Monday, April 13, 2009

Benjamin Spence, or Finding Family at the Musee d’Orsay

My grandmother came from a family that homesteaded in northern Montana in the very early 1900s.  Their name was Spence. 

I grew up hearing wonderful stories about the Spences of old.  For instance, my great-grandfather Harry Spence was born in Scotland, at the Duke of Argyll’s hunting lodge. 

That’s a pretty good story.  But where was this lodge?  At Inverarry Castle?  That part of the story remains unknown. 

Harry’s father, John, was a stained-glass artist who worked for the Duke.  John later moved his family to Montreal, from whence Harry, my great grandfather, eventually came to Montana. 

Here’s a picture of John that I found from a museum in Montreal, and which I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. 


In addition to being a stained glass artist himself, John came from an artistic family.  He was the son of the sculptor William Spence of Liverpool—one of the founders of the Liverpool Academy

But John’s brother Benjamin is the subject of my post today.  I also grew up hearing the rudiments of his story—which, thanks to modern technology, we descendants are filling in today. 

Benjamin Spence was a sculptor who achieved some real recognition in his day.  He worked with some of the most accomplished living sculptors, and secured commissions from Buckingham Palace. 

Born in Liverpool in 1822, he traveled to Rome at the age of twenty-four, where he became a protege of John Gibson.  Gibson had been a colleague of William Spence, Benjamin’s father, and at the peak of his career was considered the greatest living sculptor.

Below is a picture of the Palm House at Sefton Park in Liverpool.  The building houses versions of two Spence works which he left to the city upon his death. 

DSC_0444.jpg Palm House image by Craig_J_photos

One of those sculptures was the “Highland Mary,” below.  In 2005 vandals apparently seriously damaged this sculpture, but here it is in a recent photograph.  I’m in process of contacting the Liverpool Historical Society to learn more about how it was restored.   

Highland Mary by BSpence

Highland Mary, Benjamin Spence, ca. 1852

Benjamin Spence used literary sources for many of his subjects.  The “Highland Mary” comes from a Robert Burns poem of the same name, about a young woman whom Burns loved and who died young (photo and information by Jacqueline Banerjee). 

In 1854 Prince Albert commissioned another “Highland Mary” for Queen Victoria’s birthday.  Many years later, the Queen commissioned another Spence work, “The Lady of the Lake,” as a companion for the “Highland Mary.”  Both works are, to my knowledge, still at Balmoral.  Though we don’t have photos of them, here’s a photo of a steel-cut engraving that was made in 1863 after the Queen’s “Lady of the Lake.”   

The Lady of the Lake, artist: Spence; engraver:  Stodart, 1863

Another well-known Spence work was “The Angel’s Whisper.”  This piece too was inspired by poetry—in this case a poem by Samuel Lover using as its subject an Irish belief that when a child smiles in its sleep, it’s because an angel is whispering to it. 

The Musee d’Orsay—the post-1800 branch of the Louvre--accessioned this piece in 1993, unbeknownst to the family.  Last summer my cousins stumbled on it in Paris, after having hunted down many Spence works in Liverpool.  There is also a version of “The Angel’s Whisper” at Sefton Park in Liverpool, above, but the Orsay statue is in much better condition. 




The Angel’s Whisper, Benjamin Spence, 1857

In closing, here’s what the Musee’s artist notes say about Benjamin Spence:  

“The sculptor…was an admirer of Neoclassicism. He lived in Rome and worked with the greatest English sculptor of the time, John Gibson. From Gibson he borrowed the treatment of the bodies and precisely defined volumes smoothly enveloped by the light. But he tempered the rigid aspects of his master's work with a taste for sentimentality and readily took subjects not from Greek mythology but from Shakespeare, romantic English literature…or the Bible.”

There are several other Benjamin Spence works in existence in the U.K., and I hope to visit them someday—as well as fill in the blanks about the rest of my artsy family members.  How exciting, and inspiring!


Zuzana said...

You last sentence express my sentiments exactly! Exciting and inspiring is what truly comes to mind.
Wonderful sculptures; you must feel somewhat proud to have such artistic predescessors.
I think the only artist we had in our family was a poet.;)

Saz said...

delightful post! Sallymandy!!!

TammiMagee said...

That is quite an amazing family history! I live in the UK-maybe there is one near me??

Gal Friday said...

