An Alphabet of Allegorical Sculpture - K is for Knowledge

Typical figure of Knowledge.

Allegorical statues representing Knowledge are not uncommon, but not so common as all that – some of the examples that spring to mind turn out to be Wisdom on closer examination. The distinction in Victorian and Edwardian times at least would seem to be that Wisdom is old, typically male, and has his wisdom from his years, as personified in a prophet or Greek philosopher who has built up experience which he can quote. He will tend to carry at most a small scroll. Knowledge, however, is more akin to our 21st Century lives where we have access to facts, thus she – and our figure will normally be female – will typically carry a book from which she is likely to be reading. I would not take these as more than guidelines, and surely among the processional figures of architectural sculpture there will be counter-examples. Nevertheless.

Knowledge, then, is generally female, and her main symbol is likely to be a book, usually open, often with her actually reading from it. She may be mature rather than youthful, and in either case will be of serious expression, eyes more often than not downward cast. She will typically wear a long skirt, with perhaps a cloak, evoking some academic credentials, and may similarly wear her head covered – it is interesting that Alfred Drury’s model for the front of the V&A, below left, was changed to have her hair confined for the finished figure.

Alfred Drury's model and finished version of Knowledge.

If part of a group, Knowledge is likely to be reading to children, as in the charming Pre-Raphaelite figure at the top of this page, from the Liverpool Queen Victoria Memorial. Or she may be restraining some precipitate action, as in the panel below, also from Liverpool, one of Stirling Lee’s panels for St George’s Hall – the lengthy title is Justice having attained maturity upholds the world, supported by Truth & Knowledge, and Knowledge is the figure on the right.

St George Hall panel, Knowledge on the right.

Another example is this wonderful panel by Albert Hodge, entitled Knowledge Sustaining Youth in his Voyage through Life. She is a Valkyrie-like figure, typical of Hodge, in half-armour, protective with her Shield of knowledge, holding back his arm. Look at his mighty arm which she restrains – now look at her arm and see how she can do this (see the Warrior women page for further examples). Otherwise, Knowledge will be restrained, passive, and not a figure in action.

Knowledge, according to Albert Hodge.

Two more examples. If the somewhat detached, still figure of Knowledge lends herself to a Greek Classical treatment, with book and drapes, then below left is our counter-example, a semi-clad Knowledge with a scroll, albeit a long one, and reading from it, by the New Sculptor Onslow Ford. And we end with the spandrel figure below right, which I think is Knowledge, from the screen of Burlington House in Piccadilly. If attributed correctly, it shows Knowledge wearing rather inappropriate off-the-shoulder light drapes, with books and scrolls, but staring into space rather than using them, and two infants, one of whom is apparently somewhat restive at not being read to. And the swan – what sort of knowledge is this (!). See this page for other examples of swan sculpture, and see this page for the alternative interpretation of this sculpture as Education.

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