Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Victor Alexander Sederbach (fl. 1755-56)

Lacock Abbey, outside the Great Hall


Yesterday I spent a few sunny January hours with pals walking around Lacock. Sunny, but chilly, so the promise of a log fire in the Great Hall of the Abbey was quite inviting.


Lacock Abbey, Great Hall interior


This quasi-Gothic Great Hall was remodelled for John Talbot in 1753, so it's four years later than Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill. 




Lacock Abbey, Great Hall interior


I was very taken with the remarkable terracotta statues that were made in 1755-56 by Victor Alexander Sederbach. Here's what John Talbot said about him in a letter to his architect Sanderson Miller (January 1756): 
The Foreigner who has been here ever since May has executed his Performance in a very Workmanlike manner and your Niches are filled by a set of Inhabitants worthy such Repositories. I presume you are acquainted with the method of making Models for Statues. He proceeds on the same principles, only Bakes them afterwards, by which means they become of a Red Colour and ring like a Garden Pot … I fancy Lord Shelburn will employ him on his arrival at London, where he goes next week; however, as so many of your friends are Connoisseurs, I would advise them seeing his Performances, which are both Easy and not Expensive. His name is sonorous, no less than Victor Alexander Sederbach and yet lodges at one King’s a grocer in Green Street, near Castle Street, Leicester Fields. I am sorry he did not show all his Performances to the Gentleman you sent a note by, but on asking the Reason, was told that someone the day before had Broke a Figure, which made him extremely Captious... (Sourced from here)

Instantly identified as "Gandalf" by all visitors

These are Sederbach's only known works. 

Niklaus Pevsner wrote:
On these brackets and in these niches stands the extraordinary statuary of Victor Alexander Sederbach, a pleasant, modest man and a cheap sculptor. Beyond that we know absolutely nothing about him. His Christian names sound North-East German, his surname South German or Austrian, and the statues in Austrian abbeys are indeed perhaps the nearest comparison to these wild, violent, and unrefined mid-C18 pieces. They are made of terracotta, and it has been suggested that Sederbach was perhaps a Hafner, i.e. stove-maker, and not a sculptor.  (The Buildings of England: Wiltshire)
I like that idea about the Hafner. There is definitely a folk-art quality to figures such as the "Gandalf" above. Sederbach's figures are half-height, but they do remind me vaguely of small domestic figurines, e.g.  those used in Swedish Christmas scenes. Though they are wood or plaster,  not terracotta. Something to do with how the figures, though not connected by narrative, seem clearly to belong to the same world as each other; a world of the past perhaps, or a world of folk-tale, at any rate a parallel world to our own.








Bishop expounding


The swirling Baroque movement of the figures (e.g. the preacher pounding his text) are in dramatic contrast to the upright neo-medieval niches, and create a strange impression of the statues bursting into life.



These statues appear to have been consciously "historical". (One of them definitely represents Ela, Countess of Salisbury, the 13th-century foundress of Lacock Abbey; unfortunately, there's no surviving record of the other subjects.) Sederbach put them into highly romantic period costumes. It makes me speculate that Sederbach's vision of the past stirring in all its colourfulness might have been quite influential on the movement in taste that eventually led from The Castle of Otranto and The Old English Baron to Ivanhoe and Kenilworth, The Black Arrow, Puck of Pook's Hill, Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, The Sword in the Stone, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.





Death finally woke up and had a stretch

Sederbach's statues are also in happy harmony with the National Trust fantasia that is present-day Lacock: the lock-up, the tithe-barn, the living installation of plaited willow-withies, the flash of light-catchers in the trees, the resident sculptor with giant mosaic water-lilies. Lacock is the "birthplace of photography", and has been the setting for numerous movie scenes: Pride and Prejudice, Cranford, and yes, Harry Potter...




Man attempts to explain the ecliptic to a goat

(The sugar-lump thing goes back to an American student visitor in 1919. The guides will tell you about it. )


Juglans nigra

Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) in winter. There's another view of this tree in the photo at the head of this post. J. nigra is native to the SE USA.




Eranthis hyemalis

The leafless winter trees are underlit by Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis).




Eranthis hyemalis and Galanthus nivalis



Berries of Myrtus communis

Common Myrtle (Myrtus communis), outside the cloisters. A Mediterranean shrub grown for its fragrant blossom. The berries are said to taste a bit like Juniper; I wish I'd tried one.  They are used to flavour liqueur (mirto in Sardinia and Corsica) and, dried, as a substitute for pepper or in meat dishes (Turkey, Middle East).


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