Completed Scotland: Artists and Subjects, Sculpture 65 Who sculpted this bronze nude with a serpent?

Topic: Subject or sitter

I expect that this is a depiction of Eve. Can anyone identify the sculptor of this nineteenth-century bronze at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh? There is no record of a signature.

Jacinto Regalado, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

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Jacinto Regalado,

This may certainly be latter 19th century, but it could also be early 20th. It has something of an Art Nouveau feel.

Kieran Owens,

The attached is a news report from the Aberdeen Evening Express of Thursday 18th December 1975. It is a poignant reminder of the extraordinary range of reasons as to why and how certain artworks end up in public collections. It is extremely appropriate that his generosity should be recorded and remembered on the ArtUK site. Researchers with access to the probate records in Scotland might be able to find his will and any associated inventory of bronzes as listed therein.

Stewart's interest in art and sculpture must have been a life-long one as he is recorded has having lent a work entitled 'Zongleuse pyramid' by Demetre Chiparus, to the 1930 Exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.

He also owned a copy of Sir Edgar Bertram MacKennal's 'Circe' (or 'Kipkh', as per its Greek spelling on the ArtUK site) (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1894) and his 'Truth'. Both works, as bequeathed by Stewart, can be seen on ArtUK here:

Both of these pieces were also loaned for exhibition by Stewart as early as 1925.

Edgar Bertram MacKennal should be considered as he sculpted many allegorical and classical-themed pieces, especially in this format. A trawl of the RA's records will be undertaken for contending titles.

Jacinto Regalado,

I saw those two pieces by MacKennal and considered him as a possibility, especially since they are in the same collection and came from the same source as our (purported) Eve, but they struck me as stiffer, harsher, more impersonal and academic, and less graceful, less natural. He bears further consideration, but I have my doubts.

Alison Golding,

I would have associated a snake at the bosom with images of Cleopatra rather than Eve. Is this lady waiting for the snake to speak or strike?

Jacinto Regalado,

The woman may be in conversation with the serpent, and almost looks as if she's playing with it, which would fit Eve but not Cleopatra. Also, the latter is much less likely to be portrayed fully nude at the time of her suicide, and that is virtually never the case in paintings of the subject. Eve, however, is virtually always portrayed nude when "conversing" with the serpent.

Peter Nahum,

Mackennal first came to my mind, but I rejected him as the cast is not precise enough - I came across Anne Acheson (1882–1962) and thought it may be by her - but cannot find a similar image. She would be worth checking out. We will all have to keep thinking.

Kieran Owens,

Of the 71 pieces that MacKennal exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1896 and 1929 none is titled as to suggest a connection with this subject.

Jacinto Regalado,

We need more visual data regarding the work of Ottilie Wallace, who was both Scottish (Edinburgh) and trained in Paris. However, if her work is largely in private (and presumably Scottish) hands, this may have to be a job for someone in Scotland.


could be a version of the Cadmus and Harmonia story from Ovid where Cadmus asked the gods to turn him into a snake, and as he embraced his wife Harmonia she too was transformed. see eg Evelyn de Morgan's Harmonia

1 attachment
Jacinto Regalado,

I was unaware of that myth, Jan, but it would fit here and must be considered. I wonder if this myth is more appealing to female artists, since some female sculptors are under consideration.

Kieran Owens,

Ouch, forgive me Jan, I had not seen your attachment!

Jacinto Regalado,

For what it's worth, Ottilie Wallace is known to have made a sculpture of Asteria, another relatively obscure mythological female figure. There must be someone in Scotland who knows more about her oeuvre.

Jacinto Regalado,

Ottilie Wallace is briefly mentioned in an article about the 2015-16 show "Modern Scottish Women," curated by Alice Strang for the National Galleries of Scotland:

I suppose Strang might be interested in this discussion.

Also, does the collection have any potentially relevant information about the donor, Edgar Stewart of Kirkcaldy?

Jacinto Regalado,

Thanks, Kieran. Unfortunately, it does not help much, except that he lived near Edinburgh and worked there, which may go with an Edinburgh-based sculptor.

The curator of the City Art Centre will check their records and the sculpture itself when she can get into the building, which is on occasional days. It may be a week or two, but this query has been added to her list and we will be updated when it has been checked - they would be delighted to get an attribution for this sculpture.

There are links below to two remarkable French sculpture resources. Those already interested in this subject will need no introduction to the work of Laure de Margerie and Laurent Noët. Aside from containing thousands of documented images of French sculpture and detailed threads of research on individual sculptors and their work, these websites contain an astonishing number of resources, including publications, exhibitions, a glossary, and information about the practice and techniques of sculpture in France.

The French Sculpture Census, initiated and directed by Laure de Margerie, who was senior archivist and Head of the Sculpture Archives at the Musee d'Orsay (1978–2009).

