SOMETIMES, not very often, there appears a scholarly

volume which recaptures for the reader an entire field of endeavor that, for one reason or another, has for many years been almost entirely ignored and neglected. This is one of those rare books. Once having looked at its hundreds of photographs of Victorian sculpture in all its numerous manifestions -- and many of those photographs are nothing less than works of art in their own right -- one becomes aware, to one's delight and amazement, of a part of the Victorian landscape which, even though far from invisible, has remained largely unseen because taken for granted: a petrified forest of statues and busts and monuments which still bears silent witness to the values and ideas of a great period of English history.

Not that stone, marble, or bronze necessarily guarantees immortality -- whatever poets may have written to the contrary. Because of the hazards of politics, war, and, above all, changing taste, Benedict Read's work had to be, to a great extent, one of detection and retrieval. Some pieces belonging to one major collection are now rumored to form part of an urban motorway in Newcastle. Alexander Munro's Paolo and Francesca, once owned by Mr. Gladstone, found its way to the Birmingham Art Gallery by way of a junk shop. The whereabouts of the Poets' Fountain that used to grace Park Lane, until it was damaged in World War II, are at present unknown. With the coming of independence, the splendid equestrian statue of Lord Hardinge by John Henry Foley was dismantled and removed from its site in Calcutta, and has ended up in a garden in Kent. Of the almost 300 works exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1862 only a few are now accessible. The mere task of locating many of these "lost" works of art, and photographing those that could be found, must have been a formidable one; and Read deserves enormous credit for having carried it out. For, whatever we may now feel about the multitude of Alberts, and Victorias, and Peels, and Gladstones which gaze at us so sternly from so many pedestals, this volume shows how much may be learned about the Victorians by surveying their sculpture and the artists who produced it.

Some of the things we learn from this book are hardly surprising. We expect sexual prudery, sententiousness, and sentimentality from the Victorians, and we certainly get it. True, the queen herself allowed the sculptor who was worried that she might object to his use of compasses on her person in order to take measurements, "everything he might think necessary." And she bought John Bell's Andromeda, realistically nude and chained, for her own collection. But the bishops insisted on fig- leaves for male nudes at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and they won out. It was years later that the professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy pronounced that "absence of color from stone removes it so entirely from common Nature that the most vulgarly constituted mind may contemplate it without its causing any feeling of a sensuous kind." In 1837, the year of Queen Victoria's accession, a sculptor had gone to great lengths to avoid the total nudity of the putti figures on what is now the City Art Gallery in Manchester, even though the panels were a safe 20 or 30 feet above eye level. As for moral maxims and appeals to sentiment, one need only list the titles of some sculptures -- Truth plucking out the Tongue of Falsehood, Courage spiting Cowardice, Innocence in Danger, The first Whisper of Love--to confirm one's prejudices about Victorian attitudes.

Read's text, though it is evidently intended more for art historians than for the general reader, also reinforces one's sense that whatever the Victorians undertook, they carried out in heroic fashion. Thus Foley contracted a fatal case of pleurisy while working on Asia (part of the Albert Memorial in London), because it had "entailed his sitting for hours at a time on the wet clay of the limbs of the main female figure while modeling her bust." After injuring himself by lifting an enormously heavy marble bust on to a platform, "only sheer force of will enabled him (John Adams-Acton) to struggle to his wedding with one side of his body strapped up." And when the lion from whom Sir Edwin Landseer was modeling a counterpart for Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square died on him, the artist worked on from the carcass: "Anything as fearful as the gases from the royal remains it is difficult to conceive," Landseer wrote at the time. "But," he went on, "we have shut our eyes to nasty inconvenience and opened them to the importance of handling the dangerous subject whilst in a state of safety." Those were indeed heroic days!

But if some of the things Read tells us tend only to confirm what we already suspected, others add a good deal to our knowledge. He is particularly informative and illuminating on the practical details of sculpturing in 19th-century England: the sequence of operations between drawing, model, and casting; the technical challenge involved in turning Victorian dress into marble -- "tight trousers" were often the result; the training of young sculptors in the studios of their elders; financial details about fees and casting costs; patronage, both personal and official; class and status distinctions within the profession; and the entire business of commissions and exhibitions and academic criticism. One really gets to know Victorian sculpture within its social context. And, beyond its social, its historical context. Victorian town halls, for instance, could be classical, with echoes of Greek democracy; or Gothic, consciously reminiscent of the great burgher civilizations of medieval Flanders and Germany. In either case, they, and the sculpture they contained and that often adorned them, symbolized both political and commercial progress and achievement.

What of the esthetic value of it all? Read tells us at the very outset that he will not feel bound to provide personal interpretations or sympathies; though, greatly to our benefit, he occasionally departs from that self- denying ordinance, as when he volunteers that the statuary on the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral is as impressive in its way and for its date as the West fronts of Chartres or Wells. It needs to be asked, he adds, whether failure to recognize such excellence "is not simply a matter of the attitude of a beholder conditioned by historical prejudice."

It is certainly worth pondering that question before too readily dismissing the English sculptural achievement in the 19th century. No hitherto unknown Victorian Donatellos or Michelangelos emerge from Read's pages. But what does emerge, sumptuously illustrated and convincingly argued, is the way in which painter- sculptors such as Holman Hunt, G.F. Watts, and, in particular, Lord Leighton, influenced the transition from the mid-Victorian neo-classical conventions, where the only gesture towards reality was often to be found in the costume, while the expression of the subject tended to reflect above all a generalized seriousness worthy of posterity, to something Read calls the "New Sculpture." By this he means that towards the end of the century, certain sculptors broke away from bland generalization to a forceful and detailed modeling of muscles in action, uncensored nudity, a much subtler handling of light and texture, and a new freedom of plastic language.

Thus the fact that England in our time may be said to lead the world in the production of great and original pieces of sculpture may be as much a product of historical as of accidental factors. In any event, having read this book, no tourist will ever again visit London or any other British city without paying special attention to Victorian statues, busts, and monuments. No greater tribute can be paid to Read's beautiful and pioneering volume.