Exhibition at Yale Center for British Art offers a new perspective on eighteenth-century sculpture and fame

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Exhibition at Yale Center for British Art offers a new perspective on eighteenth-century sculpture and fame
Joseph Nickolls, Pope’s Villa, Twickenham, ca. 1755, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

NEW HAVEN, CONN.- Opening in February 2014, the Yale Center for British Art, in collaboration with Waddesdon Manor, will present an exhibition on the eighteenth-century literary fi gure and poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), whose sculpted portraits exemplified his fame at a time when the portrait bust was enjoying new popularity. Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and the Portrait Bust in Eighteenth-Century Britain will bring together paintings, sculptures, and materials that convey Pope’s celebrity status, highlighted by a series of eight busts by Louis François Roubiliac (1702-1762), the leading sculptor of the period, to explore questions of authorship, replication, and dissemination.

Frequently used in antiquity to represent and celebrate writers, the portrait bust became the most familiar way of lauding famous writers in the eighteenth century, as the concept of authorship was being newly conceived. The signed and documented versions of Roubiliac’s busts of Pope, which span the years from 1738 to 1760, are among the most fascinating and iconic images of the poet. These early versions of Roubiliac’s bust are likely to have been made for Pope’s close friends, serving to articulate those friendships that were so important to him. Further, the comparisons of these related versions, together with copies from the period in marble, plaster, and ceramic, will provide a unique and unprecedented opportunity to understand the role of replication and repetition in eighteenth-century sculptural practice.

Complementing the sculptures of Pope will be busts of other sitters with whom Pope’s image was associated, refl ecting the poet’s place in a developing literary canon, as well as a selection of painted portraits of the poet by artists such as Jonathan Richardson the Elder, Jean-Baptiste van Loo, and Sir Godfrey Kneller. Alongside these works will be a range of Pope’s printed texts. With their subtle changes in typography and their carefully planned illustrations and ornamental features, these early editions were produced under the watchful eye of Pope himself and were the outcome of the poet’s direct engagement with the materiality of the book and print.

Also presented will be lesser-known material about the Yale literary critic W. K. Wimsatt, who in the 1960s not only helped to make Yale a major center for the study of eighteenth-century literature (and Pope in particular), but spent twenty-fi ve years researching the poet’s portraits, an achievement celebrated in this exhibition. As Wimsatt recognized, the relationship between Pope’s private persona and public fame was complex and ambiguous. Pope proved adept at managing the two while gradually establishing himself as an independent author, no longer dependent upon the support of noble patrons. Throughout his career, he astutely managed the presentation of his own image and reputation through both his published works and his portraits, especially those by Roubiliac.

Among the busts by Roubiliac will be a terracotta model (ca. 1738) from the collection of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, England, and four marble pieces that he carved between 1738 and 1741. These busts have been assembled from a number of locations: the Center’s own collection; Temple Newsam House, Leeds Museums and Galleries; and the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead (formerly in the possession of the eighteenth-century actor David Garrick). Another, from a private collection, was made for Pope’s close friend, the brilliant young lawyer William Murray, later fi rst Earl of Mansfi eld, with whom the poet shared an enthusiasm for both the classics and the visual arts, particularly sculpture.

Also on view will be an earlier marble bust of Alexander Pope made in 1730 by the Anglo-Flemish sculptor John Michael Rysbrack (1694-1770), from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

When this exhibition travels to Waddesdon Manor, the core group of busts of Pope by Roubiliac and some of the contextual material from the Yale Center for British Art will remain the same, but there will be an additional selection of painted portraits, a different range of printed texts lent by the British Library, and material that will illustrate the reception of Pope and his works in France in keeping with Waddesdon’s superb French collections.

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