Lot 12
  • 12

Michael Rysbrack (1694-1770) English, circa 1722-1748

200,000 - 300,000 GBP
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Bust of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722)
  • white marble, on a white marble socle
  • Michael Rysbrack (1694-1770) English, circa 1722-1748
inscribed to the front of the socle: IOHANNES / DUX MARLBURIENSIS / S.R. Imperij Princeps &c / Angliae et Bataviae Libertatum / periclitantuim Assertor, / Galliae Triumphantis / Domitor et Flagellum / Germaniae ruentis Liberator / ac Tutamen. / Qui, per acerrimum Decenne Bellum /' Hostium copias Saepius aggressius, nunq: / non fudit, EorumqE oppida oppugnans / nunquam non expugnavit.
inscribed to the reverse of the socle: IOHN Duke of MARLBOROUGH / Prince of the Roman Empire, & ca. / The Rescuer of the Liberties of / ENGLAND and HOLLAND / when in most Imminent Danger, The Subduer and Scourge of FRANCE when in its Height of Power, The Deliverer and Protector of GERMANY, When at the Point of Ruin, Who through the whole course, of A Ten Years Vigorous War, In Repeated Attacks, Upon The Enemies, Armies and Continual Assaults upon their Strong Townes, Never once fail'd of Success.


Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset (1662-1748), Northumberland House, London;
by descent to Algernon Seymour, 7th Duke of Somerset (1684-1750), Northumberland House, London,
by descent to Elizabeth Percy (née Seymour), 1st Duchess of Northumberland (1716-1776), Northumberland House, London;
by descent to George Percy, 5th Duke of Northumberland (1778-1867), Syon House, Middlesex;
thence by descent.


London, Northumberland House, until circa 1874;
Middlesex, Syon House, 1866-2004;
London, The Royal Academy of Arts, English Taste in the 18th century from Baroque to Neo-Classic, 1955-1956, no. 37


Inventory of Charles Duke of Somerset's Goods at Northumberland House, 23 March 1748/49 (Long Room) 'A marble Bust of his Grace the late Duke of Marlborough' (The Archives of the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle Sy.H.IV.1.c);
Inventory of Northumberland House, 1786 (Prayer Room) 'A Marble Bust of John Duke of Marlborough on a pedestal, valued at 5.5.0.' (Alnwick Sy.H.VI.2.d);
M. I. Webb, Michael Rysbrack, London, 1954, p. 94 and 95;
English Taste in the 18th century from Baroque to Neo-Classic, exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1955, p. 33, no. 37;
N. Penny, Catalogue of European Sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum 1540 to the Present Day, vol. iii, Oxford, 1992, p. 155, no. 566;  
I. Roscoe, 'A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660-1851', New Haven and London, 2009, p.1085, no.151


Overall the condition of the bust is very good. There is minor dirt and wear to the surface, in particular dirt to the crevices in the hair and wreath. There are a few faint pencil marks, including one to the proper left cheek. There are some minor splashes of paint, including to the proper left shoulder. There are a few small naturally occurring inclusions, including to the drapery on the proper left side of the body. There is some minor veining consistent with the material, in particular to the chin and neck, and there are some small minerals visible in the bottom lip. There are some small chips, in particular to the bottom edge of the bust at the front and to the edges of the arm drapery. There is a larger loss to the back of the bust at the bottom left corner (truncation). There are various chips and abrasions to the edges and corners of the socle. There is some wear to the painted inscriptions on the socle in areas. The carving is executed with great proficiency; it is of excellent quality, particularly in the hair and wreath.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

This highly important bust of one of Britain’s great military heroes, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, is a new addition to the autograph oeuvre of Michael Rysbrack, the most celebrated British sculptor of the first half of the 18th century. Superbly carved, it is distinguished by an unbroken provenance stretching back to at least 1748, when it is recorded as having been in the possession of Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset, one of Marlborough’s political allies.

Rysbrack famously carved Marlborough’s tomb at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. One of the crowning glories of the English Baroque, it has been described as ‘an apotheosis of the great general in Roman military dress attended by his mourning family and by winged figures of Fame and Victory, either side of a sarcophagus’ (Roscoe, op. cit. p. 1077). The tomb was a collaboration between Rysbrack and the architect William Kent and was constructed between 1730 and 1733.

