An Alphabet of Allegorical Sculpture - P is for Prudence

Victorian allegorical statues of Prudence, at least from the end of the 19th Century, are most familiar as Prudentia, the one-time symbol of the Prudential Society buildings up and down the country. There are at least three versions, typically in bright red terra cotta, for Alfred Waterhouse was the Prudential’s architect and this was one of his favourite materials. Prudentia is modelled as a standing young woman, fair and pure of face, for Prudence goes with clarity of purpose and intent, looking downwards, thus prudential in outlook. She wears long draperies hanging down to the ground, thus with appropriate dignity, and a certain modesty, for a semi-nude or entirely unclad or figure might indicate purity, but would hardly imbue ideals of prudence. In the first of the two common Prudentia figures, she carries a mirror, for Prudence is clear-sighted and the mirror reflects what is, as opposed to what we imagine might be. This figure was designed by the sculptor Birnie Rhind.

Birnie Rhind's Prudentia.

The second common Prudentia figure, of which an example is shown at the top of this page, carries a book, for Prudence is founded in part in (learned) wisdom, and in her other hand, a long, writhing snake, which is described in the words of Edmund Burke (noted, for example on the Allpoetry.com website), as ‘There is a courageous wisdom, there is also a false reptile prudence, the result not of caution but of fear’. What a splendid figure. Alas, I am not aware of the sculptor.

Doncaster's Prudentia statue.

There survive the occasional other Prudentia figures, of which the example above, in Doncaster, is similar in general style as a youthful figure with bended gaze, though the emphasis is on the clear sight rather than the hooded eye. The statue is rather decayed, carrying in the one hand some small item whose identity is unclear, and who has lost the other hand, which may well have held a mirror.

Medievalised figure of Prudence, Whittall St, Birmingham.

Putting aside the Prudential Society, a particularly nice allegorical figure of Prudence, again in red terra cotta, may be found in Birmingham in this figure, one of a tryptich, on the side of the hospital site running along Whittall Street, on the building called Ladywood House. In this charming figure, medievalised in both dress and composition, we have again the youthful girl, here with downcast, hooded eyes (you will have to click on the picture to enlarge it to see this), holding a torch to prudently light her way, or show the truth. The figure emphasises in the tightly clasped belt and the tightly bound hair a restraint or control which we can associate with prudence.

Victorian Prudence statue in Moorgate.

W. S. Frith is the sculptor of this stone Prudence, high up on a block in Moorgate, London. Here she carries a lamp to light her way, and a staff to test the ground in front of her; for the rest we have the familiar long drapes and constrained hair, but this time in a more conventional Victorian idiom compared to the art nouveau or arts and crafts figures of Prudentia.

I wanted to show one counter-example to the norm, in this group entitled ‘Prudence holds the Balance, but Love turns the Scale’ by the little-known sculptor George Covell. Here our Prudence is nude, seated, and untypical in all bar her downward gaze and bound hair, though these would hardly single her out allegorically. There is at least a sense of control, or attempted control, in her holding of the balance.

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We end with a rather important High Victorian allegorical Prudence, high, high up on the Albert Memorial, a gilt creature whose detail is generally lost to the viewer in the glittery upper reaches of the monument. She is cowled, with the usual drape, and book, and holding a snake, though this cannot be readily seen in this not very good picture. But I chose this vantage to show another aspect of Prudence, more familiar from painting than sculpture, in particular Titian, showing that on the back of her head is a second face, that of a bearded man. I believe this to indicate Prudence built on experience. The sculptor was J. F. Redfern.

Prudence and Experience, by the sculptor Redfern.

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