Art and Sculpture at the 1938 Empire Exhibition


One of the lasting memories of the 1938 Empire Exhibition for many people is the abundance of art and sculpture placed around the park and inside the many Palaces and Pavilions. While it has proved more than a little challenging to identify a lot of the sculpture, I have come across a book in the House for an Art Lover archives that has helped to shed some light on the matter. The book in question is The Illustrated Souvenir of the Palace of Arts, printed and published by McCorquodale and Co., LTD., in 1938. As the name suggests, the remit of this book is largely limited to the collection housed in the Palace of Art, with one or two sculptural exceptions – such as the bronze Foam, by C. D’O. Pilkington Jackson, seen below as a catalogue image. Such is my fascination and admiration for the art and sculpture of the 1938 Empire Exhibition that this week’s article will focus on some of its most notable pieces.

Sculpture has been used for millennia to represent aspects of life, religion and mythology as deemed appropriate by the ruling classes. Sculpture was the primary form of public, artistic expression for the Ancient Greeks and Romans – whose sculptors have become synonymous with creating the ideal image of the human figure. Indeed, the Greek belief that “man is the measure of all things” is nowhere more clearly shown than in Greek sculpture. This influence is seen clearly in the sculptural offerings at the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, where all manner of human emotions, attitudes and relationships are reflected. One sculpture comes to mind when thinking of the overt Classical influence on the sculpture at the 1938 Exhibition. In the Fitness Hall of the UK Pavilion a man is depicted in the process of throwing an object – possibly a discus (a typical Greek and Roman sport). The sculpture (below) implies that the man is taking part in a competition, and his immortalisation in stone implies his success, heroism and importance. While in Roman tradition a sculpture of this type may be dedicated to an individual in recognition of their importance and status in the community; there is no evidence from the photograph that the piece in the Fitness Hall was dedicated to one man in the same way. This could imply to the viewer that the sculpture is in recognition of the sporting excellence of the nation as a whole, an ‘everyman’. Alternatively it could be a representation of the ideal British form, and therefore something to aspire to. Indeed, many sculptural works at the Exhibition hint at the impressive physical form of British citizens, whether this is manifested in fitness, health or beauty (notable examples are: The Runner by Leon Underwood; The Goddess by E. Whitney-Smith).

Another Classical value, the importance of family, constituted a significant theme among the mythology and art of the Greek and Roman empires – and is one that seems to have been adopted in the public art on show in 1938. The UK Pavilion hosted a large sculpture showing a man, woman and child in peak physical condition standing on top of the universe, surrounded by clouds (below). They are depicted standing firmly, as conquerors. This imagery of British fortitude and strength in the UK Pavilion has strong political connotations at a time when Europe and the Empire was beginning to feel significant pressure from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. By 1936, rearmament was well underway in Germany; and by 1938 Hitler was looming over the Czech border, having already absorbed Austria. The sculpture in the UK Pavilion imagines the British people, and the British concept of family, as the most powerful in the universe, and sends a strong message to visitors of the Exhibition to that effect.

Less political, or perhaps more Classical examples of family were also represented artistically at the Exhibition. Mother and Child by William McMillan which was housed in the Palace of Art bares distinct similarities to an Italian cast gilt bronze plaquette, dating to around 1486. According to historians at the British Museum, where the plaquette is housed, the work could take after the renowned Italian sculptor, Donatello (1386-1466). The plaquette (shown below) depicts Virgin and Child in an embrace echoed by the stone work produced by McMillan. The nod to the work of this Renaissance sculptor, which in turn references the Classical artists before him, could be said to be an expression of admiration for previously successful and dominant Empires.

While it would be going too far to suggest that the collection of sculpture and art at the Empire Exhibition of 1938 was intended solely as a political statement, or indeed a statement of Empire and power; it is perhaps fair to propose that the sculpture on show throughout the park displayed an awareness of, and an admiration for previously dominant cultures. Both the Greek and Roman Empires used art and sculpture as a means of communicating their views, victories and values to the world; and perhaps an element of that was adopted in the selection of public art in 1938. By emulating the culture of the Greek and Roman Empires, Britain was consciously drawing a comparison between the dominant nations of the past and herself - a statement with connotations of knowledge, an advanced political system, and cultural dominance.

Below left to right:Foam by C. D'O. Pilkington Jackson; Unknown sculpture in the UK Pavilion (Fitness Hall); Discus-thrower Roman copy of a bronze original from Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli, Italy (5th Century); The Runner by Leon Underwood;The Goddess by E. Whitney Smith; Unknown sculpture from the UK Pavilion showing family; Mother and Child by William McMillan; and a cast gilt bronze plaquette, part of the British Museum collection.