Handel was at the zenith of his career when Jonathan Tyers, proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens, London's fashionable pleasure grounds, chose to commission Roubiliac to produce a statue of the great composer (completed 1738, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, inv. no. A.3&A-1965). The commission led Roubiliac to create one of his most innovative sculptural portraits, a full-size statue of the musician, seated, wearing informal garb and playing Apollo's lyre; a unique fusion of the contemporary, the casual and the mythological. Roubiliac's statue was a visual manifestation of Tyers' desire to turn Vauxhall Gardens from a place of disrepute to the playground of polite London society. The statue received acclaim, with Tyers being praised in a 1738 poem published in the London Magazine as a latter day Maecenas:
When times remoted dwell on Roubillac's [sic]
They'll still be just to thee who gave him fame
('I.W.', London Magazine, June 1738, as quoted in Baker, op. cit., p. 257)
The success of the statue, thanks in part to the sitter's considerable fame, cemented Roubiliac's reputation as the foremost sculptor active in Britain in the first half of the 18th century, alongside John Michael Rysbrack (1694-1770). This acclaim is likely to have been one of the factors behind the genesis of the sculptor's marble bust of Handel in the Royal Collection, which is dated 1739 (inv. no. RCIN 35255). This bust, which has become one of the defining portraits of the composer, represents him again wearing an a cultivated gentleman's soft cap, in contemporary dress, his outer garment vigorously pulled in opposite directions, as seen in the sculptor's bust of Isaac Ware (circa 1741, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, inv. no. 1987.75). Handel was greatly favoured by the Hanoverian monarchy, having composed the music for the coronation of George II in 1727. Whilst the Royal Collection bust was given to George III by Handel's protégé John Christopher Smith the Younger, circa 1772, it may have been commissioned by Handel himself, as Smith inherited many of the composer's possessions. The terracotta model for the bust is in the Foundling Museum (Wilson, op. cit., p. 19, fig. 11; Baker, op. cit., p. 257).
Upon Handel's death in 1759, Roubiliac was to execute the monument to the composer at Westminster Abbey (1759-1761). It was commissioned by the musician's executor and erected high up in a screen in the South Transept. The monument shows Handel alert, listening to the heavenly sounds emanating from the harp played by an angel above. The similarities between the portrait from the monument and the present bust are striking, notably the informal dress and the bared head. The composer's face, which is very close to that of the present bust, may have been carved after a plaster face mask in a private collection. Wilson has suggested that this mask is contemporary to the 1739 Royal Collection bust, given its similarity to the face in the Vauxhall statue (although a death mask by Roubiliac is recorded; Wilson, op. cit., pp. 14 and 16, fig. 5).
The present bust finds its closest correlation, however, with a terracotta bust of Handel at Grimsthorpe Castle, which was first published in the 1980's, and has since been given to Roubiliac (Baker, op. cit., p. 259). There is a demonstrable similarity between the two busts, notably the veristic treatment of the face, with lines under the eyes, heavy eyebrows, and protruding lower lip, as well as the near identical arrangement of the drapery, with unbuttoned waistcoat, and tassels brushing up against the left lapel of the outer garment. Wilson has identified marks left by a rasp (a tool used for removing clay during modelling) to the reverse of the bust, indicating that it was modelled and not cast. Wilson posits that the Grimsthorpe bust may therefore be the original model for the present bust (op. cit., pp. 16-21). He argues convincingly that the face itself was cast from a mask (probably that discussed above), as is evidenced by the presence of a clear line around the visage, and fissures to the reverse, explaining the remarkable likeness achieved in the Grimsthorpe and present busts. It is possible that the terracotta was the one in Roubiliac's posthumous sale on 14 May 1762 (lot 75, 'Mr Handell'), though, as Bindman and Baker noted in 1995, '[e]arly saleroom references to busts of Handel by Roubiliac are difficult to relate to any particular bust' (op. cit.). Another bust of Handel in the Royal Collection, which differs greatly in its execution to the present bust and has a deeper, more rounded, truncation, follows the same composition, but is today given to John Bacon (1740-1799) or his son John Bacon the Younger (1777-1859) (inv. no. 11909; Wilson, op. cit., p. 22; Baker, op. cit., p. 259, note 63).
