Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm
Lot 88
Robert Wiedeman ‘Pen’ Barrett Browning (British 1846-1912)
Sold for £106,400 (US$ 170,277) inc. premium

Lot Details
Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm Robert Browning, Bronze figure of Dryope, 1883-196 x 66.5 x 61cm
Robert Wiedeman ‘Pen’ Barrett Browning (British 1846-1912)
Dryope fascinated by Apollo
signed and dated ‘R. Barrett Browning. 1883’ (lower right hand side)
inscribed 'THIEBAUT-FRERES Fondeuers' (rear of base), bronze with green-brown patina 196 cm. (77 in.) high, 66.5 cm. (26 in.) wide

Footnotes

  • Trained under Auguste Rodin, perhaps the most important sculptor of the late 19th and early 20th century, Robert Wiedeman‘Pen’ Browning was the only child of the most celebrated literary couple of the Victorian period, Robert and Elisabeth Barrett Browning. Although Pen’s artistic studies were financed by his parent’s success, he had an unfounded but perhaps understandable belief that his own personal career was blighted by his parental heritage and that his artistic achievements were intertwined with their influence and fame.

    Born in Florence in the period after his parents' infamous elopement to Italy, Pen (who was so named due to his early lisping attempts to say Wiedeman) had a closeted and sheltered upbringing, which perhaps was to later contribute to his insecurities and lack of self-confidence. When his beloved mother died in 1861, his father sent him to a private tutor in preparation for his application to Christ Church where he hoped his son would read Classics. Pen however, failed his entrance exams and another career had to be found. The solution came via an invitation to a country house party when he was given the opportunity to go out in the parkland sketching with John Everett Millais (British 1829-1896). A particularly fine attempt at a group of fir trees so greatly impressed Millais that he subsequently urged Pen to take up art as a career.

    Encouraged and pleased at Millais’s interest, Robert Browning sent his son to Antwerp to study painting with the Dutch artist Jean Armould-Heyermans. With some moderate success he continued his artistic education in Paris with J.P Laurens and in 1882 he met Auguste Rodin who opened up a new and exciting world of sculpture to him. Pen’s early bronzes were busts of idealised females with titles such as Hope and Purity as well as a portrait bust of his father.

    Without doubt Pen’s most ambitious and most fully achieved sculptural work was his larger than life size female nude study of Dryope (1883). Taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and a subject suggested by his father, Dryope was a shepherd girl who attracted the attentions of the Apollo. As she was known to be fond of all creatures, the god therefore transformed himself into a tortoise, which the shepherdess then innocently adopted as a pet. While seated on her lap, Apollo then re-transformed himself from a tortoise into a serpent and then coiled himself around her body in order to ravish her. Pen's interest in the subject may have stemmed from his love of animals, and he kept throughout his life a menagerie of daschunds, parrots and cockatoos, peacocks and monkeys. In an attempt at realism and with his great fascination with snakes, Pen purchased a ten-foot long Senegalese python, which he used as the model for the serpent encircling Dryope. The model for Dryope was an Italian girl, Adelia Abbruzzesi, who was possibly Pen’s mistress. According to one contemporary report however, disaster struck during a sitting when the python began to actually constrict his frantic model. Pen was forced to shoot the snake but Adelia survived the traumatic experience. Fortunately the crisis came at a point when Pen’s studies had advanced far enough to fully capture the dramatic force and essence of the highly charged scene.

    The bronze was eventually cast by the Thiebaut Freres foundry in Paris, a company well known for its fine quality castings (particularly pieces of a monumental scale) which was used by the best French sculptors of the day including Carpeaux, Carrier-Belluse and Pradier. The company amalgamated with Fumiere and Gavignot in the 1880’s and listed amongst its clients Jules Dalou and interestingly Auguste Rodin, suggesting that Pen had an allegiance to using the same foundry as his master.

