Bristol’s greatest sculptor was Edward Hodges Baily. He became renowned for his ladies’ busts as well as for one of the most iconic and famous statues in the world. Hodges Baily was born in Downend in 1788, the son of a celebrated carver of wooden ships’ figureheads. Busty mermaids were his father’s speciality and their home was festooned with examples of these erotic carvings. As a consequence, in adulthood, Baily became a strong advocate of feeding baby milk by bottle to avoid infants getting a mouthful of splinters.
In 1795, Baily was sent away to boarding school where he immediately felt home-sick. This was an improvement on being at home where he was usually sea-sick. At school Eddie showed a keen aptitude for figures, though not of the mathematical variety. He made very convincing wax busts of famous women that were usually displayed after ‘lights out’ in his dormitory. This soon became the most sought after billet on the public school circuit. Indeed, it has been suggested that Baily’s efforts were responsible for the English aristocratic male’s appreciation for the busts of women that persists to this current day.
After leaving education, Baily was able to concentrate on the female bust full-time and even opened a Bristol studio on the strength of his success in that field. However, much to the consternation of local youths, he wouldn’t let slip where that field was located. As his fame grew Eddie expanded his operation and advertised his wares in the national press. This caused a furore when he displayed the authoress Mary Shelley’s bust on page three of The Times. Readers were divided as to whether this was art or titillation. Mary Shelley herself was even divided, but that was considered her own fault for volunteering to be cut in half by a magician on stage at the Old Vic.
In 1831 Hodges Baily was commissioned by the Royal Family to produce a series of sculptures to adorn the halls of Buckingham Palace. However, no payment was forthcoming. As a consequence Baily’s business went under. Questions were even raised in Parliament regarding the issue as it was considered very confusing for a sculptor of busts to go bust. Therefore it was agreed by a unanimous vote in the Commons that to avoid complicating matters Baily should be banned from ever saying that he’d gone bust….he’d have to explain that his business had gone ‘tits up’ instead.
Due to his talent Baily swiftly extricated himself from his financial embarrassment. He was so much in demand that he wondered if there was enough base material on the planet to fulfil all his commissions. With that in mind he made the outlandish purchase of Mount Everest which immediately placed him in debt again. Mount Everest fell into the hands of the Official Receiver who promptly sunk without trace.
It was then, in 1840, that Baily was commissioned to knock out the piece he is most famous for: the 18 foot sandstone statue of Horatio Nelson that adorns the top of its 161 foot column in Trafalgar Square. It was Baily’s idea to place it so far off the ground as he was experimenting with the concept of high-rise statues at the time. After finishing Nelson’s Column he wrote a treatise on high-rise sculpture that is still used as a yardstick by artists today (mainly because it was exactly 36 inches in length). The salient points of this seminal work were:
1. If the subject of your statue was known in life to walk about with one arm behind their back, provide them with a column of 80 feet and 6 inches…as this would be a half-Nelson.
2. If the reputation of the subject of the statue is likely to diminish over time, place the column on land prone to subsistence.
3. If a statue of Icarus is to top a column, ensure that all pedestrians milling below it are issued with hard-hats.
4. It’s advisable in these early Victorian times never to place a statue of Boudicca on a column. As the menfolk will not appreciate being looked down upon by a single mother with two kids.
5. If the sculptor maligned the reputation of the subject of the statue in any way by producing an inaccurate image, the sculptor must then produce an accurate statue of the same subject and afford it the exact same column inches as the original.
6. Statues of Joan of Arc must never be placed on a column that exceeds 60 feet; as that is the length of the longest ladder any fire brigade currently possesses in the UK.
7. Statues of Jesus should be placed on a column on a beach, so that when the tide is in it will appear as though he walks on water.
Baily was elected to the FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society) in 1842 and remained a prominent member until his death in 1867. Thus it could be said that despite his earlier notoriety, his masterpiece, Nelson’s Column, enabled him to be finally accepted in high society.