Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac and the Portrait Bust, until 26th October
Imagine the most dramatic part of a play about a family where there has just been an almighty row, during which a character who had appeared earlier returns to the stage. There is complete silence, as the characters turn towards him startled by his sudden reappearance, which is suddenly broken from the audience when a querulous voice says “Who’s he?”
Well this cannot be said about this exhibition which focuses on the poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) because it is very clearly and elegantly presented. It looks at his work and how he was highly regarded at home and abroad. Physically challenged due to his debilitating illness (Pott’s disease) and by being a Roman Catholic in a Protestant country he still managed to triumph and is placed in the English literary canon between Milton and Wordsworth.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the eight versions of the same bust by Louis François Roubiliac (1702-1762) who was the leading sculptor of the day. In the 18th century the portrait bust became the way to celebrate famous writers but in fact it was not a new concept as in antiquity writers had been honoured in this way.
Pope was quite adept in managing his private and public life and image and although these early busts were most likely meant for friends they represent the most well-known image of the writer. This can be seen in the selection of marble, plaster and ceramic period copies which clearly demonstrate the place of replication and repetition in sculptural practice of the time.
Among his friends was William Murray (he became the first Lord Mansfield) with whom he shared a common interest in the classics and arts. Murray had a bust of Pope which he later paired with a similarly posed bust of himself by the sculptor Joseph Nollekens at Kenwood House. They were there until 1796 and are now together again for the first time since then.
There are other sitters with whom one way or another Pope was associated. For example one bust of him was paired with one of Isaac Newton, and they too are reunited here.
Sculpture was not the only way in which Pope was depicted and there are portraits by artists, including Jonathan Richardson the Elder, Jean-Baptiste van Loo, and Sir Godfrey Kneller, on show. There are also printed texts of his works and the differing typefaces, illustrations and ornamental features show the author’s involvement with his work reflecting that he was an independent writer and not reliant on noble patrons.
The exhibition is curated by Professor Malcolm Baker, Distinguished Professor in the Department of History of Art at California University Riverside, USA, an eminent sculpture scholar who I warmly recall from his days at the V&A. The loans come from the Yale Center for British Art, with which this exhibition is a joint collaboration, and from other major collections including the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, National Portrait Gallery, British Library as well works from Waddesdon.
By the way if you thought like me you could not quote Pope? Well I am pretty sure that you will have come across these phrases written by him:
To err is human; to forgive, divine
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread