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In 1856, the sculptor Alfred George Stevens was commissioned to undertake two of the most important public decoration schemes of his day; the dining room of Dorchester House and the Wellington monument in St Paul’s Cathedral. Stevens’s vision was grand and the schemes occupied the remainder of his life. He placed enormous importance upon preparatory drawings and these remained his most private and sensuous expressions. He never once allowed his drawings to be exhibited, very rarely signed them(1) and immediately destroyed them after they had been worked into the finished sculpture or painting. When Stevens died suddenly, he left a workshop full of undestroyed drawings made towards unresolved or unfinished schemes. The largest collection of these is now in the Tate Gallery.
The sculptural and sensuous ‘old master’ quality of Stevens’s drawings was learnt from his nine year stay in Italy as a young man. He left England in 1834 to study Italian frescoes and the Old Masters. After studying at the Florentine Academy, he returned to London and entered the competitions set up by the Houses of Parliament. Consequently, he was awarded his first important commission: the design for the grand bronze doors of the newly built Geological Museum in Jermyn Street.
This sensitive sanguine study of a mother and child was probably drawn around the time when Stevens was working on his most emotive maternal portrait, Mrs. Young Mitchell and her Child (1851). Kenneth Towndrow explains how in this work: The wife and child of his closest friend around this time were both dying, the mother in a decline, the child of an obscure heart disease, and out of this situation, ostensibly to beguile Mrs Mitchell, Stevens wove this dark mystery in vision of human birth and death within so short a span of separation between the womb and the grave.(2)
(1) See: Tate Gallery, The Works of Alfred Stevens, London 1950, page 16, which explains how Stevens only was known on one occasion to sign a drawing as a birthday present.
(2) Ibid. page 22
Chichester, The Tudor Room, The Bishop's Palace, All for Love- Aspects of love in the art of more than 200 years, Festival Exhibition, July 1994, number 51