The present bust of Handel exhibits superb carving in the face. Note the overhanging eyebrows and the softened creases in the flesh emanating from the mouth, as well as the lines encircling the ocular orbits. The much more sketchy treatment of the drapery (note, for example, the tassels), together with the impressionistic rendering of the hair, would suggest that the bust is unfinished. To the reverse, the marble from the head has been excavated, with the top of the scalp reattached. As Wilson has argued, this may have been done after the bust had left Roubiliac's workshop to reduce the weight of the bust so as to place it into an architectural setting or above an organ, as was the fashion in the 18th century (Wilson, op. cit., pp. 23-24). This view is given credence by the presence of a metal hook to the reverse of the bust.
The present bust has a distinguished provenance, having been in the collection of Alfred Morrison (1821-1897), famed for his unparalleled holdings of autograph letters and manuscripts, including one from the sculptor Roubiliac himself. His homes, at Fonthill (William Beckford's estate) and 16 Carlton House Terrace, were filled with important objets d'art and sculpture, including a marble bust of Voltaire by Houdon. The Voltaire was mentioned by George Henry Lewes whilst on a visit to Carlton House with his partner the novelist George Eliot: 'Called on the Morrisons to see Houdon's bust of Voltaire & their pictures. Bored by being shown all their splendours & rarities: each the finest in the world' (as quoted in Wilson, op. cit., p. 25). Prior to its sale at Christie's in 1900, the present bust was recorded in Morrison's collection in the 1890 Handel entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, there described as being by Roubiliac; the attribution is likely to have been given by the then Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sir George Scharf, who was very familiar with Roubiliac's work (Wilson, op. cit., p. 25).
In terms of 18th century provenance, two tantalising sale records may refer to the present bust. The John Blackwood sale in 1778 included a lot described as: 'Roubiliac, marble busto of Handel, on a pedestal'. Given the unusual socle on the present bust, the word 'pedestal' may indicate that they are one and the same. A bust of Handel said to be by Roubiliac was in the collection of the musicologist John Stanley, in whose sale it was included at Christie's on 24 June 1786 (bought by a Mr Ashley). The catalogue describes: ‘A remarkable fine bust, exquisitely modell’d by Roubilliac, and carved wooden bracket’. The last reference, to a wooden bracket, is interesting given the likelihood that the excavation of the present bust indicates it was intended to be displayed high up. 'Mr Ashley' is almost certainly John Ashley (c.1734–1805), a gifted bassoonist and later (1803-4) Master of the Worshipful Company of Musicians. According to Brian W. Pritchard, ‘Ashley rose to prominence as assistant conductor at the 1784 commemoration of Handel in Westminster Abbey and was involved in the festivals of 1785, 1786, and 1787. Together with Samuel Harrison he revived the Lenten oratorios at Covent Garden Theatre in 1789, offering programmes (on Wednesday and Friday evenings) modelled on the successful repertory of the Handel festivals. Ashley assumed sole direction in 1793, and retained this position until his death' (op. cit.).
The sale of this important marble bust of Handel presents a rare opportunity to acquire an arresting 18th-century marble portrait of one of the greatest composers ever to have worked in Britain.
K. Esdaile, The Life and Works of Louis François Roubiliac, Oxford and London, 1928; D. Bindman and M. Baker, Roubiliac and the Eighteenth-Century Monument. Sculpture as Theatre, New Haven and London, 1995, 18, 30-31, 49, 62, 65-66, 68-69, 70-71, 80, 118, 121-122, 156, 233, 332, 378, 383, pls. 28, 37; D. Wilson, ''By Heaven Inspired'. A marble bust of Handel by Roubiliac rediscovered', The British Art Journal, vol. x, no. 1, Spring/Summer, 2009, pp. 14-29; M. Baker, The Marble Index. Roubiliac and Sculptural Portraiture in Eighteenth-century Britain, New Haven and London, 2014, pp. 249-261; Brian W. Pritchard, ‘Ashley, John (c.1734–1805)’,Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/760, accessed 26 May 2015]
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