Elizabeth Gaskell’s Apperance, Part One: The Marble Bust

© Gaskell Blog

The marble bust of Elizabeth was sculpted c. 1829-31 before her marriage to the Rev. William Gaskell.

Mr. Losh told my cousins in town that he thought my bust so very like Napoleon– do you?

The artist, David Dunbar, was a student of the prestigious Sir Francis Chantrey and inspired by the Classical style of the Greeks and Romans. Many replicas of the statue were created, one by Hamo Thorneycroft was donated to Manchester University, then known as Owens College, by the Gaskell daughters Meta and Julia, where their father had established evening classes, which allowed the working people of the city the opportunity of more education.

Although she would have been in her twenties at the time the statue shows a lady of confidence and maturity, a placid countenance, someone who would hold her ground and be a loyal friend– rather how I imagine her heroine Margaret Hale.

Classical drapery on the shoulders is thrown back to reveal the slim column of the neck, head turned to one side as if to display the controlled looping of the hair about the ear and its gathering to a coronet. The pose also shows the smooth roundness yet strength of Elizabeth’s features, like those of a young Roman matron, made her appear to be a typical product of the enlightened society to which she belonged, proclaiming her in stone or plaster to be that noble-minded intelligent ingenious creature the Byerley sisters has striven to form– underneath she was a more lively being.1


1 Chapple, J. A. V. . Elizabeth Gaskell: the early years. Manchester: Manchester University Press ;, 1997. Print


5 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m sometimes surprised by examples of 19th century art I thought would be considered too shocking or scandalous for public viewing. For instance, there’s a 19th century painting in the Musee D’Orsay called The Origin of the World (or similar) that’s a painting of …well, where babies come from. So that’s a windup to my observation that the Gaskell bust seems to imply it was …cold in the studio? It’s a beautiful bust, so please, please don’t think I mean the comment disrespectfully. I just wish I understood these exceptions to the fabled Victorian sensibilities 🙂

  2. Contemplating the point of my recent comment brought to mind John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, painted in the late 19th century. The painting was considered scandalous because one strap of the woman’s dress had fallen off her shoulder; it caused an uproar. Perhaps the difference between scandalous or acceptable depended on the percieved message. Gaskell’s averted face and expression appear thoughtful and noble-minded, while Madame X appeared disdainful. (She looked like she was heading out to a party and you had two seconds to amuse her, or else.) Anyway, I’m a little far afield of your topic, sorry! Thanks for the post – obviously very thought-provoking.

    1. Art history is actually one of my other favorite subjects. Yes, I think it is the perceived message. It’s much like the differences in art between ‘nude’ and ‘naked’ only of course in these cases clothed, one is not meant to be provoking, the bust of Mrs. Gaskell, while I do believe Sargent trying to provoke with Madame X, the fact that it’s painted in an interior, he’s accenting her curves, and then the falling strap was just too much for the general Victorian sensibilities.

  3. She looks so calmly elegant and dignified. Wouldn’t it be lovely to actually meet her?

    1. She knew so many interesting minds of her era and was one herself it would’ve been incredible to have a conversation with her!

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