Rysbrack's Portrait Bust of Marlborough

Rysbrack’s bust of Marlborough falls into the category of his celebrated all’antica busts, in which the sitter is presented in the guise of a Roman, togate, with a laurel wreath threaded through his hair. This classicising model is believed to have been created before 1730, because a version was presented by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, to Oxford University in that year; it remained in the Bodleian Library until 1926, when it was transferred to the Ashmolean Museum, where it can still be viewed today (inv. no. WA 1926.32). Significantly, that bust has the same Latin inscription on the front of the socle as the present bust, also with an English translation to the reverse. George Vertue, Rysback’s close friend, records that the sculptor made two busts of Marlborough, one of which he describes as being ‘From the Life’ (Webb, op. cit., p. 95). Four other versions are known to have been made: a marble in the National Portrait Gallery, London (inv. no. NPG 2005) (formerly in the British Museum); one formerly in the collection of the Earls of Shaftsbury at Wimborne St Giles, Dorset; and a third, formerly in Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough’s personal collection at Wimbledon House, which she left to Francis, 2nd Earl of Godolphin and which was tragically destroyed by fire in 1789. The fourth is the present bust from Syon House. The Ashmolean bust has long been given to Rysbrack on the basis of its firm provenance, whilst the remaining marbles have been presumed to be Workshop versions, overseen to a greater or lesser extent by the master, with the present marble being the superior of the group; Webb describes it as ‘a good one’ (Webb, op. cit., p. 95).

The Syon bust is, however, unquestionably the superior marble, both in terms of quality and composition. The traditional assessment of Rysbrack’s busts of Marlborough ignores the fact that the Syon bust has a different, more elaborate and ultimately more accomplished composition than the Ashmolean marble, which, until now has been considered to be the progenitor of the group. The Ashmolean bust is noticeably shallower in the torso, and the Star of the Order of the Garter, adorning his left breast, looks as if it has been cut in two, its bottom half absent. These compositional weaknesses led Nicholas Penny to suggest that the bust may derive from Rysbrack’s figure of Marlborough on his tomb at Blenheim: ‘an abbreviation… of the sculptor’s full-length effigy of the Duke’ (Penny, op. cit., p. 155). Whilst Penny’s suggestion does not accord with Rysbrack’s working practice, it is interesting to note that, like on the tomb, in the Ashmolean marble the Duke looks upwards to the Heavens, his head sharply angled to the dexter. In the Syon marble, Rysbrack’s sitter adopts a more natural pose. Whilst Marlborough still turns to the dexter, the angle is less acute, and, instead of gazing upwards, the Duke looks out onto the horizon.

There are also clear physiognomic differences between the Ashmolean and Syon busts: the former has a leaner, more skeletal, face, with a more angular nose. Anatomically, the Syon bust is much more sophisticated. Marlborough has a broader neck, which perfectly balances his prominent jowls, whilst his facial features, notably the nose, are softened. However, the most obvious difference is found in the eyes, which are incised in the Ashmolean bust, but left blank in the present marble (like a memorial). A further development is seen in the armour. In the Syon version Rysbrack has deepened the torso and has added Roman leather strap sleeves, which elongate the shoulders, giving the sitter more presence, together with an added sense of classical authenticity. The superior level of attention to detail in this bust culminates in the addition of one of Rysbrack’s characteristic, exquisitely carved, Medusa heads at the centre of the breastplate.

Given its superiority in composition and execution, it seems probable that the Syon bust is a finely-tuned reworking of the Ashmolean marble; essentially a second type. We know that the Ashmolean marble must have been made before 1730, because of the details of the Oxford University bequest. The process of refining earlier models is also consistent with Rysbrack’s working method. His 1736 terracotta Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) in the Royal Collection (inv. no. 45101), for example, is a more elaborate reworking of his earlier bust of the same subject made for Stowe possibly as early as 1726. There are also numerous stylistic affinities between the Syon marble and several busts of contemporary figures dressed in cuirass’ with classical drapes, dating to the 1730s, and therefore later than the Ashmolean bust: compare, for example, with his bust of King William III, dating to around 1736 (discussed below). It is, of course, possible that the present marble may itself be the progenitor of the rest of the group, with the Ashmolean and NPG marbles simply being lesser or Workshop versions, loosely following a successful commission. The NPG marble, which broadly follows the same composition as the present bust, is markedly less refined and is certainly likely to be Workshop.

