Richard Westmacott’s Pediment Sculptures for the British Museum

Hartwig Fischer

Sir Richard Westmacott (1775-1856) was the leading British sculptor of his day. Already involved with questions of display of works in the British Museum’s collection, Westmacott was tasked with the design for sculptures to sit in the pediment on the imposing façade of the institution. Surmounting the main entrance, Westmacott’s sculptures dedicate the museum to culture and civilisation.

British Museum Director, Hartwig Fischer, delves into the story and inspiration behind these fascinating sculptures, ‘The Progress of Civilisation’, and uncovers their layered narratives as a gateway to the museum. Filmed in glorious detail via drone, HENI Talks was privileged enough to film the sculptures up close.

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The entrance of the whole façade of the British Museum is very imposing. It’s one of the most important buildings of the Greek Revival, a style that came into being after the rediscovery of Greek architecture from the middle of the 18th century. And Smirke’s British Museum is one of the most important examples of that new rather severe and imposing style which was favoured for public buildings. And that set the example for museum buildings for a long time to come. So, when you approach the British Museum, you have this beautiful façade with the colonnade stretching across the front of the museum, and that is crowned by the pediment.

Originally, in the first plans which had been drawn up by Robert Smirke, no sculpture was to be found in the pediment. And it’s only after Robert Smirke had retired and his younger brother, Sydney Smirke, had taken over, that you would find a new approach and suddenly there would be the direct commission to Richard Westmacott, the leading sculptor of his day, to execute these sculptures. And Westmacott had for decades been very close to the British Museum. He had worked with Smirke on questions of display, the distribution of works of sculptures in the galleries of the museum. And being an artist, he had a certain take on how the works should be displayed. And he was very directly involved in all the debates around these questions that in the end would set the course for the future development of the museum.

Richard Westmacott was born in 1775 and died in 1856. He studied with his father in London before going to Rome in 1793 to work under the classicist sculptor Antonio Canova. While in Italy, Westmacott devoted much of his time to the study of classical sculpture which would mark much of his subsequent work. On returning to England in 1797, he set up his own studio and soon counted among the most successful artists of Great Britain.

During his lifetime Westmacott executed a number of important monuments, among them the Achilles of the Duke of Wellington Monument in Hyde Park, the Duke of York on top of the Duke of York Column, George Canning in Parliament Square. Nearer to the British Museum are his statues of the agriculturalist and developer Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford in Russell Square, and of James Charles Fox in Bloomsbury Square. The pediment sculptures for the British Museum were to be the last and crowning achievement of his career.

Westmacott was a very well organised artist. He had a great workshop, and he conceived the pediment sculptures in 1848 and they were installed in 1852. That is very fast. So, he had a team of sculptors working with him, for him, to execute these figures. They’re made of Portland stone, the same stone that was used on the building. And they really caused quite a stir. People were intrigued, impressed by what he had achieved. He used a special concept developed by the architect and archaeologist Charles Cockerell a few decades earlier, suggesting that for pediment sculptures one should use one narrative that takes you from one side all the way across to the other side. So, not something which works from the centre, or that places personifications, allegories statically, one next to the other, but to develop a narrative. And that’s what Westmacott did.

And there’s a striking feature that perhaps we don’t really understand nowadays. When he came up with this idea, he related back to the great Greek examples of not having sculpture carved in relief, but of having figures carved in the round, which would be placed in that quite challenging format of the pediment triangle. So, if you stand in front of the museum and you look up, you realise that these are figures in the round that have a great presence. Some arms, feet, even protrude beyond the frame of the pediment to make them even more present and more alive. And what is striking is the way he used the format of the pediment to give additional meaning and expression to what we observe.

Well, the drawing is highly interesting. It’s a sculptor’s drawing. A sculptor always looks at the distribution of masses, three dimensions, bodies, plasticity – and that’s what you find in this drawing, in this awkward format of a triangle which is always difficult to work in. And it’s a pretty accurate depiction of what we see today realised in sculpture on the south facade of the British Museum. And Westmacott, wants to tell us about The Progress of Civilisation. For him that was obviously very important, to be able to show that humankind has gone through many iterations of development, leading up to where? Well, obviously leading up to his own time, European Western civilisation, which for him was the apogee of historical development. So, what we see on the façade is one take from the middle of the 19th century, and one expression of that idea of the progress of humankind from ignorance to knowledge and understanding and being linked to the world.

On the left humankind is being lured out of forgetfulness, out of its primitive state, if you like, by the Angel of Faith. You almost have the impression that the triangle there, the angle pushes that figure out of the stone, out of the rocks. Then we see humankind evolving, growing into hunters, farmers, herders, tillers, working the fields, taking care of livestock. Still, they seem to feel the weight of their existence, and they have to bend slightly under the diagonal upper beam of the pediment. Whereas the first seated figures that follow, after the caesura of the Doric column, are much at ease. So, something happens there, and Westmacott uses the format to make you feel that suddenly you’ve reached a different state, and we move into personifications of the arts. There’s Architecture, there is Sculpture, and there is Painting. And with that we arrive at the centre, where we have enough space for there to be a tall figure standing upright and she is Astronomy, representing knowledge and the understanding of the way the world is constructed.

So, it’s a break, in a way, knowledge comes into play, Science, and next to her you have Mathematics. So, at the centre you have those two figures that show humankind in full possession of their faculties, and then in parallel, in symmetry to the three personifications on the left, on the right you find Drama, you find Poetry and Music. Most of these personifications are female and relate to the Muses. And finally, you have a man, sitting suave, relaxed in nature, surrounded by animals. And you may notice that all these creatures are non-European animals, making reference to the reach of Great Britain at that time, to empire. And they are like an echo to the first animals you see on the left, a crocodile, and a bear. And you can see how Westmacott tried to use that sharp angle at the edges of the pediment, to fill it with objects, animals, and even human beings, that obviously cannot stand upright, and he uses that, if you like, to give momentum to the story that he tells.

