Susan is one of our Volunteer Tour Guides, and here she talks about one of her favourite sculptures in the museum – The Bathers, by Edward Bowring Stephens – a stunning piece in which a mother and reluctant child are poised ready to enter the water.
Edward Bowring Stephens was born in Exeter, Devon on 10 December 1815, the son of a statuary mason. Although he started out as a painter his preferred medium was sculpture. He worked as a pupil of the sculptor Edward Hodges Bailey and became a student of the RA Schools from 7 December 1836. He was awarded a Gold medal in 1843, and elected ARA 20 July 1864.
Stephens produced many sculptures during his lifetime. He executed the statues of Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Christopher Wren and Joshua Reynolds for the façade of Burlington House, London in 1873. He produced statues of imaginary or literary subjects, and his works Satan Tempting Eve and Satan Vanquished were made as a chimney piece for Buckingham Palace.
The majority of his sculpture however was of historical figures, busts or life-sized statues of titled or notable people of his time, and his statue of Prince Albert, 1868, can be seen in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter. Also in Exeter, in the entrance to Northernhay Gardens, there is an impressive life-size work in bronze entitled The Deer Stalker, 1875, a crouching semi-nude figure with a hound.
The Bathers was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878.
Why I like this sculpture
This is one of my favourite pieces of sculpture in the Russell -Cotes collection. As you may have noticed on your visit, the majority of the sculpture collection features busts of prominent people of the Russell -Cotes’ generation and one or two of Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes themselves!
As a child, although I lived at the seaside, our holidays always featured visiting another seaside town. So taking a dip or paddling always invokes those lovely memories of the freedom of childhood. But more than this I marvel at the skill of the sculptor, the fine detail of the fabric of the mother’s dress, the folds of the cloth, the realistic look to the skin, the detail of the feet and toes.
Study the expression on the child’s face at the thought of going into the water. The child’s outstretched foot and the rocks and the seaweed all add to the drama of the piece for me. I also ponder how the mother and child got to this point and what happens next? Stephens apparently produced two other pieces in this Greek style – Mother and Child, and Maternal Love. I have not been able to locate these sculptures, but the British Museum has a print of Maternal Love, which you can see below.
Also, interestingly my research has found a letter dated 3 March 1876 from Stephens to a Thomas Woolner discussing the completion and placing of Stephen’s work The Bathers “to prevent dust and dirty fingers soiling the fresh plaster”. This was two years before this marble statue was completed.
Another piece of interest is that a year after Stephens’ death in 1883, the Earl of Devon offered to organise the purchase of The Bathers for the Royal Albert Memorial Museum but, fortunately for the Russell-Cotes, it did not happen. (Source: Exeter Memories)