Thomas Sutcliffe: Eye to eye with a work of art

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I went to have a look at a sculpture last week, and my reaction was, I assume, pretty much what sculptors dream of. As I walked around it, I felt slightly dizzy, uncharacteristically weak at the knees and fluttery in the stomach. The only catch being that this wasn't really an example of Stendhal's syndrome - the disabling susceptibility to works of art identified by an Italian psychologist after several visitors to the Uffizi had keeled over in raptures.

It wasn't the brilliance of E H Baily's modelling and composition that had undone me so much as the climb up 25 floors of scaffolding to get to it. Some 180 feet below, London tourists were cooling their feet in the Trafalgar Square fountains, and there wasn't a lot between us and them but a couple of low scaffolding poles and too much air.

Not that there aren't things to admire about Baily's statue - winner of a public competition for a monument to Nelson. Baily was born in Bristol and is said to have inherited his sculptural talent from his father, who was a skilful carver of figureheads. And when you find yourself kneeling beneath the prow of the great naval hero's impressive nose, that figures - as they say.

Since Nelson is 17 feet tall and carved out of Craigleith sandstone there's an element of maritime simplicity to the finish - still sharply edged around the frogging and braid of his costume but not exactly subtle. It hardly needed to be, as the Illustrated London News reminded its readers in 1843, when the figure of Nelson was shown at ground level. "Unless they remembered they were looking at an object intended to be seen only at a great elevation", the journalist wrote, "they may have been surprised at a sort of coarseness in the workmanship".

There is an effective pensiveness to Nelson's expression though - and what the Illustrated London News's man described as "that sad air, so perceptible in the best portraits of the warrior, of long continued physical pain and suffering, the consequence of his many wounds".

Baily didn't actually include any obvious facial scars but Nelson's got some now - including long lateral cuts across the eyebrow and deep holes on the forehead and cheek. Adrian Attwood, the project director for the restoration, explains that these are the result of later repair attempts - possibly a misguided attempt to cut out minor fissures in the stone. Something perturbing seems to have gone on in the admiral's gusset area too, and has been filled in with mortar. On the whole though, Nelson is in surprisingly good shape.

A lot better, anyway, then E H Baily's reputation. The 1885 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, appearing 18 years after Baily's death, approvingly quoted an obituary description of him as "one of the most successful and accomplished British sculptors of the 19th century", so his prestige obviously lasted that long. But how many people now could identify the creator of this hugely well-known statue?

Tate Britain has several Bailys - mostly examples of his stock in trade as a successful Royal Academician, which was portrait busts of British worthies. He also sculpted the gilded figure of Pallas Athene which stands on the portico of the Atheneum in Waterloo Place. And you can see the work that first established his reputation at Bristol City Museum and Gallery. Eve at the Fountain, a slightly winsome bit of late Georgian nudity, still reclines on the main staircase there. In its day it was so popular that it was issued as a Parian ware figure by Minton, so that you could pop a copy on to the mantelpiece - but I imagine that many visitors now pass it by without giving it a second glance.

In this Baily is a victim of two things. The first is a general collapse in the reputation of Victorian sculpture: it is largely regarded as having historic rather than inherent aesthetic value. You look at a Gainsborough to look at Gainsborough. You look at a Baily to look at the Duke of Wellington or George Canning.

The second is the invisibility of all public sculpture, but above all public commemorative sculpture. Its very conspicuousness makes it disappear - dependably there to be looked at every day and as a result almost never really seen. It isn't just that Nelson is above our eyeline on most days - because even at ground level his very familiarity would probably have worn a blank spot in the vista of the city. And what erodes first is the sense that this is a deliberated work of art by an artist who had some reason to think that his name might last alongside that of his subject. Looking at this intact statue, some famous lines about a broken one came to mind: "Look on my works ye Mighty and despair."