was later painted (also as a teenager, and possibly in the guise of St Catherine) by Charles Eastlake in a charming Pre-Raphaelite portrait. As you can see they were a good-looking family.


Posted on August 31st, 2015


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