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About the artwork

John Gibson was the leading neo-classical artist of the Victorian period. His work was admired and bought by society figures of the day including royalty. Gibson’s interest in classical art was not simply limited to admiring the art as it had survived but rather considered how it might have looked when first completed. As a result, Gibson pioneered polychrome or painted sculpture. This work is a fascinating example of this experiment.

Gibson was born in Conway, Wales, the son of a market gardener. His family left Wales when he was 9 years old intent on emigrating to America. En route they stopped in Liverpool and decided to stay there. When he was 14 he was apprenticed to a firm of cabinetmakers. Gibson hated the work. He managed to persuade the firm to alter his indentures so that he could work on carvings to decorate the furniture – perhaps the first evidence of his interest in three-dimensional shaping and modelling.  But Gibson still felt unsettled.

Then at the age of fifteen the turning point came when he met the stonemason F. Legé who was working for the local firm Messrs Franceys. Gibson copied a head of Bacchus made by Legé. Franceys were so impressed with the work that they took Gibson on themselves. His work proved popular with local patrons including the influential William Roscoe, art collector and historian. Roscoe encouraged Gibson and allowed him to copy from his Old Master drawings. This marked the start of Gibson’s love of classical art.

Rome was now the ultimate destination for Gibson. He arrived there in 1817 with letters of introduction to the greatest living sculptor, Antonio Canova (1757-1822). At this point, Gibson still had not had any formal training but Canova adopted the young man as his prodigy and set about giving him the practical and theoretical education he lacked.

Equally important were Canova’s connections with other artists and patrons; this was invaluable in helping to launch Gibson’s career.   Prominent members of English society were keen to see and commission work by Gibson when on their trips to Rome.  In the end Gibson spent most of his adult life in the ‘Eternal City’ and only visited England on rare occasions but his connections to and influence on British art were enormous.

In 1856 the second Duke of Wellington visited Gibson in Rome. The Duke was impressed by a recently completed sculpture on view in the studio; a remarkable painted or ‘tinted’ Venus. The work was not available for sale so the Duke proposed that Gibson make him a new painted work – Pandora.  This mythological figure represents the first woman. She was made in the image of an immortal goddess by Vulcan on the orders of Jupiter and presented to Epimetheus. 

Pandora was given a box (or vase) filled with all the evils and diseases of the world but told not to open it. Eventually she gave in to temptation and opened the box releasing evil and suffering into the world, only Hope remained inside to give comfort to man.  According to Gibson’s autobiography of 1860, the Duke wanted Gibson to depict Pandora at the moment of her creation but the sculptor felt that there was a better episode from the story to illustrate, the turning point, the moment of the highest drama, the moment when Pandora is tempted to look inside the box. Gibson described his work:

I have represented Pandora as described by Hesiod, and with the fatal box in her hand, drooping her head in deep thought; her eyes are turned a little from the box, whilst her hand is ready to raise the lid. The figure is still and motionless, but the mind is in full activity, labouring under the harassing feelings of intense curiosity, fear and perplexity. Her thoughts have dwelled too long upon the box. Pandora is already lost – we are sufferers, but Hope did not escape with the veil brood, she was shut in, and remains to the last with us.
The Duke was disappointed in the approach Gibson had taken and decided against buying the sculpture. Instead Lady Marianne Margaret Compton known as Lady Marian Alford (1817-1888) purchased the work. She was keen also to have the sculpture painted so Gibson proceeded with the original idea of making a ‘tinted’ work.

Listen to a recording of Paul O'Keeffe's gallery talk on John Gibson's 'Pandora' online now.

The sculpture Pandora is white marble, which has been painted with wax colours. A lot of the paint has been lost over the years but you can still see elements of it especially around the edges of the drapery and on the box. The sight of a painted marble was shocking to a Victorian audience and indeed to many of us even today. As then, we are used to the idea of classical sculptures being white, elegant and simple.

But along with some historians and artists, Gibson was interested in the theory that classical sculptures had originally been painted with bright colours to reflect the world around them. He tested this theory by creating his own painted works. In 1862, Gibson exhibited his three painted works - Pandora, Venus and Cupid - at the International Exhibition.  A review in the Star noted of Pandora:

…here again the application of colour to the face, and especially in the eyes gives an intellectual vitality which no dead marble could possess.

Despite the loss of colour, Gibson’s work still has amazing presence and captures the imagination. The stillness of the piece seems to reflect the last moments of peace before Pandora opens the box and unleashes chaos on the world.

Listen to a recording of Paul O'Keeffe's gallery talk on John Gibson's 'Pandora' online now.