YCBA talk explores 18th-century bust

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Photo by Ken Yanagisawa.

A Tuesday talk at the Yale Center for British Art explored in detail an 18th-century British sculpture.

The lecture, titled “Love and Death,” zeroed in on British sculptor Joseph Wilton’s marble bust of landowner Thomas Dawson, completed around 1770. Matthew Hargraves, curator for collections research at the YCBA, discussed the piece in front of an audience of several dozen Yale students, faculty members, YCBA affiliates and members of the general public. “Love and Death” was the latest installment in the YCBA’s “Art in Context” series — a lecture series which has remained a staple at the museum for more than two decades, said Linda Friedlaender, YCBA’s curator of education and organizer of the series.

“[The series] allows us to invite scholars coming from many different worlds … and let them really focus on an individual object that they know a great deal about and ‘open out’ that object in new and interesting ways for viewers who come,” YCBA Director Amy Meyers said.

The bust is surrounded by portraits of the upper echelons of 18th-century British society — works replete with trappings of feminine aristocracy such as lavish ruffles of silk and satin, and elaborate headwear. One of King George III’s closest companions, Dawson ran in the same social circles as the women whose portraits adorn the gallery’s walls. But the bust, Hargraves explained, is not merely a depiction of a wealthy aristocrat. He said the bust possesses features unusual for its time, adding that the work’s unique characteristics initially drew him to the piece.

Unlike analogous contemporary busts that contain an element of self-sufficiency, Hargraves said, Wilton’s bust of Dawson seems to “need something outside of itself.” Hargraves also emphasized the piece’s twofold meaning — on one hand, it showcases Dawson mourning the loss of his first wife; on the other, it represents a new kind of man, one who was spontaneous, natural and in touch with his feelings.

Cyra Levenson, the YCBA’s associate curator of education, said the the “Art in Context” lecture series reveals the unique underpinnings of museum objects — the kind of details that visitors may often overlook.

“It makes you realize how many stories there are behind these objects we see every day,” Levenson explained. “You really begin to see them in a new context — begin to see the narrative, the history, living in an object.”

Friedlaender noted that she particularly enjoys recruiting faculty members from a variety of disciplines to participate in the series. By drawing experts from diverse fields such as geology, chemistry and anatomy, she said, the museum hopes to enrich visitors’ experiences.

The next gallery talk in the “Art in Context” series will be held on Nov. 5.

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