The blog of Laurent Noët, author and historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sculpture in Marseille.

I’m very grateful to Linda Whiteley, Faculty Member and research associate of the Department of the History of Art at Oxford, for putting me in touch with Laure de Margerie following the recent closure of the discussion on Gertrude Devenish Walshe. Laure has very kindly sent us the page from Pierre Sanchez’s 2010 dictionary, which confirms the attribution and offers further leads to the sitter that are being followed up in France.

Immense thanks to all followers of Art Detective for all the contributions and successful outcomes, especially in 2020, with so many resources now inaccessible.

Jacinto Regalado,

Marion, are we missing a link you meant to provide?

Jacinto Regalado,

Sorry, Marion, perhaps I misunderstood or I am being rather dense, but I cannot find "the page from Pierre Sanchez’s 2010 dictionary, which confirms the attribution and offers further leads to the sitter that are being followed up in France."

Jacinto, it makes no sense to attach the page about the Devenish Walshe exhibit to this thread, where it would be lost to future research, but I wanted to let you all know that I have it so that no one else keeps looking.

It will be available in an appropriate place on the website as soon as possible, whether that's a new discussion about the sitter in 'Lilas blanc' (which we now know it is) or simply an edited conclusion to the existing discussion.

I'd like to thank Dr Helen Scott, Curator (Fine Art) at the collection for checking the sculpture and their files.

There was no visible foundry mark. It's possible that the mark is underneath the base, but the sculpture is very firmly affixed to the marble plinth, with no easy way of detaching it.

In the records, the only relevant item found was correspondence from 1975 in which the then curator wrote to the director recommending the acquisition of the sculpture into the collection, after it was offered as part of a bequest from Edgar Stewart, a resident of Kirkcaldy. Four bronze sculptures were accepted from this bequest, including two by Bertram Mackennal and one by Pilkington Jackson. However, the nude with a serpent was listed at this point as being by an unknown artist.

It is very helpful that those avenues have now been checked.

Jacinto Regalado,

Bertram Mackennal exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1886 to 1904, including three bronze statuettes like ours:

A priestess (1896, No. 1870)

Daphne (1897, No. 2039)

Salome (1897, No. 2053)

Ours is not Apollo's Daphne or Salome, and a priestess seems unlikely to be fully nude. None of his other RA works fit ours.

Edgar Stewart resided at 43 High Street, Kirkcaldy. Also resident at the same address was Isaac L. Stewart (father?) who owned a painting of the Coronation of King Edward by Robert Gemmell Hutchison. In his will, Isaac instructed his Trustees to give the painting to the Kirkcaldy Town Council, which may have found its way into the art gallery. Possibly this copy:

This might help with regard to tracking the provenance. Did Isaac L. Stewart lend any bronzes to the RSA, which Edgar inherited unlike the coronation painting?

Jacinto Regalado,

This could be Lilith, a popular fin de siècle subject who would certainly be on friendly terms with the snake. It is not Albert Toft's 1889 bronze Lilith (of which I have seen a drawing, and also involves a snake) nor Alfred Drury's 1916 marble Lilith, but it may perhaps be Drury's 1913 bronze Lilith statuette (Royal Academy No. 2012) if that was different from his 1916 version. In the 1913 RA catalogue, the listing was accompanied by these lines, referring to the snake:

"Lend thy shape for the love of Lilith.

In Thy shape, I'll go back to Eden.

Then Eve shall eat and give unto Adam."

Here is Drury's 1916 Lilith:

Here is Drury's Circe:

Jolyon Drury does not think that this is by his grandfather, Alfred Drury RA, but stressed that his opinion is based only on the available photograph.

He added, ‘The sculpture might be by Bertram Mackennal (others have thought so) - his Circe that I have seen at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney has similar outstretched hands and neat feet (mercifully no pigs unlike my grandfather’s sculpture of Circe at Leeds). Mackennal, although Australian, was of Scottish descent (so possible gift to Edinburgh) and after a false start at the Academy Schools in London went to Paris in 1882 (at the same time that my grandfather was there working as Aime-Jules Dalou’s pratician) and after a pretty bumpy period returned to Paris in 1891 where next year he was awarded an honourable mention at the Petit Salon for his life sized Circe. In 1893 he worked with Rhind in Edinburgh before returning to London to exhibit Circe at the RA. So it might be possible that Mackennal modelled a Circe lookalike with the snake when Rhind’s pratician. Or not. The plot thickens.’

Kieran Owens and Jacinto Regalado had both considered Mackennal (3/10/19). Peter Nahum (04/10/19) commented that Mackennal first came to his mind, but he rejected him as the cast was not precise enough. It does not correspond to any of Mackennal’s RA titles, but could it have been made during his brief spell as an assistant to William Birnie Rhind?