There are several fascinating features to be found in this drawing and of course in the sculptures. For instance, you see here the upper part of a column which is a direct quote from the Parthenon, an object you would find in the British Museum, as you would find the lamp the angel holds to lure humankind into existence, that lamp was also in the collection of the British Museum.

And some of the figures are obviously inspired by the Parthenon sculptures themselves. If you look at the group of these two, this is clearly inspired by a very famous group of two reclining women from the from the East pediment, which, when complete, told the story of the birth of Athena. Westmacott inversed the direction of the figures for his pediment. But it’s very clear that through these sculptures he makes reference to what you would find inside the museum. He also makes reference to the purpose of the museum, which is to say, assemble objects to create knowledge. So, the sculptures together with the architecture give you a very strong message. This is a place that you enter in order to be enlightened. And that is what the Greek Revival architecture stands for too. This harks back to the most revered and most admired times in European history. So, you have, just standing in front of the museum, a very richly layered narrative.

Richard Westmacott’s sculptures tell us about progress, learning, understanding, growing. His is a specific view of progress, but also of creation and civilisation, and of the relationship between the human and natural world. The challenge today is how do we read and interpret these images, rooted in one powerful and privileged European tradition, in a modern way that recognises global cultures and global humanity. Westmacott was no doubt proud of the achievements of his time, but like many contemporaries also had doubts. Perhaps today he would have worried about the effect of progress on the environment, or man’s dominance over nature. Confronting old imagery like this is also an important part of how we confront our past more generally.

Westmacott’s sculptures dedicate this place to civilisation, to culture. When you come into the museum, this is the experience you make. You engage with the cultures of the world, each in its own right. But you also look at how they interconnect, and how they have inspired each other. And you leave the museum enriched with a deeper knowledge and humbler in the face of the extraordinary achievements of human beings throughout history.

With thanks to

The British Museum

Prudence Cuming Associates





The Progress of Civilisation

Sir Richard Westmacott, 1848–51

Portland stone

British Museum

Sculptural and drone photography: Prudence Cuming Associates



Robert Smirke Esq RA

Print made by: Charles Picart

Intermediary draughtsman: John Jackson

After: Mary Smirke

Published by: Cadell & Davies, 1814

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)



Design for the British Museum; front elevation

Sir Robert Smirke, 1820-1845

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)



Portrait of Sydney Smirke; cut from ‘Illustrated London News’ (1859)

After: John & Charles Watkins, 1859

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)



Portrait of Richard Westmacott, R.A.; illustration to ‘Illustrated London News’ (1872)

Print made by: R Taylor & Co, 1872

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)



The British Museum: The Graeco-Roman Room, with visitors

Wood engraving, 1855

Wellcome Collection

Public Domain Mark



The British Museum: The Etruscan Room, with visitors

Wood engraving, 1847

Wellcome Collection

Public Domain Mark



The British Museum: The Coral Room, with visitors

Wood engraving, 1847

Wellcome Collection

Public Domain Mark



The British Museum: The Roman Saloon, with visitors

Wood engraving attributed to J. and A. Williams, 1857

Wellcome Collection

Public Domain Mark



Portrait of Antonio Canova

Print made by: Giovanni Martino Boni, 1814

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)



Perseus with the Head of Medusa

Antonio Canova, 1804-6

The Met

(CC0 1.0)



Seated mother and two children by an urn

Sir Richard Westmacott, 1790s

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)



Sir Richard Westmacott’s lecture in the Great Room, Royal Academy of Arts, Somerset House

George Scharf, 1836

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)



The Wellington Memorial (Achilles), Hyde Park Corner, London

Sir Richard Westmacott, 1882



Duke of York Column, St. James’s, London

Statue by Sir Richard Westmacott, 1834



Statue of Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, Russell Square, London

Sir Richard Westmacott, 1809


Statue of James Charles Fox, Bloomsbury Square, London

Sir Richard Westmacott, completed 1814; erected 1816



The British Museum: The Main Facade

Collotype after an earlier print

Wellcome Collection

Public Domain Mark



Tracing of a drawing in Cockerell’s article on the Aegina Marbles in the Journal of Science and Art, Vol. VI, of the arrangement of the group of sculptures on the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia at Aegina

Charles Robert Cockerell, 1811-1819

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)



Drawing from volume 3 of the Elgin Drawings, an album of 12 drawings commissioned by Lord Elgin; restored east elevation of the Parthenon, Athens, including reconstructed drawings of the pediment sculptures and metopes

Drawn by: Sebastiano Ittar and Feodor Iwanowitsch Kalmück, c. 1800-1803

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)



The Progress of Civilisation, original design for the group of sculptures in the pediment of the portico of the British Museum

Sir Richard Westmacott, pre-1847

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)



View of the northeast corner of the Parthenon, Athens

Drawn by: James Skene, 1940

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)



Capital and top drum of a marble column from the Parthenon

Designed by: Pheidias, 447BC – 432BC

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)



Marble statue of two female figures from the East pediment of the Parthenon (East pediment L and M)

Designed by: Pheidias, 438BC – 432BC

© The Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)





Music Vine


In Eternity

Andrewkn, 2020


(CC BY-NC 4.0)

Richard Westmacott’s Design for The Progress of Civilisation’, The British Museum Collections Online

British Museum Architecture’, The British Museum

British Museum History’, The British Museum

Sir Richard Westmacott’, Royal Academy


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