The observation that Rysbrack’s busts of Marlborough fall into two related but distinct types might explain Vertue’s mention of the sculptor making two busts of the Duke, one of which was from life (the writer was probably referring to two autograph models: the Ashmolean type and the Syon type). It is probable that one of the busts, either the Ashmolean or the Syon version, was made as early as 1722, when the Duke was still alive, and when Rysbrack carved a marble bust of Charles, 3rd Earl of Sunderland for Blenheim (still in situ; see Roscoe, op. cit., p. 1084). As was his working method, the sculptor would first have modelled his subject in clay, before converting the resultant life-size model into marble.

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough’s bust of her husband is likely to have taken the same form as the Syon marble. Fortunately, we know from her will that she left two busts to Lord Godolphin: the Marlborough, and a bust of the 1st Earl of Godolphin, which Webb suggests was its pendant (Webb, op. cit., p. 96). Significantly this marble, which is considered to be autograph Rysbrack (Roscoe, op. cit., p. 1085) and is now in the Spencer collection at Althorp House, Northamptonshire, has precisely the same type of socle as the Syon bust. The front of the socle is likewise inscribed with a Latin eulogy in a similar typeface. This is an important observation, because this design of socle appears to be relatively rare in Rysbrack’s oeuvre; both the Ashmolean and NPG busts have plainer socles without the arched sides seen in the present sculpture. Furthermore, both the Godolphin and the present bust have the same unincised eyes, giving both of them a memorialising aspect. Another important point to note is that Godolphin turns to the sinister, and would therefore function effectively as a pendant to Marlborough, as Webb suggests. Godolphin also likewise sports a complete Garter Star and the same leather strap sleeves, which elongate his torso. It could therefore be the case that the present model was intended to form a pendant with the Godolphin bust, and that this may have happened before or after the creation of the Ashmolean marble.

Rysbrack and the all’antica mode

Michael Rysbrack was the first 18th-century British sculptor to successfully represent his sitters all’antica, in the style of the ancient Romans. His earliest classicising marble bust, Daniel Finch, 2nd Earl of Nottingham and 7th Earl of Winchilsea (1647-1730) in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (inv. no. A.6-1999), was described by Margaret Whinney as being ‘a landmark of English sculpture (and indeed probably unique in the Europe of its day)… There can be no doubt that it is a novel and deliberate attempt at portraiture in the Roman manner, and that it is at first sight both convincing and successful’ (Whinney, op. cit., pp. 165-168). 

In the present bust, the superb passages of carving in the elaborate sash, draped across Marlborough’s chest, are reminiscent of the multiple folds of cloth, suspended from Finch’s shoulders in the classical manner. Marlborough, though, is presented in armour in the guise of a triumphant Roman military leader, befitting his position as a seasoned General. It is interesting to note the correspondences between the reverses of both the Finch and the Syon bust. Typical of Rysbrack’s approach, the back has been carved out and smoothly polished, with overhanging shoulders. Note how the resultant arch at the back of Finch is likewise not fully symmetrical, as the sitter’s right shoulder is pushed backwards as his head twists to the dexter. In both busts, Rysbrack has lavished attention on the supposedly unseen details at the back. The laurel branches, at the back of Marlborough’s head, tied with bands of ribbon, are a particularly beautiful detail, which evidence superb undercutting. Both the laurels, and the wonderful Medusa head, with its hair of writhing snakes, compare very closely with Rysbrack’s circa 1736 bust of King William III in the Yale Center for British Art (inv. no. B1977.14.27), which also has a similar construction at the back. Medusa heads are characteristic of Rysbrack’s finest busts of men presented in armour all’antica.

