Although the material resorted to for sculptural efforts, is considerably more durable than that which is used for pictorial representations, we have very few remains of works in this art prior to the period of the Anglo-Saxons. The only exceptions are some rude devices on certain Druidical temples, more particularly in Brittany, but the representations on which are so obscure that it is difficult to say whether cyphers or figures of real beings were intended to be described. Some of the weapons and drinking-vessels of the ancient Britons were rudely carved, of which we have also a few re-mains. The huge wicker idols in which they sacrificed victims, may perhaps be ranked among their sculptural efforts. In wicker-work generally they were extremely skilful.
Our churches in the time of the Saxons were adorned with carving and statues, many of which were in the rudest style, and the heads and figures in general very uncouth. Nevertheless, our great painter and artistical writer Haydon informs us that in Edward the Confessor’s reign there were executed bas-reliefs as good as anything done at that time in Europe, and by no means deficient in grace, though disproportional, and unskilful in composition. In one of these there is a king in bed, leaning upon his hand; which in an improved style, says Hayden, might be made a fine thing. On several ancient churches may be seen representations in sculpture, effected during this period, of the Last Judgment. The figures are rudely carved in rough stone and of misshapen limbs, and the dead are rising out of their graves, and near them are allegorical designs of death and hell and the grave. These forms are stiff and ill-proportioned, and no harmony or beauty in the composition can be discerned. Certain of the monumental figures in some of our churches executed during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, are in this rude style ; and by observation of these works produced at different periods, we are enabled to trace the gradual rise and progress of this art. By degrees we find the effigies on the monuments more correctly and more gracefully designed and sculptured. Some of the productions of this class which were effected in this country so early as the thirteenth century, possess sufficient merit to have excited the admiration of Flaxman. He remarks with regard to these sculptures in general, that, although owing to the disadvantages under which such works were produced in that age, they are necessarily ill-drawn and deficient in principle, yet in parts there is a beautiful simplicity, an irresistible sentiment, and sometimes a grace excelling more modern productions. He also argues from the contemporary state of the arts in Italy, that these statues are entirely due to native artists ; but whether many of the best works of this period were not executed by foreign artists appears to admit of great doubt.
Some of the sculptural figures produced at the commencement of the last century, as seen in the monumental effigies of that period, were very fairly designed ; the limbs are in general well shaped, and the folds of the drapery display some grace in the disposition of it. The compositions of Roubillac, who carried the art a step further, and whose works possessed all the spirit and effect of the rude efforts before alluded to, with much of the polish and grace of more modern productions, evince considerable imaginative power, and the figures themselves are both correct and natural. Bacon’s performances possess much real grace, and some of his female figures are exquisitely beautiful. More refined elegant and dignified, his works are nevertheless less striking than those of certain of his predecessors.
But the greatest of our sculptors was Flaxman, who possessed a mind deeply imbued with the highest principles of his pursuit, and extensively refined and cultivated by classic study. With the masterpieces of ancient art he was also well acquainted. In his productions grandeur and beauty are combined together, although they are especially distinguished for the latter quality. He is perhaps, however, more famous for his designs than for his having executed any particular great works of sculpture. This was of course mainly owing to want of patronage. His illustrations of the Iliad, and of Dante, are among the most beautiful and grand and imaginative compositions that have been produced, either in painting or sculpture in this country. Later sculptors, more especially Chantrey and Gibson, have also executed performances which have done credit to the British school. Nevertheless, in sculpture as in painting, statues and busts, which correspond to portraits, instead of original designs, have mainly occupied the attention of our artists, and to this has the general patronage of the art been almost confined.