Victorian Sculpture and the British Empire

An investigation into colonial sculpture in Africa

This post is a bit of a recycled / repurposed essay from uni. Seeing as I’ve finished (!) I thought I’d share some of my favourite essay topics from my last year (better than letting them gather dust in Google Drive). This essay was for a module about British sculpture during the Victorian period, and I chose to focus in on its relationship to colonialism in Africa. So here it is, enjoy!

In this essay, I am going to focus on how colonial sculpture embodied notions of empire specifically in Africa, during and after Queen Victoria’s reign. Africa is little-considered in relation to European sculpture, and I will therefore look at the colonial context of sculpture from an art historical perspective. Offering visual analyses of Victorian sculptures in empire will place the works into their colonial and art historical contexts. This essay is then going to consider the reception of monuments to empire in Africa, and how this was affected by conventions of Victorian sculpture. This essay is going to examine three key sculptures, each of which will serve as an example of the diverse relationships between the British Empire and Africa.

“Africa is little-considered in relation to European sculpture”

Firstly, I will look at William Theed’s Africa. The sculpture, forming part of the Albert Memorial, has recently been considered in its colonial context by scholars such as Colin Cunningham and G Alex Bremner, although the study of British sculpture in Africa remains relatively unexplored in art history. Serving as a key example of conflicting Victorian ideas about Africa, I will analyse this sculpture to establish Britain’s relationship with Africa at the time, and how this has been represented. The Victorian perception of Africa was little understood, which often resulted in ignorant and troubling portrayals. I will examine literature by Bremner and Cunningham in order to place Theed’s Africa into its Victorian context.

Next, I will consider Thomas Brock’s sculpture of Queen Victoria in Cape Town. From its unveiling in 1890, to the sculpture’s recent turbulent history, Brock’s monument is an imperial symbol that has witnessed the rise and fall of empire. The analysis of Brock’s sculpture will look at the impact of Victorian colonial sculpture in South Africa, and examine the extent to which Victoria’s reign was imposed through sculpture.

Lastly, I will examine Edward Onslow Ford’s sculpture of General Gordon from 1904. This sculpture was relocated after Sudan gained independence from the British Empire, and highlights the role of imperial monuments in empire. The work is a direct example of the Sudanese response to independence from empire, and thus serves as an active example of the controversy surrounding the colonial legacy.

“ … the sole use of North African themes represent the misunderstanding of the wider continent”

William Theed’s Africa represents the continent as one of the ‘four corners of the globe’ of the Albert Memorial, however in the Victorian period, Africa was little-understood. This is highlighted by the sole use of North African themes, which represent the misunderstanding of the wider continent. The sculpture focusses on Egypt’s greatness through its ancient history and prolific cotton trade, but Theed’s sculpture employs symbolism to ensure it’s status is not elevated above that of Britain. This narrow representation of Africa was generally accepted, although Theed’s design process reflects contrasting views about the continent, and how it should be represented. 

Africa has been considered by Cunningham in his essay, ‘Iconography and Victorian Values’, which is a wider analysis of the Albert Memorial across the themes of Piety, Progress, and Power. The symbolism of the monument is highly complex, and thus the omission of certain elements is just as important as their inclusion. Cunningham dedicates just one page to the specific study of Africa. For such a complex and troubling representation, this seems to reflect the outdated art historical disinclination to study the continent. For the Victorians, Theed’s sculpture encapsulated Africa. The sculpture uses Egypt as a symbol of ancient culture and power. It features an Arabian merchant to demonstrate the importance of commerce, as well as a European female figure with a tribesman, who is being instructed ‘in the arts of civilisation’. Cunningham argues that the kneeling camel, forming the centre of the composition, is representative of the Egyptian dynasty having come to an end, however it could be argued that the camel is about to stand up and begin its journey. Throughout the article, Cunningham is very forgiving of ignorant Victorian perceptions about Africa. Through his analysis of the camel, Cunningham’s interpretation reveals the continued bias of nineteenth-century assumptions about Africa, and further belittles the continent’s role in European history. The Victorians genuinely believed that it was their duty to impress their cultural and moral values upon what were perceived as ‘under-developed’ cultures, like Africa. This opinion was perpetuated by prominent figures of Victorian society, such as David Livingstone and Rudyard Kipling, who called imperialism ‘the white man’s burden’.

“The Victorians genuinely believed that it was their duty to impress their cultural and moral values upon what were perceived as ‘under-developed’ cultures”

Bremner’s more recent consideration of Theed’s Africa is dedicated to the conflicting perceptions of the continent in Victorian Britain. Bremner introduces the sculpture as being made from campanella marble, highlighting the relevance of the material. Marble sculpture is inextricably linked to ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. Throughout history, the use of white marble in sculpture connotes the European ancestry of ancient values and high civilisation. Thus, its use in a sculpture to depict Africa is a subtle yet relevant link to the Victorian mission to civilise ‘barbaric’ countries. Bremner also considers how Victorian ideas of Empire were very different in the 1860s, compared to the 1890s; their understanding of East and Central Africa was very little, which often led to ‘caricature, stereotyping or, worse still, racial distortion’. The Albert Memorial was produced in the context of the Great Exhibition, which largely influenced how Africa was represented on the Memorial. ‘The continent was largely epitomized at the exhibition by Egypt and Tunisia, with other areas, such as the Cape of Good Hope, Mauritius and the Seychelles, coming under the category of “British Possessions”’. The rest of the continent was seen as too barbaric and under-developed, a further representation of how the British viewed Africa.