Jacinto Regalado,

MacKennal is still a possibility, certainly in terms of subject matter. He did two other femme fatale subjects, Circe and Salome, so a Lilith would have been perfectly predictable. This statuette is about the same size as the statuette of his Circe in the same collection, and has the same provenance.

Jacinto Regalado,

I wonder if this piece once had (or was supposed to have) a bronze base like other MacKennal statuettes on Art UK (Circe, Salome and Truth), which is where the signature would have been placed. The marble support here looks somewhat like an afterthought. See below for comparison (including image #9):

Neither Phyllida Shaw, nor Dr Pauline Rose recognises this work. Pauline suggested asking Alice Strang (whom Jacinto mentioned, 28/10/20), although I believe she may already be aware of this discussion.

Alice Strang has looked herself and kindly asked a colleague at National Galleries of Scotland and a contact at Lyon and Turnbull, but no particular sculptor springs to mind. I will ask Stuart Lochhead and Barbara Musetti as well.

Is Michelle Foot's query about the provenance being followed up: did Isaac L. Stewart lend any bronzes to the RSA? Isaac L. Stewart (father of Edgar?) lived with Edgar at 43 High Street, Kirkcaldy.

Andrew Shore,

Can I throw the name Percy Portsmouth into the mix?

Here are a few of his works on The Victorian Web:

This one in particular is quite similar, with the octagonal base and hairstyle:

He does have a artist profile on Art UK too:

Perhaps more relevantly, he worked and taught in Scotland. Mini bio here:

Jacinto Regalado,

That looks very promising, Andrew. It is practically the same figure holding a different object. That would mean ours could be dated c. 1907 also. Portsmouth lived in Edinburgh from c. 1903 to 1929, the year he retired from Edinburgh College of Art. He reportedly exhibited at the RSA from 1903-1950, and surely someone has access to RSA exhibition catalogues, especially for the years before WWI.

Jacinto Regalado,

The Victorian Web image is closest to image #6 for this piece on Art UK. I trust someone used to generating composites will provide one for us here.

Jacinto Regalado,

Thank you, Marcie. That is highly suggestive, and given the Edinburgh connection, I think we have enough for an attribution. Of course, one would want further evidence, so checking RSA exhibition catalogues seems to be the next step. I suppose one could try contacting a relevant person at the Edinburgh College of Art, but that may or may not be productive.

Jacinto Regalado,

Thanks, Osmund. There is nothing that clearly matches our work, although the Victorian Web piece is there for 1907. One doubts ours would have been exhibited after 1916, but it need not have been exhibited at all. I suppose it may have been a trial piece, made shortly before or shortly after The Necklace.

Jacinto Regalado,

Portsmouth also exhibited at the RA in London from 1904 to 1952, but I could not find this piece there (I looked till 1940). Interestingly, I found a similar piece, compositionally, from 1909 by Hubert Miller, which suggests our piece is meant to depict a snake charmer:

Jacinto Regalado,

The motif of a young female nude as snake charmer occurs both with and without a flute around this period.

Jacinto Regalado,

Though Portsmouth had a very respectable career, he was not a major name, so no doubt his work would have been more affordable (and obviously accessible) for an Edinburgh collector. I suppose there may be descendants of the artist, but again, pursuing that may or may not be productive.

Jacinto Regalado,

Depending on when this work was acquired by Edgar Stewart or his father, there may well be no mention of it in Portsmouth's will, as it could have been sold years before he died in 1953.

Jacinto Regalado,

Based on the evidence, notably that brought forth by Andrew Shore on 01/10/2021, Marcie's composite the following day and subsequent comments, it seems highly likely that this is by the Edinburgh-based sculptor Percy Portsmouth (1874-1953), that it could be dated c. 1907, and that the subject may be a female snake charmer.

Certainly, I think there is enough to list this as "attributed to" Portsmouth. When possible, it would be good to have a Group Leader's recommendation for the collection with a view to closure.

Marcie Doran,

The donor’s father was indeed Isaac Lewis Stewart (15 March 1856– 8 March 1934), as Michelle suspected (see 06/03/2021 18:06). Edgar Stewart is mentioned in that article from 1934 that she attached.

I have attached the Census record from 1901 that shows the Stewart family in Kirkcaldy.

When Edgar's wife Jessie Williams Rintoul Stewart (née Crombie) passed away in 1948, her address was given as 1 Novar Crescent, Kirkcaldy. That was the address shown for Isaac on his probate entry in 1934.

Isaac was a painter (not artist) in Kirkcaldy. He might have been a collector. The "acquisition method" of the work noted by Michelle should probably be updated on Art UK.

Jacinto Regalado,

As I said in my preceding comment, I think we have enough to attribute this to Percy Portsmouth. Can a Group Leader evaluate the evidence and address the matter?

Jacinto Regalado,

Again, this could be dated c. 1907, and a note could be added to the effect that the subject may be a female snake charmer.