Saturday, 5 February 2005

The beautiful bronze age of collectables


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by Christopher Proudlove©

It all started during the Bronze Age, 1,000 years BC. Since then, among other things, we've been spending it, fighting with it, cooking in it and decorating our homes with it. Coins, canon and cooking pots are just three of a myriad of uses that bronze has been put to over the centuries.

The collector, though, will be most interested in the wonderful sculpture made from it and a better medium with which to decorate our homes, both inside and outside, would be hard to find.

An alloy of copper and tin, its properties make it ideally suited to casting: as it solidifies, it expands to fill every last intricate detail of a mould. Then, on cooling, it contracts slightly, making removal of the mould a simple process.

As you might expect, many famous sculptors have been attracted to such a perfect medium over the years ... Matisse, Degas, Picasso, Braque, to name but four whose work most of us can only dream about owning.

But for every one piece by a name that's revered, there's a hundred, nay a thousand, that collectors of modest means can acquire and enjoy.

What to collect is down to personal choice. I offer my own preference merely for your consideration: take a closer look at the work of animal sculptors of the 19th century – the French Animaliers, as they are affectionately known.

The golden years of the Animalier School were between 1830 and 1890. Its exponents were predominantly French and the creatures chosen to be immortalised ranged from the humble to the mighty.

The hunter might chose to have modelled his favourite gun dog with its quarry, while the racehorse owner might celebrate a victory by commissioning a study of the victor.

When not working to specific commissions, sculptors produced export items from the entire animal kingdom, much of it finding its way to Britain.

Interestingly, commission or not, the quality of most of what was produced was excellent. Take the time to examine closely pieces that are still quite common today and you'll discover a source of much pleasure. Fortunately they remain relatively inexpensive examples of the art.

Their hallmark is the realistic way in which they were executed. Cat, dog, tiger or elephant, whatever the subject, it was portrayed just as it would be seen in the flesh, which was not always the case where animals and the over-sentimental Victorians were concerned.

Arguably the first and perhaps highest regarded member of the Animalier school was Antoine Louis Barye (1796-1875).

He was born in Paris and worked almost exclusively on studies of wild animals, his masterpieces including Tiger devouring a Gavial (crocodilian) of the Ganges, now in the Louvre, and Lion and Serpent, for the Gardens of the Tuileries royal residence.

Many royal commissions followed but because of an obsession with perfection, Barye was not financially successful.

He was declared bankrupt in 1848 and his moulds and models sold to pay his debts. Undaunted, Barye continued to work and was appointed Professor of Drawings at the Museum of Natural History at the Jardin de Plantes in 1854, a post he held until his death.

Ironically, as a young man it was at the menagerie there that he had studied the animals in his sculptures.

By 1857, Barye was rid of his debts and he began casting works again to great acclaim. He was awarded the Grand Medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867 and was named the first president of the Central Union of Beaux Arts.

Today, most of Barye's plasters and models are the property of the Louvre, while his bronzes are preserve of the wealthiest collectors.


A more accessible member of the Animalier School is Pierre Jules Mêne (1810-1877) a contemporary of Barye whose bronze groups are still regularly found in fine art auctions. They can be picked up at prices starting at £600-1,000.

Mêne was born in Paris, the son of a metal worker who was no doubt responsible for much of his son’s technical grounding in the art of bronze casting. But as a sculptor, Mêne was largely self-taught.

His career was studded with honours and accolades. By 1838, he had opened his own foundry, and in the same year he exhibited for the first time at the Paris Salon.

He went on to win a number of medals there, culminating in him being awarded the Legion d'Honeur in 1861.

Mêne's work was greeted in this country with as much enthusiasm as his native France and he exhibited at the Great Exhibitions of 1851 and 1862.

Among a number of bronzes made specifically for the British market was his Derby Winner which he exhibited at the Salon in 1863.

Such was Mêne's success in Britain that the Coalbrookdale Company made copies of his work, signing them 'Coalbrookdale Bronze', while Staffordshire potters such as Copeland's cast copies in unglazed, white porcelain intended to resemble marble and known as Parian.

Sadly, in about 1900, less reputable companies also produced pirate recasts which have deceived the unwary.

However, the fakes were made from the models themselves and not the original plaster moulds. They are, therefore, of slightly smaller dimensions than the real thing.

Which is perhaps one clue as to why some animalier style bronzes remain undervalued. Few can be reliably attributed to one particular sculptor but are merely modelled 'in the style of' so and so.

Also, models from which casts were taken could remain current for a number of years, with the result that the collector can only guess at the rarity or otherwise of any bronze he or she might be offered.

Think on this, though: prices will begin to spiral once demand starts to exceed supply.


Caring for bronze

If you care at all for bronze, don’t ever polish it!

Bronze is highly susceptible to corrosion – it turns dark brown or greenish brown when exposed to the atmosphere- but this is considered one of the metal’s wonderful attributes.

The surface colour – or patina as it is called – should be protected at all costs. To do otherwise can have a seriously adverse affect on the value of a bronze object and will spoil its appeal for years to come.

So, under no circumstances should any metal polish be used and it’s also best kept away from water.

Instead, a light dusting is all that is required and perhaps careful rubbing with a clean cloth. Avoid rubbing hard, particularly on raised parts where the patina could be worn away.

Dust in crevices can be removed with a cotton bud moistened with saliva.

Dull patination can be revived with the sparing application of a microcrystalline wax.

Pictures show:

A model of a Retriever by Pierre Jules Mêne worth £1,200-1,500

An Italian greyhound and a King Charles spaniel modelled by Pierre Jules Mêne. The model is worth £700-900

A superb brown patinated bronze figure of a racehorse with jockey up. It dates from circa 1900 and is worth £1,500-2,000



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