The sculptures are beautiful(too bad about the vandalism, though)
I truly hope you will be able to visit all the Spence creations.
It seems you have done a bit of homework already and what an interesting subject to learn about, especially since it involves your "artsy" ancestors.
That "Palm House" is something else(a conservatory?), too!

Stephanie N. said...

How cool. I love hearing about how poetry and other forms of literature can influence sculpture and other visual arts. I once wrote a French Lit paper on how one of Baudelaire's poems influenced and was influenced by some paintings. I'm sure the paper was awful, as my French was deplorable. But I enjoyed the subject-matter.

And how awesome that you are learning about this as it links to your own family history.

The WalMart Vegan said...

What a great find in your family history! I hope you get to visit each site.

ceecee said...

A fascinating history. I see where your love of art comes from. You must have been thrilled to find all of this info and then the sculptures! Hope your Easter was lovely!
All the best,

The Clever Pup said...

I love this stuff, I find it utterly facinating. You should check out Beth's blog
in which she tries to prove that a family portrait was painted by the artist that half-painted Washington.

aims said...


The Angel's Whisper is just sweet. I've never heard that (since I don't have children) but it certainly is lovely.

LenoreNeverM♡re said...

from Shakespeare,romantic English literature & the Bible...not from Greek mythology is truly amazing! I love to study art History LUV!!!

Eleonora Baldwin said...

Now I see where all that talent and artistic style comes from. What a truly inspiring and exciting (to quote you) post, Sallymandy. Bravaaa!

Ciao, I missed reading your blog, I have a lot to catch up.

Lucy said...

Oh what a wonderful piece of history lies within your family! I especially like the Montreal connection...I just knew there was something so familiar about you;)

This also seems to tie in sdo well with your love of arts. I really enjoyed this post:) Thanks!

Misc. Muse said...

what wonderful works of art. I love to research family history and what not. My family wasn't real exciting- Russian/German farmers.

Lynda in IN

La Belette Rouge said...

What a fantastic story and legacy for you. You must be so proud.

Profoundly Superficial said...

That's wonderful and certainly more constructive than the possibly apocryphal story that one of my forebears was a king of Denmark who met an untimely end by being thrown into a pit of snakes!
PS I think visits to Liverpool and Scotland are definitely in order.

Kat Mortensen said...

Lovely post. You certainly have some interesting roots.

I love that Irish notion that when a child smiles in its sleep an angel is whispering. I've never heard that before.

Spence's work is very fine, indeed.


sallymandy said...

Protege and FFF: thanks, you two!

Tammi: Maybe there's something near you...are you near Liverpool?

Gal Friday: Yes, that Palm House is quite the building. The people in Liverpool seem to have restored the sculptures there, and there are other versions of those sculptures elsewhere, too.

Stephanie: Interesting about your paper! I, too, am fascinated with how the arts influence each other.

Modest Mom: thank you!

Catherine: I did have a nice Easter, thanks. I loved your photos.

Clever Pup: I have seen that blog before, and it's really fascinating.

aims: I like the saying about the angels, too.

Lenore: thanks for the visit. I love art history as well.

Lola: you're a dear, thank you.

Ms Lucy: that's sweet of you. There is a church in Montreal whose stained glass was done by John Spence. Maybe I'll try to send you the name.

Misc. Muse: Every family seems to have interesting characters tucked away; I'm lucky that some of my ancestors kept records of them. Otherwise I don't think I'd know about this.

Belette: Thanks. I do feel thankful that I know about my family's connection to Europe--and the artistic connection is a new discovery.

ProSup: now, that would be story worth investigating, no???

Thank you, Kat!

A Woman Of No Importance said...

This is spine chillingly incredible, SM, what a heritage you may lay claim to - How proud you must be to understand where all the many creativities come from, and to enhance this fantastic legacy with all your fabulous endeavours!

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Unknown said...

The first biography for a century of John Gibson, "John Gibson, The World of The Master Sculptors" by John Hussey gives many more details of William and Benjamin Spence both in Liverpool and Rome. Gibson worked with both Benjamin and his father William.

debra lala said...

I found a beautiful pic of the Lady of the Lake by B. E. Spence. It is now in my home. I am willing to sell it (framed already) for 38.88. Will mail, text me if you are interested at Mandeville, La. 70448. Debra at 985-264-1650.
I just read the interesting story of this piece.
Debra Lala