Sunday, September 5, 2010


"Oft in the night time, there would be a glimpse caught of a hideous form rambling along the frail balustrade of openwork which encircled the towers and bordered the roof - still again it was the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Then, said the neighbors, the whole building assumed something horrible and supernatural; eyes and mouths open here and there; barks and growls came from the dogs, griffins, and dragons of stone that watch day and night with outstretched neck and gaping jaw around the giant cathedral."~Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831)

Some documents in the Tate Archive have revealed that Victor Hugo's fictional character of Quasimodo was in fact not fictional at all. There really was a hunchback of Notre Dame! The evidence for this was found in the 7-volume memoirs of 19th c. British sculptor Henry Sibson, which were discovered in a Cornwall attic in 1999. Sibson was in Paris in the 1820s working on repairs to Notre Dame. They show that the head sculptor had a humped back, as described in diary entries including this one: "The government had given orders for the repairing of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and it was now in progress....I applied at the Government studios, where they were executing the large figures and here I met with a Mons. Trajan, a most worthy, fatherly and amiable man as ever existed – he was the carver under the Government sculptor whose name I forget as I had no intercourse with him, all that I know is that he was humpbacked and he did not like to mix with carvers." In later entries, Sibson indicates that the reclusive sculptor was nicknamed Monsieur Le Bossu. Hugo had a strong interest in - and outspoken opinions about - the restoration of the cathedral, and its architecture is a major theme in the book. His close links with the cathedral make it likely that he knew Le Bossu.

Tate archivist Adrian Glew describes making the find, "When I saw the references to the humpbacked sculptor at Notre Dame, and saw that the dates matched the time of Hugo's interest in the Cathedral, the hairs on the back of my neck rose and I thought I should look into it." And a distant relative of Sibson's, Gerry Croydon, exclaims, "Henry's diaries are fascinating, as he travelled the length and breadth of Europe and came across some amazing characters. The discovery that his diary may reveal the inspiration behind one of literature's great characters, is quite amazing."

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