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I think it illustrates an admirable trait of the British character that its people are more likely to be able to name the sculptor of the lions guarding the foot of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square [Landseer of ‘Monarch of the Glen’ fame], than the artist responsible for the seventeen foot high figure of the admiral standing 172 feet above them.

His name is E.W. Baily, RA [1788- 1867] and an excellent piece of his carving resides in the delightful Carmarthenshire County Museum in Abergwili on the edge of the county capital. This example of his artwork also commemorates the struggle against Napoleon.

Lieutenant-General Picton was, according to his commander The Duke of Wellington, “a rough foul-mouthed devil as ever lived”, but proved himself a military success during the Peninsular War of 1807–1814. He met his death at Waterloo in 1816. Within the year, subscriptions were invited from the populace of Carmarthen to meet the cost of a monument to their local hero. With a statue topping a 75 foot high column and defended by four cannons bristling at its base, the structure would have been far more elaborate and impressive than the bleak obelisk we now see in Johnstown. Its plinth was to be decorated with a frieze depicting Picton in battle action.

Because Waterloo was perceived by contemporaries as a victory of epic proportions, Baily, as a sculptor immersed in classicism and with an established reputation in the London art scene, seemed the natural choice for this commission. he had drunk his fill at the font of that most revered set of classical sculptures, the ‘Elgin Marbles’.[1] These sculptures had been removed from the Parthenon in Athens and shipped to England between 1801 and 1805; eventually purchased by Parliament for the nation in 1816.[2] As a member of the Royal Academy, Baily had advance access to these masterworks and they exerted a profound influence on his art.[3] They also served as the compositional basis for his Carmarthen panels.

10aBy the very nature of its limited physical depth, entablature is a highly stylised medium. Baily established three distinct spatial planes. Shallow bas-relief is employed to indicate distant soldiers. Though background players, these troopers are given specific features. Skirmishing troops in the middle ground foliage are more deeply modelled; their equipment and uniforms are finely detailed.

7The central figures of Picton and his Highlanders are the most fully realised in three dimensions; barely connected to the stone support. The head of the commander’s horse emerges as the most fully formed element of the panel in a style which owes more than a faint aesthetic relationship to the Greek frieze which he had studied closely, and which at the time of writing still resides in the British Museum.

2The whole is a most convincing, if idealised portrayal of the moment when Picton’s Fifth Infantry division, concealed on a low ridge behind a sunken lane, attack French troops struggling to advance through a hedgerow. As his men deliver a devastating volley at a range of less than twenty yards, and following this up with a crucial bayonet charge, Picton is shot in the head and falls from his horse into the arms of a Highlander, becoming the highest ranking victim of the battle on the Coalition side.

Artistic license extends to the Lieutenant-General’s attire. Here he is resplendent in military costume, not the shabby old greatcoat and round [or top] hat which he was reportedly wearing into battle.

The heroic monument was completed in 1828, but the people of Carmarthen did not long enjoy it. The frieze had been carved from inferior, weather-prone material. Baily delivered a second set of tablets but these arrived after the entire edifice had been demolished in 1846. [4] The section on display at the museum is one of these replacement panels having been retrieved from a garden in Johnstown in the 1970’s.

 The Picton frieze would be the centrepiece of most county museum collections, as it is here at Carmarthen. However, there is so much more to engage any visitor to this wonderful collection. Any gallery would be proud to own a portrait by William Dobson or Peter Lely. Carmarthen has one by each artist.

portsThere are some very finely preserved fossilised marine plants and animals and an engaging collection of boldly designed Medieval floor tiles.

tilesThere are glimpses into various aspects of Welsh domestic and industrial life across a wide time span. This is everything a county museum should be; a springboard encouraging a leap into a new pool of knowledge. It rewards with something new which was not noticed during the previous visit. This month, it was the gold funerary mask which has that delightfully timeless quality common to the very best Egyptian sculpture.

EgyptAnd yet, as I made my way to the exit, I find myself taking just one more look at a detail of Baily’s masterwork; perhaps close up, or from a different angle….

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Carmarthenshire County Museum
The Old Palace Bishop’s Palace | Abergwili, Carmarthen SA31 2JG, Wales
Tel Number: 01267 228696
Opening times: Wednesday to Sunday, 10:00-16:30  Open every day during school holidays

Notes
1] I use quotation marks here because the popular name for these artworks is an insult to both the ancient and the modern Greek people. Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin was a vandalising thief of the worst kind, using his position as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire between 1799 and 1803  to extract isolated elements from their original context and damaging what could not be  successfully moved. Glorifying him by applying his name to the art he looted does rather stick in my craw. He could not even plead duty to country as a defence. The stones had not been obtained on behalf of the nation; Bruce originally intended them as decoration for his own home. They were only surrendered to pay debts. The “Marbles” were bought by Great Britain in 1816 for £35,000 and deposited in the British Museum.

2] These are more properly sculptures from the Parthenon, a marble frieze temple (aka a Doric temple) on the Athenian Acropolis, Greece, built in 447–432 BC and dedicated to the goddess Athena.
They consist of portions of the frieze, metopes, and pedimental sculptures , as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain. Elgin later claimed to have obtained in 1801 an official decree (a firman) from the Sublime Porte, the central government of the Ottoman Empire which were then the rulers of Greece. This firman has not been found in the Ottoman archives despite its wealth of documents from the same period and its veracity is disputed. Even if this permission could be found, the fact remains that these artworks were obtained from an occupying force, not from the people to whom they belonged as the centrepiece of their cultural heritage.

3] A major argument conducted by the British Museum in defence of their right to retain the Parthenon Frieze sections is that Elgin’s acquisition of the marbles inspired British students and enabled careers of great significance as a result. Baily can be used as an exemplar for this line of argument. However, the counter-argument can also be invoked; how many Greek artist’s careers foundered and failed to blossom because they didn’t themselves have first hand access to these works made by their own forefathers?

4] Picton’s legacy is commemorated by a second notable public monument; erected to his memory in St Paul’s Cathedral, by order of Parliament. This was sculpted by Sebastian Gahagan (c.1778 – 2 March 1838)