Bremner’s article focuses on how the sculpture depicts conflicting perceptions of Africa in Victorian Britain. Theed’s original design used a lion instead of the camel, and focused on North Africa despite the recent Napoleonic Wars and French domination. Overall, Theed wanted to depict a more modern view of Africa, focussing on commerce and trade, however ‘the committee was looking for something more general and unsophisticated’ that the public would be able to understand. Theed wanted to exemplify how ‘Monuments are implicit or explicit testaments of the incursion of colonial trade and imperial sensibilities into the everyday life of Britons’.

The representation of Africa in Victorian Britain was complex, and it was not widely understood beyond predictable imagery and ancient Egyptian culture. Theed’s Africa is a contrasting sculpture that not only represents Victorian preconceptions of Africa, such as the omission of non-Northern countries, but also the more modern perception of trade and commerce relations. Cunningham and Bremner’s articles examine the sculpture from different viewpoints, although Bremner’s essay offers a more comprehensive and socially relevant analysis. However it is important to remember that the reception of imperial sculpture was very different in Britain than in Africa. 

Monuments are implicit or explicit testaments of the incursion of colonial trade and imperial sensibilities into the everyday life of Britons.

Sculpture commemorating British monarchs takes on a new meaning when it is placed in overseas territories, because ‘the presence of statues of Queen Victoria symbolically connected remote governments to the larger imperial administration’. This is evident in Thomas Brock’s sculpture of Queen Victoria in Cape Town, South Africa. Towards the end of his life and notably since his death, Brock’s reputation as a sculptor declined. His work was condemned by scholars, with Susan Beattie calling him a plagiarist, and his contribution to the Victoria Memorial ‘a mausoleum for the reputation of the sculptor’. It was only with the 1989 rediscovery of a typescript biography written by his son, Frederick Brock, that scholars such as John Sankey decided to reconsider his work. Throughout his life, Brock completed numerous commissions of Queen Victoria, including the monument in Victoria Square, Birmingham, and the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace. As a sculptor, Brock is ‘associated with the New Sculpture movement that reinvigorated the classicizing British sculpture with a new elegance and vitality drawn from Renaissance and Baroque’.


Brock’s sculpture of Queen Victoria was originally located outside the South African parliament in Cape Town (but following recent events has now been relocated outside the National Archives). The sculpture was completed in 1889 to commemorate Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. ‘Mr. T. Brock, the eminent sculptor, undertook to execute the work at an expenditure of about £1,000’, and it was unveiled in 1890 by Sir Henry Loch. Brock’s sculpture has one very significant indication of the turbulent relationship between the British Empire and what was then known as the Cape Colony: the date of Victoria’s death in 1901 was incorrectly recorded on the plinth. The date was recorded as 1902, and although it has now been rectified, the original ‘2’ is still visible. 

“She does look rather like a hostess offering a bowl of nuts to her assembled guests”

Carole G Silver describes the statue as an ‘elderly Queen who stands, face averted to the right, wearing a gown and cloak decorated with Tudor roses. She holds the scepter in her right hand and a rather squashed-looking orb in her left’. Again, the use of Italian white marble is an assertion of ancient European values that were being enforced in the South African colony. Her elevated granite plinth also ensured that Victoria was looking down over her subjects, emphasising the inescapable power of the British monarchy. Silver seems unimpressed by Brock’s execution of the sculpture, criticising Victoria’s assertiveness: ‘She does look rather like a hostess offering a bowl of nuts to her assembled guests’. 

During the period of the monument’s commission, Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. An aggressive coloniser, Rhodes promoted racial segregation through his control over newspapers, and eventually resorted ‘to violence to meet his political ends’. Numerous monuments to empire still stand throughout South Africa, and sculptures of Rhodes and Queen Victoria are particularly provocative reminders of colonial histories. On March 15th 2015, monuments such as these became the face of the Rhodes Must Fall protests. Black students began to question and debate Rhodes’s role in the colonisation of South Africa, and for many, the monuments glorified the problem. The statue of Rhodes was eventually removed from the University of Cape Town, and Brock’s sculpture was relocated to a less prominent position. The purpose of a monument is usually celebratory, which can have poignant repercussions in modern society. However, some argue that to remove a monument is to airbrush history. The analysis of Brock’s Cape Town monument to Queen Victoria highlights the past and current impact of colonial sculpture in empire. Sabine Marschall summarises the impact of monuments to empire as reminders of colonial heritage:

“In a tenuous, transforming society, monuments, like other identity symbols, warrant attention owing to their ability to invoke deeply-felt sentiments and moral imperatives, to inflame powerful emotions, and even to lead to violence.”

