Two exceptional carvings in Portland stone based on Greek mythology depicting the Goddess Diana and the hunter Actaeon sculpted by British artist Eric Stanford (1932-2020) are being offered in our 3 & 4 April House and Garden Sale.
Commissioned by a close friend of the artist, Diana and Acteaon are perhaps one of the most personal commissions of the artist’s career. Stanford’s natural reticence has meant that his deserved presence in the limelight has been limited yet it is now brought to the forefront of Modern British artists, showcasing a uniquely intimate glimpse into the artist’s mind and process. A true artist, Stanford’s oeuvre is retraced through an intimate insight into the artist’s sense of humour and life through his letters, drawings and photographs of his workshop in Devizes where the sculptures were created.
The sculptures are based on Greek mythology and Ovid’s Metamorphosis of the Goddess Diana and the mortal hunter Acteaon, capturing a tender yet ominous encounter. ‘Goddess of the Hunt’ Diana’s power and strength is captured by Stanford through her fierce expression, unlike Actaeon who appears startled despite his weapon, the dogs beneath him a reminder of his tragic fate. Stanford has both sculptures facing one another, capturing the crucial and romanticised moment in which Actaeon stumbles across Diana bathing in a spring assisted by her nymph, in the background attempting to cover Diana. Diana herself is sculpted with both beauty and strength, portrayed through the positioning of her body as a protector and the sculpting of her body. Stanford portrays her femininity through the smooth curvature, yet her muscles are evident and her posture firm, conveying her power. Stanford refers to Diana’s association with the moon in Greek mythology as the moon Goddess, showing in the top left-hand corner of the sculpture (below).
An avid letter writer, Stanford’s letter exchanges document the sculpture’s development from the inception of sketches to how it was brought to life in stone and through his written archives between the artist and his dear friend, art collector and commissioner of the sculptures, the artistic process is visible. After fond exchanges of letters, lunches and parties, the commissioning of the sculptures was decided to focus on the mythological theme with which Stanford developed a fascination in his later life. Stanford’s particular fascination lay with Greek and classical mythology, carving figures such as Protesilaus and Helen.
Stanford’s initial ideas demonstrate the artist’s vision long before the interaction of chisel and stone, building on ideas and adapting the composition and style as his vision changed during the process. Diana and Actaeon’s initial sketches were stylistically more geometric than naturalistic, it was later during the process of the carving itself that the essence took shape; Stanford himself wittily stated that ‘my carving is better than my drawing.’
The strength of Stanford’s works lies in the evocation of the British 20th-century figurative sculpture tradition, and European Cubism that comes through his use of bold, figurative shapes. There is a similarity in his work that refers to the Paris School Cubists and the major players in Modernism of the time, namely Pablo Picasso and Henri Laurens, and it is also fair to say that Stanford has a place within the circle of master British Modernist male sculptors such as Henry Moore, Eric Kennington and Eric Gill.
Stanford had strong ties to the city of Reading, as it played a large role in the artist’s personal life and development. He studied at the University of Reading in the 1950s and later became a Keeper of Art at Reading Museum and Art Gallery from 1968-1989. In between his time at Reading University and Museum, Stanford studied at St. Martin’s School of Art between 1949 and 1951 and worked as a lecturer at the Berkshire College of Art. Reading holds several notable sculptures by the artist including his Spanish Civil War Monument as well as the Requiem sculptures in the Forbury Gardens in Reading and the Millennium Cross in Devizes. It was whilst studying at the University of Reading that he met the already established war artist and sculptor Eric Kennington, working as a carving assistant. Stanford’s relationship with Kennington was inimical to his artistic development and success, and it was whilst working in his studio that Stanford carved his first major work in Portland stone Mother and Child which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1958.
Working primarily with Portland stone, Stanford’s skill did not go unnoticed and his talent for sculpting was utilized by those who saw the beauty in his skill. During a period of illness in Kennington’s life, Stanford took over an impressive large stone relief project on the Watt Building of the Engineering Department of Glasgow University. His carvings were sought after and in 1955 whilst in the National Service Stanford was assigned to carve a regimental badge in a stone panel for the camp gates.
Widely exhibited and respected as a true artist amongst the British 20th-century figurative sculptors, Stanford holds a strong place in the history of British figurative sculptors and is one of a generation of artists who worked in connection with one another's ideas during a transitional period, directly influencing one another. His works allude to the European Modernist masters with their soft curvature, bold figures and passionate focus on civil matters.
Stanford has exhibited at the Royal Academy, the London Group, in Mayenne and Normandy in France and Chicago. His work is held in private collections throughout the UK and the US, and he was elected as an Associate of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1994. More recently, the University of Reading held an Eric Stanford Tour which included a collection of his sketches and sculptures. Stanford became an Associate of the Royal Society of British Sculptors and an Honorary Life Member of the Reading Guild of Artists.