Prisoner of Art

A strange title. Could it mean an artist who was so caught up in his profession that it almost imprisoned him from doing other things? No. What it means is that it should be taken more literally. This is about an artist who was commissioned by City of London to design a statue of Queen Ann and did so, whilst serving out a prison sentence.

    The statue was to be placed outside the main entrance to St Paul’s Cathedral and was to replace another which had seen better days. In 1886, the sculptor, Richard Claude Belt was well-known and his work was held in high esteem. However, no matter how creative he was, his abilities did not stretch to being a sensible person who could control their impulses.

Statue in Front of St Paul’s Cathedral

    He was not good with money, to say the least and he was often in debt. Now, when the commission came through, Belt was given a down payment to begin the work. By then, he was already in debt and spent the money he was given. On top of that, the authorities had caught up with him and by the time the commissioners realised it, Belt was in prison for fraud. The advanced payment was gone and the commissioners had no intention of paying for a new artist to start all over.

Close-Up of Queen Anne Statue

    Now, you might think that the commissioners must have had quite a bit of political pull and could perhaps have got Belt released early? They may have tried, but they failed and he had to serve his sentence. So, a decision was taken. Belt was told to design the statue and work on it from his prison cell. Eventually, believe it or not, stone materials and mason’s tools were brought to his cell. He set to work. To this day, it is believed that this was the only time a public work of art was produced by a criminal in prison.

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