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Shelley Memorial all washed up?
Josh Pull on Friday 22nd April 2005On 25 March 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his close friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, walked up and down the quadrangle in University College awaiting the verdict of the college authorities after their publication and circulation of The Necessity of Atheism. If they had been told at this moment that Shelley would be immortalised not only by his literary works but also in the College with his own memorial, both would have surely dismissed the possibility as strongly as they had denied that of God’s existence.
Known as ‘Mad Shelley’ from his time at Eton, he was not liked by his fellow students at University College, nor did he interact with them in the six months that he was there. Instead he remained reclusive, reputedly reading for up to sixteen hours a day, and seems to have regularly associated only with (the also unpopular) Hogg. A contemporary, CJ Ridley, describes the widespread fear of his ‘strange and fantastic pranks’. Among these was the grabbing of an infant that was just a few weeks old from a mother on Magdalen Bridge and repeatedly asking the startled parent, “Will your baby tell us anything about pre-existence, madam?”
Both Shelley and Hogg (who came forward and implicated himself ) were expelled “for contumaciously refusing to answer questions proposed to them, and for also repeatedly declining to disavow” the pamphlet which concluded, ‘Every reflecting mind must allow there is no proof of the existence of a Deity.’ It is doubtful that anyone in Univ missed either of them.
In spite of all this a statue was unveiled in the poet’s memory eightytwo years later in the College that had rejected him. The statue itself, carved by Onslow Ford, is a cause of some controversy in its own right. It was commissioned by Lady Shelley, Percy Shelley’s daughter in law, and was originally destined for the Protestant cemetery in Rome at the request of Shelley’s friend, the author Edward John Trelawney. Having witnessed Shelley’s drowning, Trelawney desired to have a monument of the poet next to his own so that they would be forever connected. Trelawney’s descendants however felt that Ford’s statue was too big and therefore did not fulfil the request. Eventually the memorial found its way to Shelley’s College in Oxford where it is enclosed in a pantheon designed by Basil Champneys.
In the past it has been ridiculed and described as resembling “a slice of turbot laid out on a fisherman’s scale.” Its depiction of Shelley’s drowned and naked body, as he was discovered, has been criticised for being too feminine and too realistic. In 1901 the historian of Univ asserted that while “exquisite in execution… in conception [it is] almost too true to life for the medium of sculptor’s art.”
Francis Haskell has successfully refuted the Victorian point of view and believes it is “the most ambitious and most successful Victorian sculpture in Oxford”. The monument represents a more realistic approach to sculpture than other neo-classical works of the time. Haskell has pointed out that efforts by previous artists provided the inspiration and precedents for such a project and in this sense Ford’s work is not especially novel. There is however originality in the use of different materials. The bronze base is in contrast to the marble statue of Shelley himself. These breaks with artistic tradition are appropriate for a man who broke with the most sacred traditions of his time.
The monument has over the years been worn down by the drunken antics of students who can easily slip through the bars intended to protect the sculpture. While Onslow Ford’s work certainly deserves more respect than to be the victim of pranks, Shelley, as one of Oxford’s most prolific pranksters, would perhaps have endorsed such destructive acts.