The Sculptor: Michael Rysbrack (1694-1770)

Flemish by birth, Michael Rysbrack arrived in London in 1720, having trained under Michiel van der Voort I in Antwerp. He worked for many years with the celebrated architect James Gibbs, collaborating on numerous important funerary commissions, including one for a pair of figures of the muses Clio and Euterpe for the tomb of the poet Matthew Prior. Flanking a bust of Prior by the great sculptor to the French royal court, Antoine Coysevox, these elegant statues launched Rysbrack’s reputation. The British public were captivated by the Fleming’s inventiveness and soon he could count Lord Burlington, Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham, and, of course, Sarah, 1st Duchess of Marlborough, amongst his most loyal patrons. Sarah Churchill’s patronage led him to create one of his most important tombs, that of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim, as well as busts of both the Duke and Duchess, and a life-size statue of Queen Anne. Rysbrack’s greatest public commission was his equestrian statue of King William III in Queen Square Bristol of 1733-1736, which he won in the face of younger, and increasingly fashionable, competition from Peter Scheemakers. Important works by Rysbrack can be found in many of the world’s leading museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Sitter: John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722)

John Churchill began his career as a mere Page in the Stuart royal court, serving James, Duke of York (later King James II), who introduced him to military service. After years of training, he quickly established his reputation as a first class soldier by suppressing the Monmouth Rebellion, in which the illegitimate son of King Charles II, James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, had sought to whip up insurrection against the newly crowned James II. Despite this loyalist victory, Churchill quickly switched allegiances, aiding William of Orange to seize the English throne; he was subsequently rewarded with the Earldom of Marlborough. It was, however, under Queen Anne that Marlborough rose to become one of the most powerful men in Europe. As Captain-General of British forces during the Wars of the Spanish Succession, he secured stunning victories over his enemies at the battles of Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708) and Malplaquet (1709). His reputation was such that Queen Anne personally rewarded him by building Blenheim Palace, and Churchill commanded considerable influence in British politics for much of the rest of his life. His wife, Sarah Churchill, became one of the most influential and controversial women in 18th-century Britain. Her close friendship with Queen Anne fuelled the jealously of her rivals and eventually led to her family’s temporary self-imposed exile. On the death of her husband, she was said to be one of the richest women in Europe.

The Commission: Sarah Churchill, 2nd Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744) and Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset (1662-1748)

Given Sarah Churchill’s patronage of Rysbrack, her obsession with her husband’s memory and her recorded bequest of a bust of Marlborough to Oxford University, it seems entirely possible that she may have presented the Syon bust to Charles, Duke of Somerset as a personal gift. Such a gesture should not be seen as surprising. Sarah frequently presented her favourites with sculptural gifts and she is recorded as leaving both a bust of her husband and another of the 1st Earl of Godolphin, her close confident, to the 2nd Earl of Godolphin in her will. She grew increasingly close to the Duke of Somerset in the last decades of her life – partly as he was trying to court her following the death of his first wife - and so it is entirely plausible that she would have given him such a gift. Furthermore, Webb notes that it is probable that the Duchess forbade signatures on her commissions, as they do not appear on her husband’s tomb (Webb, op. cit., p. 95). Whilst it is true that Rysbrack rarely signed or dated his sculptures before about 1738, this is a point worth noting in the case of the present unsigned bust. Conversely, numerous of the busts she commissioned exhibit lengthy inscriptions of the type appearing on the socle of the Syon bust (Kenworthy-Browne, op. cit.).

Charles, Duke of Somerset was himself, for much of his life, a political ally of Marlborough. It is consequently equally possible that Somerset commissioned the bust of his old friend from Rysbrack himself, perhaps through his close relationship with Sarah Churchill. Whatever the exact circumstances of the commission, he is definitively recorded as having the bust in his possession at Northumberland House by 1748.

J. Kenworthy-Browne, 'Portrait Busts by Rysbrack', National Trust Studies 1980 (1979), 67; R. Williams and K. Eustace. "Rysbrack." Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. online edn., [http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T074782pg2, accessed 11 May 2014]; K. Eustace, ‘Rysbrack, (John) Michael (1694–1770)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn., May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/24427, accessed 11 May 2014]

Sotheby's would like to thank Katharine Eustace FSA, author of Michael Rysbrack, sculptor, 1694-1770, for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.