Edward Onslow Ford’s sculpture of General Gordon of Khartoum is an example of an imperial monument that was commissioned for Sudan. This monument has a different effect to statues of the monarchy, who ruled from afar and maintained their power and presence through sculpture. General Gordon affirmed control over Sudan, and thus his monument would have been a recognisable figure, with an arguably similar impact to Queen Victoria. Charles George Gordon (1833-1885) was sent to Sudan in 1884 to rescue British citizens who had become trapped in Khartoum. Mark Urban asserts that Gordon was popular amongst the Sudanese people, writing ‘Government officials, consular agents and native people awaited him in large numbers. They celebrated H.E’s [His Excellency’s] arrival with an indescribable uproar’.

Gordon was killed in 1885, and the monument was commissioned to commemorate his ‘widely-reported and much-mourned death’. The bronze sculpture, whose official title is General C. E. Gordon, R. E. M., was a copy of Onslow Ford’s original 1890 sculpture in Chatham, and was erected in Sudan in 1904. The sculpture ‘depicts General Gordon in his official uniform as Governor-General of Sudan complete with medals, trademark rattan cane and the single chain with which he guides his camel’. The sculpture is extremely intricate, from the tassels and detailed fabric, to the fragile chain. There is an inescapable sense of power, with its exaggerated scale and enormous stone plinth. The original Chatham monument actually had a much lower plinth, although Gordon was still elevated above the heads of viewers. Interestingly, the plinth for the Khartoum monument was much bigger, and much more imposing; the commanding height of the sculpture can be viewed in one of two ways: adoration or domination. 

British literature tends to argue that Gordon was much admired in Sudan, although one must acknowledge the art historian’s cultural limitations. A fair analysis of Gordon’s reception in Sudan would be very difficult without reference to original Arabic sources. The Khartoum monument also has a different finish to the Chatham sculpture. Both are bronze, but the Khartoum sculpture is a silvery grey, whereas the original monument is a deep, polished bronze. The Khartoum monument had a very turbulent history, surviving a shipwreck, and this may have affected the difference in patina. However, it could be that the Sudan sculpture warranted less attention to the finish than its Chatham counterpart because of its intended audience; it is clear from Theed’s Africa that African countries were considered barbaric, and the artistic audience considered ‘backward’. The fact that the Khartoum monument was a replica of an existing British sculpture and not a brand new commission must also be evaluated, although this ‘was common practice and not considered a compromise’.

“The reception of colonial sculpture in Africa … highlights how notions of empire in sculpture are culturally relevant today, and how they still hold the power to spark global protests”

The sculpture of General Gordon stood in Khartoum until Sudan gained independence from the British in 1958. Gordon was a symbol of Sudan’s colonial past, and the monument was deemed unsuitable for the newly independent country. The statue was put into storage and eventually returned to Britain; it now stands in Gordon’s School in Woking, Surrey. Dave Martin concludes that the relocation of the sculpture is the ‘right’ outcome, having been moved to a place of lesser significance where it can still be viewed. He argues that ‘this is not airbrushing history’, as moving the statue will not stop the consideration of Gordon’s role in history, but it makes a stand against the relevance of colonial influence. Martin concludes that statues of colonialists in Britain are not symbols of oppression in the same way as when they are located in ex-colonies, but they ‘serve as a focus for a discussion that can lead us to a clearer understanding of our imperial past’.

The study of Victorian sculpture and its relationship to Africa illustrates a little-considered area of British sculpture. The contextual and art historical analyses of Theed’s Africa, Brock’s Queen Victoria, and Onslow Ford’s General C. E. Gordon, R. E. M., offers an interpretation of the impact of empire in Africa during Victoria’s reign, as well as its legacy. This essay also emphasises the reluctance to consider the importance of Africa in the British history of sculpture. Bremner’s article offers a contextual and perceptive account of Theed’s Africa, which reveals how ‘the practices of nineteenth-century British sculpture provide us with a unique insight into how these changing [Victorian] perceptions were being worked out, debated and absorbed into British society’. The analysis of Brock’s monument to Queen Victoria in Cape Town explores the reception of colonial sculpture in Africa. Importantly, it also highlights how notions of empire in sculpture are culturally relevant today, and how they still hold the power to spark global protests. Onslow Ford’s sculpture of General Gordon examines the response to imperial sculpture in empire post-independence, and considers the contemporary debate around whether to remove or revere colonial sculpture. 

There are endless examples of colonial British sculpture which could have been included in this essay. However, the three selected sculptures effectively portray the principal themes around empire and sculpture: Victorian perceptions of Africa, the reception of imperial sculpture, and sculpture’s colonial legacy. This selection of monuments offers a varied yet relevant analysis of how sculpture in Africa embodies notions of empire. Ultimately, sculpture was placed in empire to assert colonial authority, acting as a constant reminder of the expanding power of Queen Victoria and the British Empire, which in some places, still has a lasting effect today.

If you would like any information about references, sources, or the bibliography, feel free to get in touch! You can contact me here. If you would like to reference this article, please use:

Freya Samuel, ‘Victorian Sculpture and the British Empire’, unpublished undergraduate essay, University of Birmingham, 2019

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

Skip to content