BY James Roberts in One Takes | 25 OCT 11
Featured in
Issue 40

Picture Piece: Gilbert's Fireplace

A monument to the darkness of late-Victorian Britain

BY James Roberts in One Takes | 25 OCT 11

photograph: Matthew Andrews

Lurking in the depths of Leeds City Art Gallery is a 12-foot high metal fireplace – mantel and overmantel, to use the technical term – created by Alfred Gilbert around 1912. Best known as the sculptor of Eros in London’s Piccadilly Circus, Gilbert gained the grace of Queen Victoria, but had an unfortunate habit of taking on too much work while simultaneously underestimating its cost. At the time he created the fireplace he was living in near poverty in Bruges, and the commission – by a wealthy Leeds J.P. – must have been a lifeline. Decorated with figures symbolizing the triumph of life over death, it is ostensibly a celebration of marriage. But I have my doubts about this.

While in exile in Europe, Gilbert kept company with Felicien Rops – artist, underground book illustrator and small-time Satanist. Gilbert’s use of materials was always ambitious (Eros is one of the earliest aluminium sculptures) but the fireplace is almost decadent. The sculpted figures, which you only notice when you peer closely into the dark bronze, are even more so. Stacked up around the hearth, against a disorientating decorative scheme, are rows of female figures in cocoon-like sheaths that encase their bodies like pods – perhaps they are their bodies. This H.R. Geiger-esque impression is heightened by the top row of women whose faces seem to have melted off in the heat of the fire and whose cocoons seem to be swelling that little bit more. An archetypal child of the era, Gilbert was obsessed with the duality of human character – Eros and Anteros – and his fireplace is one of the great monuments to the darkness of late-Victorian Britain.