Seeing Pope as Rysbrack saw him

IT was another, and later, 18th century poet -- not Alexander Pope -- who observed: ``O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us!'' Pope's perceptive wit does not, whatever his other virtues, seem to have been always turned on himself (as it was on others) in the spirit of Burns's entreaty. The National Portrait Gallery in London has numerous portraits (mostly paintings) of the Augustan poet. They show him at different ages and stages, but none depicts him with the realism, or the actual distinction, that Michael Rysbrack's bust does. The bust has recently also entered the Portrait Gallery Collection, purchased from the Athenaeum. This London club was given it in the 1860s. The need to raise funds for a new lease on its property at 107 Pall Mall forced a decision to part with its single most valuable treasure.

Pope himself would probably have been happier had it remained in the comparative privacy of the Athenaeum. Though evidently willing to be portrayed, he was always sensitive about his appearance (which had not been improved by sickness as a child) and he apparently took an immediate dislike to this Flemish-born sculptor's portrait. One biographer has somewhat simplistically suggested that this must mean it was a poor likeness. By contrast, a contemporary rather cattily observed that Pope hoped he would have been represented ``as a comely person'' but that ``Mr. Rysbrack, scorning to prostitute his Art, made a Bust so like him, that Pope returned it without paying for it.'' Horace Walpole, arbiter of taste in later 18th century England, was to state simply that Rysbrack's bust of Pope (which is dated 1730) was ``very like.''

Rysbrack (1694-1770), whose reputation is still growing as one of the most important and brilliant sculptors to work in England in the first half of the 18th century, seems likely to have made his original terra cotta model of Pope's head in 1725, five years after he came permanently to England from his native Antwerp. Instructions still exist which were written to Pope by the architect James Gibbs on how to find Rysbrack's workshop. The clay head presumably modeled then, however, no longer exists so far as is known.

It was as a modeler of clay that Rysbrack habitually and most comfortably worked, though he carved in the harder and more durable stone when asked to do so. Lord Oxford is thought to have commissioned the bust. Perhaps he owned first the terra cotta bust of Pope; but then he must have waited five years before ordering, or at least receiving, the marble version.

Rysbrack was an undoubted master of the portrait bust. He was frequently commissioned to make busts of the famous, though, unlike his Pope, they were often historical. His subjects included such names as Shakespeare, Milton, Locke, Bacon, Raleigh, Rubens, Ben Jonson, even King Alfred the Great. History was becoming a particularly popular study in this period, and the literate and wealthy wanted busts of great historical figures in their libraries. They also wanted some of contemporaries or near-contemporaries: Sir Isaac Newton, for example, or Pope.

Rysbrack's bust of Pope was popular enough for him to make later versions. He is known, for example, to have modeled a bust of the poet posthumously in terra cotta for Sir Edward Littleton, some 30 years after his first. In his fascinating correspondence with this patron, he writes: ``As for the Bust of Mr. Pope you must instruct me how to Dress it, because he is not in that antient Dress which the Others are, neither has he that character in his Face, Tho' as Great a Man.''

All the other busts ordered by Sir Edward were of historical figures. Rysbrack was scrupulous in obtaining as much authentic visual information about these personages as he could before portraying them. He studied old sculptures and engravings of them. With his classical training, he clearly aimed at the essence of a face, at the character somehow contained by the features, and not at a merely accurate portrayal of the features.

He tried to capture his subject's individuality. When he modeled a bust of Shakespeare he told his patron: ``I Assure (you) upon the Word of a Man, I thought of Nobody else when I did it.''

He apparently felt that Pope was different because he was a modern. The marble does not show him dressed, like the ``ancients,'' in period or ``Roman'' dress. And when he came to remodel the poet for Littleton in 1759, he wondered how best to make his portrayal of Pope consistent with the historical busts commissioned by the collector. The result is now (since 1932) in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

As M. I. Webb wrote in her study of Rysbrack, the Fitzwilliam terra cotta ``closely resembles the Athenaeum bust in facial appearance.'' Such closeness suggests that Rysbrack based this later bust directly on his earlier one -- which would certainly have been the obvious procedure.

It would have been the most authentic model available to him (and he is not likely, one imagines, to have turned to the bust of Pope made by his rival Roubiliac in 1738, fine though it is). But it appears that he did not use the Athenaeum marble itself. He used what might well have been the original (now lost) 1725 terra cotta ``model,'' borrowed for the purpose from its then owner.

The evidence for this is in a letter in reply to Littleton written April 7, 1761, where he says that ``the Bishop of Gloucester sent for the Model of Mr. Pope and I returned it soon after I had modelled the Bust.'' One wonders if the original terra cotta isn't still sitting dustily in some unvisited ecclesiastical attic in Gloucester. . . .

It is extraordinary, really, that Pope did not appreciate Rysbrack's work. As Margaret Whinney has commented, his sculpture ``perhaps more than the work of any other artist . . . reflects the taste of Augustan England.''

Neither ``purely classical'' nor ``purely Baroque'' she writes, his art ``used both Baroque and classical art as means of expression and combined them in a style at once idealistic and assured.''

The bust of Pope is, for all its modern dress, very classical in feel and is surprisingly similar to an early (and consciously ``Roman'') bust Rysbrack made of the Earl of Nottingham. Its classical plainness and directness, however, is still tempered by a sensitive appreciation of the human (part vulnerable, part trenchant) as well as the idealistic side of Pope's nature. It is a work that tells much about both sitter and sculptor.

In Margaret Whinney's words, what it conveys about its sitter is his ``high intellectual character . . .: this is Pope at his most noble and least frail.''

What it conveys about Rysbrack is well put by Katherine Eustace in her introduction to an exhibition of his work in Bristol in 1982:

``His work is very much an expression of himself, a man of wit, of order, elegance and balance.''

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