William Bell Scott and Thomas Sibson's Saxon Arts: a source for Iron and Coal.

Author:Cowling, Mary
Position:Critical essay

It seems certain that a design entitled Saxon Arts, by Thomas Sibson (1817-44), provided the inspiration for William Bell Scott's Iron and Coal, the last of his large-scale oil series which surrounds the covered courtyard at Wallington Hall, Northumberland (Pl 1). Scott (1811-90) was a good friend and supporter of Sibson, who died of tuberculosis aged only twenty-seven. Two versions of Saxon Arts have survived: one at the Yale Center for British Art and a more finished version at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Pls 2, 3). Scott owned the latter version and illustrated it in his Autobiographical Notes (1892) as proof that his claims on behalf of Sibson's abilities were not exaggerated. (1) Nowhere, however, does Scott acknowledge his friend's design as a source, although he drew heavily on it compositionally. Saxon Arts was one of a series of designs by Sibson illustrating the Saxon contribution to English civilization. Apart from Saxon Arts, Scott owned two others from the same series, and Sibson's thematic treatment of the subject may also have helped inspire Scott's mural scheme as a whole.

Without Bell Scott and another kind friend, the engraver, publisher and radical, William James Linton (1812-98), we would know little about Sibson. The initial DNB entry by FM O'Donaghue is based largely on Scott's own Autobiographical Notes (1892) and on the obituary which Scott wrote for the Art Union shortly after Sibson's death in Malta in November 1844. (2) Sibson was born at Cross Canonby, Cumberland, in 1817. His father is described as 'a man of great learning and eccentric character' who was educated for the Church but did not enter it. (3) As a child, Thomas moved with his family to Edinburgh, where he later trained as an accountant before joining his uncle's business in Manchester. (4) Sibson's brother, Francis, was to become a distinguished anatomist and physician, unsympathetically described by Scott as 'a successful man of the high shirtcollar style, given to the collection of Wedgwood ware: a kind of aesthetic culture only enjoyed by cold-blooded animals with high shirt-collars.' (5) In fact, Francis was a courageous and dedicated doctor and devoted to his brother, whom he assisted throughout his last illness. (6) With Linton, who supplied him with engravings for a number of medical works, Dr. Sibson accompanied his brother to Newcastle where he caught the boat for Malta, in search of a warmer climate. The Doctor's interest in art was considerable, although his neoclassical tastes were far from those of Scott. As an aid to his medical practice, Dr. Sibson made pathological studies in watercolour, although these show no artistic talent. (7)

Having abandoned his uncongenial career in accountancy, and aware that his life would soon be cut short, Thomas Sibson had set off for London in 1838, 'moneyless and on foot', but driven by his determination to study art and earn a living by it. (8) His talents were such that without any formal art training he obtained work as an illustrator. His first venture, Scenes of Life, a series of melodramatic plates without letterpress, was begun soon after his arrival in London. (9) Although this did not succeed and was soon discontinued, Sibson made a reputation with his illustrations to Dickens's novels, published as supplements, which he also began in 1838. At the same time, Sibson was ambitious to succeed at a higher level and was aware of the necessity to any aspiring young artist of 'a severe training in elevated design and thorough power of drawing'. (10)

In London, Sibson soon befriended Scott and also Ralph Wornum (1812-77), who had given up the law to train as an artist and who worked as an art critic and teacher before being appointed Keeper of the National Gallery in 1855. In 1841 Wornum recorded in his journal that he, Scott and Sibson had decided 'to meet every fortnight at each other's houses for the purpose of studying the living model; thus establishing a Kind of Life School", for which I draw up Laws & Regulations'. Wornum recalled the arrangement as having lasted for about two years; (11) and Scott says they 'met every Saturday for eighteen months to draw from the life an hour and a half'. (12)

Scott and Wornum would have encouraged Sibson in his high ideals. All three artists were drawn to themes relating to early British history and the growth of nationalism, which were highly topical in the 1840s. Sibson's designs for Saxon Arts, dates from 1842/3, the year in which the first competition had been announced for selecting artists to take part in the most important public art project of the period: the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster designed by Charles Barry and AWN Pugin. (13) Scott and Wornum had the confidence to enter the competition but, as an entirely self-taught artist, Sibson could not as yet aspire to compete at this level.

The subjects specified by the Parliamentary Commission, as especially suited to the new centre of national government, were chosen to illustrate the political and cultural achievements of Britain. Most popular amongst artists was the period between Caesar's invasion in 54/55 BC and the Norman conquest in 1066. (14) This included the period of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, which had been a major factor in persuading the Romans to abandon Britain in 410 AD. Sibson's Saxon series was the result of a commission from Linton, who first met him at Scott's house. (15) Linton intersects with many of the great men of the day and is mentioned in numerous biographies. His skill as an engraver even satisfied the exacting Gabriel Rossetti, who described him as 'the best engraver now living'. (16) Linton numbered Walter Crane among his admiring apprentices, (17) and his acquaintances included John Ruskin, who bought Linton's country house, Brantwood, in 1871. Linton asked Sibson to produce a number of drawings illustrating a History of England, or as Scott more aptly describes it at one point, 'an illustrated History of English Civilization.' (18) Linton intended the series as one 'in which the social life of the English people should be dominant, and its epochs so distinguished, instead of by the reigns of Kings.' (19) Sibson's choice of subjects shows how closely he fulfilled Linton's brief.

The Victorians viewed the period of Saxon ascendancy with particular affection: a fact reflected in its appeal to novelists and poets, as well as artists and historians. (20) It was the time when Britain emerged from the dark ages; when the foundations of national culture were laid down; and when national character, as the Victorians perceived it, began to evolve. In the words of the priest and historian, John Lingard (1771-1851), the Saxon period was 'the most interesting to Englishmen, because it was the cradle of many customs and institutions which exist among us even at the present day'. (21) A crucial factor was the arrival of Christianity: Tempered by its civilizing influence and the development of chivalry, the physical courage and energy of the Saxon were channelled into outlets more productive than war. The country enjoyed growing prosperity and relative peace, and the foundations of sound government were laid which enabled Britain to develop as the most advanced and powerful of all modern states. Christianity had already reached the British Isles prior to 597 when St Augustine, who later became first Archbishop of Canterbury, arrived on a formal mission from Rome to convert the Saxons. This event proved the most popular single subject in the first Westminster competition, (22) the results of which were exhibited at Westminster Hall in 1843.


In the following year, in a two-part article on the progress and patronage of public art, a subject which the Westminster project had brought into prominence, an Art Union critic stressed the role of Christianity in elevating national character:

THERE is hardly a more interesting subject of inquiry than that of the progress of a nation from rudeness to refinement. It is the lettered history of the...

To continue reading