About the artwork
In 1925, the artist William Reynolds Stephens described his sculpture 'Castles in the Air' as an "attempt to record the actuality to an imaginative child of fairy tales, the characters associated with which are so readily visualised by many a child mind".
To convey this idea, the artist takes as his subject a slender, little girl. She is sat on her throne-like chair with her storybook left open in her lap. She looks out into the distance, lost in her own imagined world, surrounded by what the artist termed "flowers of fancy". Actual "castles in the air" are placed above her head to indicate how real fairy stories are to this little girl. The sculpture is made of a number of different materials, including bronze, mother of pearl, silver and semi-precious red stones. The artist described his use of mother of pearl and silver to create the "castles in the air" in order "to give as light an effect as possible".
William Reynolds-Stephens (1862 - 1943) was born in Detroit in the United States to British parents. He spent his childhood in England and Germany and originally trained to be an engineer. He attended the Royal Academy School schools in 1884 and won prizes for both paintings and sculpture in 1887.
During his career he was commended for his versatility as an artist and was described in the Magazine of Art in 1897 as being representative of artists who were prepared "to seize the most appropriate means afforded by art for the realistation of the particular intention of the moment". His varied work included painting pictures, designing furniture, textiles, and whole rooms in addition to sculpture. From 1886 he exhibited regularly in the Royal Academy exhibitions and from 1894 he showed exclusively there as a sculptor. Works by Reynolds-Stephens, in other public collections, include The Royal Game, in the Tate's collection and a number of portrait busts in the collection of The National Portrait Gallery.
Reynolds-Stephens was part of the art movement, the New Sculpture, a term coined by the literary critic Edmund Gosse to describe the work of a number of artists working between 1879 and 1894. The New Sculpture was seen as a reaction to the neo-classical work of sculptors such as John Gibson. Reynolds-Stephens' work reflects the poetic symbolism that prevailed in the work of some artists of the New Sculpture movement.
'Castles in the Air' was purchased by Lever on 3rd February 1916 following a visit to the artist's studio. Writing to Arthur Tooth, an art dealer, Lever commented that “the expression of the child's face greatly fascinated me". He commissioned Tooth to help him obtain the sculpture for a fair price. Lever's purchase of this sculpture highlights his role as an important patron of sculpture during this period. It is likely that Lever was introduced to the work of Reynolds-Stephens through his friendship with two of the leading artists of the New Sculpture, Edward Onslow Ford and William Goscombe John. Work by both of these artists is also on display at the Lady Lever Art Gallery.