Robert Wallace Martin was already a sculptor of some success when, in 1873, he and his brothers Walter, Charles, and Edwin established Martin Brothers. Their reputation grew through the decade, regularly exhibiting at the Royal Academy, and attracted such visitors to their Holborn gallery as William de Morgan and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Their output was regarded as original, and worthy of numerous accolades and awards. From around 1882, and through two decades, Robert Wallace created an extraordinary series of grotesque, animalistic vessels. Whilst in certain cases the species of the bird or beast may have been loosely approximated, other vessels were sculpted as strange imaginary creatures summoned from the most distant reaches of the sculptor’s imagination. As leering gargoyles or smirking grotesques, these curious beasts were invested with a reassuringly familiar sense of human personality – albeit expressing primal, urgent emotions that conflicted with the propriety of late-Victorian society. That these impish toads, hook-beaked birds with longing expressions of wry affection, or louche, leering sea-creatures should now materialise from the imagination, is emblematic of the intellectual, artistic, and spiritual tumult that closed the Victorian era.
Born in 1843, the eldest of four brothers, Robert Wallace Martin, spent his early adolescence in his Westminster, then Kennington homes, both within the deep Gothic shadows of A.W.N. Pugin’s Palace of Westminster that dominated the London skyline. In 1859, at the age of sixteen, Robert Wallace was hired to assist William Field, a stone carver and mason working on the Gothic details of the Westminster palace. That same year, the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species delineated a theory of evolution that was soon to exert profound influence upon contemporary art and literature. It was inevitable, therefore, that Robert Wallace’s inquisitive mind should soon find response to the turbulent philosophic awakenings of the era.
The 19th century in Britain may be characterised by notions of exploration and of discovery. Not only the physical exploration of terrain, expressed by the mighty breadth of the British Empire at the helm of which Queen Victoria triumphed, but exploration of the mind, of the imagination, of the heart. Robert Wallace was not alone in this quest to identify rituals of expression and response. The romanticised paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or the detailed literary hallucinations of Lewis Carroll, may be assessed as parallel journeys towards imagined universes, radically contrasting with the mechanisation of society and the recent inversion of established ideologies. So too, the writings of John Ruskin and the practices of William Morris, among others, propagated a reappraisal of the consciousness and relevance of the self in modern society. Darwin’s theories on the dissolution of organic boundary between man and animal must have proved deeply disquieting to many, including most probably the fundamentalist leanings of Robert Wallace. The opening of London’s Natural History Museum in 1882 was to coincide with Robert Wallace’s first grotesque bird jars, underlining the powerful context of social change, intellectual introspection, and the resulting consequence of fantasy as both escape route and metaphor.
With the benefit of hindsight, this curious menagerie that at first appears so peculiar, is in fact the consequence of one of the most important and lastingly emotive strands of the Victorian era – by retreating from all-encompassing logic and formulae, the creative mind was encouraged to roam freely, to perceive the imaginary as real, and vice versa. Although Martin Brothers continued to operate until 1923, the fantastic inventiveness expressed through these beasts was never surpassed. In the 1960s, as a renewed interest in the psyche and the imagination coincided with a reappraisal of the Victorian era, the work of the Martin Brothers was rediscovered by a new generation of collectors. In the ensuing years, their creativity has been recognised by several important exhibitions, and examples of their work retained in the collections of numerous museums in both the UK and the USA. In the decades since their genesis, these curious visitors from the imagination of Robert Wallace Martin have never failed to fix their spectator’s attention with their knowing wistfulness and wry character.