Kiss of life for an old mystery

John May

One of Rodin's four versions of his most famous work was under wraps in a Sussex stable for 17 years. John May tells how college students helped map its trail from Lewes to the Tate. At the turn of this century the French sculptor Auguste Rodin made four versions of his most famous work, The Kiss. Today they are priceless pieces in collections around the world - in Paris, Copenhagen, London and Philadelphia - a ubiquitous symbol of romantic love and a star attraction to thousands of visitors.

But the story behind the creation of The Kiss - and in particular the history of the English version before it reached the central sculpture hall of the Tate Gallery - is not so well known. It has turned into something of a detective story set in the East Sussex county town of Lewes with some of the clues uncovered by GNVQ and A-level students of the local tertiary college.

The setting is a Georgian mansion, Lewes House, on the main high street but with extensive Italianate gardens to the rear. The stableblock is now, coincidentally, the headquarters of the Lewes District Council which has been instrumental in uncovering a story of artistic patronage countered by Edwardian prudery, buried for 60 years or more. Recognising the significance of the story, the council has funded an unusual collaboration with the students - 11 doing GNVQ level 3 in art and design and nine taking A-level art. An exhibition of their work, inspired by The Kiss, is currently on show at Lewes House.

Here, 100 years ago, lived E P Warren, a rich homosexual from Boston with a love of aesthetics and Greek culture. With his partner John Marshall, he established an all-male brotherhood centred round an antiquarian collecting operation that cornered the market in Greek and Roman antiquities.

From their flat in Rome, they co-ordinated agents all over the Mediterranean and the flow of treasures they bought came to Lewes House in crateloads. This was the staging post where the booty was logged, repacked and sent on its final journey across the Atlantic. In America the treasures established two major classical collections, one at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts the other at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Through their connections and their mutual interest in Greek sculpture, Warren and Marshall were introduced to Rodin who came to Lewes in 1903. The visit is recorded in the memoirs of painter William Rothenstein but there is anecdotal evidence - from a town stonemason, for example - which confirms that the celebrated sculptor was a visitor.

Warren and Marshall commissioned Rodin to produce one of the four larger-than-life versions of The Kiss, a statue of a naked man and woman entwined in an embrace. Rodin modelled them in clay and used sculptors working under his direction in his Paris "factory" to carve the figures out of marble.

The statue arrived in Lewes in l904. It is believed to have stood in the entrance hall to Lewes House for 10 years before its installation in the Assembly Room of the Town Hall in 1914.

The many young servicemen billeted in Lewes at that time also used this room for rest and recreation. There is one eyewitness account of a boxing match held here, in which the press of the crowd was so great that people were climbing on the statue to get a better view.

No one is certain about what happened during this period - but many elderly residents remember The Kiss as a joke amongst the ordinary people of Lewes. But the moral guardians would have found much to offend them in such a risque subject and it is clear that the statue became controversial.

A campaign, possibly led by a local headmistress and councillor, Miss Fowler-Tutt, to have The Kiss covered up was successful. It was then given back to Warren, with the excuse that the Assembly Room was not fit to house "such a noble piece of statuary".

Photographs confirm that it was banished, under drapes, to the stableblock where it stayed for a further 17 years. After E P Warren's death in l928, an auction was held of his possessions but The Kiss failed to sell; four years later it left Lewes on loan to Cheltenham Art Gallery. Subsequently it found a permanent home at The Tate.

In recent years a number of small exhibitions on the story have been held at Lewes House, but this year the district council has expanded activities in recognition of the story's importance. A bursary of Pounds 750 from the chairman's fund was given to the tertiary college for students to explore the links between Rodin and the town, and the two projects became linked as one.

The exhibition that has resulted is a happy collaboration. Two of the students, Katie Goodwin and Josephine Forbes, uncovered some of the vital historical clues on visits to the Sussex Room of the county library. There they found extracts from correspondence between E P Warren and the town council - ranging in subject from the delivery and formal acceptance of The Kiss to letters about its banishment from the Assembly Room. Their research has been incorporated into the exhibition, with the story told in a series of illustrated boards, alongside memorabilia, busts and an antique camera.

The students' work - a combination of life drawings, paintings, photographs, project books and sculptures - was inspired by the story and by visits to The Tate.

The project - especially an exhibition with an opening date - gave the students a sense of urgency and experience about what it is like to work on a real job, as well as providing valuable work and credentials for their portfolios.

A team of lecturers administered the project for the college. For James DiBiase it was his first full year of teaching during which he'd taken students to London to explore Rodin's work. I accompanied them to the central sculpture hall at the Tate where we sat and drew The Kiss and Rodin's first masterpiece, The Age of Bronze, overlooked by hordes of young French and Italian schoolchildren. Later we walked to the gardens by the House of Parliament and climbed over the giant bronze, Burghers of Calais.

This hands-on experience was no textbook exercise. The energy with which many of the students then transformed their drawings into paintings, even though many had not worked with paint since they were 10, was proof enough to DiBiase that the project had worked.

David Powell and Chris Mansell supervised the poster for the event, conceived and produced within the college to a tight deadline. Stuart Revill, the head of department, had just finished taking the GNVQ moderator to the exhibition when we met. (The moderator comes twice-yearly to offer guidance.) His comments on the experience may give heart to other colleges and schools struggling to adapt to the GNVQ requirements.

This was the first year the GNVQ course had been taught at the college so both teachers and students were learning. They were taking Art and Design Advanced (level 3), a vocational course that includes 10 hours a week of contact teaching, plus study time on coursework. It is designed to give a vocational qualification to students who have already decided to try and establish a career in art and design.

The course is constructed of assignments, units and modules which embrace a wide variety of activity including 2-D (drawing, painting, print making) and 3-D (design and sculpture) work, and requires fine art and design outcomes. Embedded within the course are three core skills: information technology, communications and number. All came into play during the logistics of organising the Rodin project.

Stuart Revill says: "We used this project as a positive means of enabling students to explore their own work and art historical references. It was not difficult to match this to the exacting criteria of the assessment."

For him, the Rodin project provided a communal and promotional art venture that gave his students a package of experiences, much of which would otherwise have had to be simulated.

"This was real experience that was also presented to an audience." He believes the important thing about GNVQ is that projects for it can be ambitious in scope and range - and that the assessment can be matched to that process. The only difficulty with the Rodin project "was to make sure we were hitting the right buttons of achievement. We didn't want the students to fail their course while doing something exciting."

* The exhibition is open until September 10 from 10am-4pm.

John May is director of the Rodin Project.

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