    When the work was completed, Pen felt it to be a personal triumph of power and beauty and as such, had high hopes for his bronze to be selected by the Royal Academy committee. It was however rejected as being ‘coarse’, the main objection being from the Treasurer John Callcott Horsley, who was a noted opponent of the nude in art and of life drawing in art education, despite the support of Lord Leighton, a close friend of Pen’s. Pen was completely crushed by this rebuff. Robert Browning, sensitive to his son’s utter disappointment and eager to promote his son’s work, approached the celebrated and progressive Grosvenor Gallery to persuade them to exhibit the sculpture. Disregarding their policy of never accepting academy refusals they agreed to exhibit the piece. Directed by Sir Coutts Lindsay, the gallery set itself in direct opposition to the Royal Academy by championing artists outside the establishment who often were young, foreign or female. Exhibitions at the Grosvenor conferred notoriety among the general public but also gave automatic credibility in fashionable circles. Situated in New Bond Street and famous as the centre of the aesthetic movement the bronze was thus displayed alongside works of the leading artists of the day including Burne Jones' painting 'King Cophetua and the Beggar Girl'.

    Exhibited in a central position in the sculpture room of the gallery in 1884, its monumental size, and powerful subject matter lead to the majority of critics acknowledging its strength of conception and execution. The verdict of the The Times art critic reflected a very favourable view of the piece. Reviewing the ‘interesting collection of sculpture’ on show at the Grosvenor Gallery’s prestigious 1884 summer exhibition, he pronounced ‘The most important works in the Gallery, however, are the contributions of Mr R. Barrett Browning…’ and especially ‘the bronze statue of Dryope fascinated by Apollo in the form of a serpent’. This was not the case for all the critics, it was suggested by others that the piece was ‘too real’ and did not posses the more restrained classical treatment of his contemporaries such as Lord Frederick Leighton (British 1830-1896) whose comparable work 'An Athlete Wrestling with a Python' was held to great acclaim when it was exhibited in 1877. Leighton’s study however depicts manly resistance to the serpent whereas Browning’s Dryope depicts a much more complex and ambiguous scene of fascination and repulsion. The critics felt that in future Pen should ‘shun the heresies of the realists’ and determine instead ‘to seek for beauty as well as truth’.

    Dryope was subsequently shown in Brussels and at the Paris Salon where it received an honorary mention. It however remained unsold and as a result of this disappointing reception Pen subsequently never produced anything on the same scale again.

    Giving up sculpture, Pen returned to Italy and married Fanny Coddington, an American heiress. They moved to Venice where Pen devoted his time to restoring the Palazzo Rezzonico on the Grand Canal. Pen’s father died at the Palazzo in 1889 and the following year Pen separated from his wife. He devoted the remaining years of his life to collecting together his parent’s memorabilia in the hope that he would be able to open a museum to their memory at Casa Guidi, his parents original home when they first fled to Italy. However when he died intestate in 1912, Sotheby’s sold the majority of these effects and his own art works, including the figure of Dryope that had lain forgotten in his studio, in a massive three-day sale. Dryope was sold for the sum of £13 to a buyer listed as ‘Mr Goodhart’ (a smaller replica of the bronze – possibly a preliminary study for Dryope cast in 1882 was also sold as the preceding lot for £9). The provenance and whereabouts of the piece after this date are unrecorded until it was rediscovered and its significance identified by the present vendor. Dryope was included in a major exhibition on the Victorian nude at the Tate Britain in 2001.

    Provenance:
    Estate of Pen Browning and sold by auction on his death by Messrs. Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, 1-8 May 1913 ‘The Browning Collections: Catalogue of oil painting, drawings & prints: autograph letters and manuscripts, books, statuary, furniture, tapestries, and works of art; the property of R.W. Barrett Browning…’
    Pg 149, Lot 1271’A large bronze statue of Dryrope fascinated by Apollo, in the form of a serpent, 6ft 4in high. Exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, 1884, on the intercession of the artist’s father after being rejected at Burlington House’
    Sold for £12 to purchaser Goodhart (a smaller replica of lot 1271, 36in high was sold as lot 1270 for £9 to purchaser Berly)

    Exhibited:
    Grosvenor Gallery, 1884, no.407;
    Academie des Beaux Artes, Brussels, 1884;
    Paris Salon, 1885;
    Tate Britain, 2001, ‘Exposed: The Victorian Nude’

    Literature:
    Smith, Alison (editor), Exposed: The Victorian Nude, exhibition catalogue, Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, 2001, no. 155, p.240;
    Newell, Christopher, The Grosvenor Gallery: Change and Continuity in the Victorian Art World, Cambridge, 1995, pp.11, 45, 57, 158.
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