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Lead

2. History and uses

Source: Oxford University Press

Lead has been used for both functional and artistic purposes by many cultures throughout the world. It was known in Mesopotamia by the 6th millennium BC and was extensively used in the Middle Assyrian period (c. 1350–1000 BC), particularly for plaques and medallions. In ancient Egypt it was used for coins, weights, ornaments, utensils, ceramic glazes and solder. Many cast-lead votive offerings, religious tokens and pilgrim badges have been discovered from ancient and medieval times.

The use of lead in roofs was introduced by the Romans, and it reappeared in the medieval period. In the 17th and 18th centuries lead was also used in northern Europe for roof crestings, rainwater heads and cisterns, which were often highly decorated. From the 12th century it provided a flexible, weatherproof armature for stained-glass windows.

The principal use of lead is in sculpture. There are a number of ornate 12th-century English fonts in relief-cast lead (e.g. at the church of St Mary, Frampton-on-Severn, Glos), and in the 16th century it was used for plaquettes, the small-scale reliefs that contributed so much to the diffusion of Renaissance motifs. However, it did not become a popular medium for larger pieces of sculpture until the end of the 17th century. The alterations to the château of Versailles that took place in the 1660s included ornate lead roofs and formal gardens decorated with statues, fountains and urns, many of them of cast and gilded lead (e.g. the magnificent fountain group of Apollo and his Chariot of 1668–70 by Jean Tuby, and the statues (1672–4, by various artists) of Aesop and of animals from the Fables). The innovations at Versailles were instrumental in changing the design of gardens throughout northern Europe and created a growing demand for lead sculpture.

In England the first sculptor to produce cast lead in quantity was John van Nost (i). The pieces that can be positively attributed to van Nost are generally of high quality. They include the collection at Melbourne Hall, Derbys, which was commissioned by Thomas Coke (1675–1727), Vice-Chamberlain of the court of Queen Anne and King George I and one of van Nost’s earliest patrons. The grandest piece at Melbourne is the spectacular Vase of the Seasons, which he made in 1705. Other major producers of lead sculpture were Andrew Carpenter, who had been van Nost’s principal assistant, and John Cheere, who took over van Nost’s yard in 1739. In 1723 Charles Howard, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, ordered from Carpenter a number of lead sculptures, of which the Hercules and the Spartan Boy still remain at Castle Howard, N. Yorks. Two pieces at Powis Castle, Powys, bear Carpenter’s signature: the magnificent Fame Riding Pegasus, in the courtyard, and Hercules Slaying the Hydra at the end of one of the terraces. Van Nost, Carpenter and Cheere were not the only producers of sculpture in lead: the figure of Neptune in the centre of Bristol was made in 1723 by Joseph Rendall, a local man who was a founder by trade.

Much of the lead sculpture produced in the 18th century has disappeared, but a number of pieces remain. They vary greatly in the quality of both modelling and casting. Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, complained that lead sculpture soon fell out of shape, but nevertheless he filled his gardens at Chiswick House, London, with it. The sculptures were intended not as great works of art but as part of the garden. They were either copies of such Classical pieces as Venus, Apollo and Hercules, or copies of 16th-century Italian pieces, for example Samson Slaying the Philistine and Mercury, or Arcadian subjects, dancing shepherds and shepherdesses similar to those on the terrace at Powis Castle. All were painted, frequently in imitation of stone or marble and in some cases in garish naturalistic colours. (This was a common practice in the 18th century. J. T. Smith wrote of Cheere’s yard, ‘The figures were cast in lead as large as life and frequently painted with an intention to resemble nature’.) Allegorical themes dictated the placing of the sculptures within the garden. Warlike figures stood guard over playing cherubs; Venuses waited in secluded glades; and well-dressed, well-fed shepherds and shepherdesses danced in an idealized representation of English plenty.

By the middle of the 18th century the more natural landscape designs of Lancelot Brown were gaining popularity. This further change in fashion meant that the demand for lead sculpture started to decrease, and some pieces were removed when gardens were remodelled. At the end of the century lead was largely replaced by Coade stone and ceramics, since the modelling of pieces produced in these materials was of consistently better quality. At the beginning of the 19th century casting methods for lead changed in order to speed up the production process and to cut costs, and although some lead garden sculptures were produced, they tend to be smaller than their 18th-century counterparts, and the quality of both manufacture and modelling is poor. There is, however, one splendid example of Victorian decorative art in lead: the Albert Memorial, London (1863–76), by George Gilbert Scott I. The iron structure of the spire is covered in richly ornamented lead panels inset with coloured glass and hardstones and finished in the funerary colours of black and gold. Later in the 19th century some attractive, well-made garden sculptures were produced by the Bromsgrove Guild, which developed from the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Art Workers Guild.

In the 20th century lead was used rarely for sculpture, although it was employed by such artists as Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein (e.g. the Virgin and Child in Cavendish Square, London) and Richard Serra. An increased awareness of its toxic nature, and subsequently the health and safety procedures that are required for the casting and working processes, may be partly responsible for this decline.

Janet Naylor
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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