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.
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, 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!