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1774 Sculpture and Britishness

In August 1774, Ozias Humphry, then in Rome, received a letter from Henry Spicer, Secretary of the Society of Artists of Great Britain. Spicer wrote to summarise news from the last few months and informed Humphry that: “the Royal academy made a very Splendid apearance [sic] & by far the best they have had since there [sic] first institution…a most Capital collection indeed.”1 Most critics, however, were less enthused. They felt the Royal Academy’s sixth exhibition still lacked anything resembling a credible British School, least of all in the field of historical art, where it was most eagerly sought as the ornament of a great imperial nation since the king’s entire purpose in founding his Academy and its attendant schools was to foster a generation of historical painters. The critics grew impatient. The London Chronicle commented on the works of three Academicians only in 1774—Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Francis Rigaud, and Benjamin West—because they exhibited histories, while everything else in the exhibition was “either portraits, landscapes, views, or, if they contain anything historical, are founded upon recent and well-known incidents”, so did “not stand in need of any illustration.”2

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It was against this backdrop that Joseph Nollekens and John Bacon both exhibited marble busts of the king. These busts represented the emergence of a new generation of sculptors and offered not simply a contrast between the relative merits of two rival sculptors, but in some sense also touched upon the heart of George III’s project to promote the glory of imperial Britain through the fine arts.

Joseph Nollekens had returned from his studies in Rome in 1771. He rapidly established himself as Britain’s pre-eminent portrait sculptor, save perhaps for Joseph Wilton (though the latter was then retreating from the portrait business to focus almost exclusively on funerary monuments). Nollekens was therefore a natural choice for the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce when it commissioned a classicising bust of George III in 1773, the one shown at the Academy the following year. Nollekens represented the king with his own hair in luxurious curls, clad in Roman cuirass armour with pteruges on his proper right shoulder and draped in the imperial paludamentum, which allegedly cost Nollekens great pains (Fig. 1).3

Where Nollekens’s bust was ancient in style, John Bacon’s bust of the king, shown in the same exhibition, was robustly modern, representing the king in his robes of state (Fig. 2). Dr William Markham, Preceptor to the Prince of Wales, and Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, commissioned the bust for his College, where it still remains. The critics were far from unanimous in their judgement of the two busts, one for an improving learned society, the other for an Oxford college. Walpole thought Nollekens’s bust “indifferent” but found Bacon’s “fine”. One critic judged Bacon’s to be inferior to that of Nollekens’ in resemblance but not in execution:

This piece of Sculpture [Bacon’s] is very highly finished, and though not so great a likeness of the King as the Bust by Mr. Nollikens [sic], does great credit to the Artist, from the delicate manner in which it is executed.4

The Morning Chronicle emphasised the dignity of Bacon’s representation even if he had flattered too much: “A Bust of his Majesty, in marble—The air of his head has style and dignity; but the likeness, though strong, is rather too youthful for his Majesty at present.”5 Despite these reservations, on the following day, the same newspaper declared unreservedly that Bacon was the clear victor in the contest between the two sculptors: “We have already spoke of a bust of his Majesty in this exhibition, done by Mr. Bacon, which is far superior to the above, both in likeness and execution, Mr. Nollekens having failed exceedingly in the former.”6 The relative merits of the two sculptors in the finishing of their busts was a matter of keen interest to these critics; indeed, they both pointed towards a new departure in British portrait sculpture. The extravagant surface effects favoured by Roubiliac or Wilton were eschewed by both sculptors, especially Nollekens for whom finishing was not a forte and, besides, his classicising format required a general uniformity of finish. Bacon’s bust had an extreme delicacy and refinement in the cutting and polishing of the stone that was quite unlike Nollekens’s bust yet retained an overall sobriety, which was interpreted as “dignity”. Both sculptors embraced a self-conscious restraint in cutting their stone, which implied some kind of reformation in taste adopted by these new young sculptors. And it was Bacon’s representation that George III himself selected to project his imperial dignity at home and abroad by commissioning a version for Queen Charlotte, one for the Prince of Wales, and another to be sent to the University of Göttingen. The bust indeed proved critical in establishing the young John Bacon’s professional fortunes.

The king’s apparent preference for Bacon over Nollekens was as much a moral as an aesthetic judgement and was a reflection of the king’s interventionist approach to the fine arts with the aim of fashioning a British School of artists worthy of a great imperial nation. Bacon’s character, like his work, evidently appealed to George III as exemplary in this regard. Bacon was sober in appearance and demeanour, conservative and loyalist in temperament, moral in his private and professional conduct, and devout in religion; that is, he was precisely the kind of man the king admired and who embodied the reformation of manners he had so eagerly promoted since the beginning of his reign. Bacon’s biographer recalled him as being “a truly affectionate Husband, a tender Parent, a steady Friend, a loyal Subject, an honest Man, and a real Christian.”7 He was also unremittingly British. The exchange recorded with the king when he sat for his bust is especially revealing. George III asked Bacon if he had trained outside Britain. When Bacon revealed that he had never left England, the king replied: “‘I am glad of it—you will be the greater honour to it.’”8 Here Bacon can be contrasted to Nollekens. Nollekens was British-born but his father was Flemish; he had trained with the Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers, and had then finished his education in Rome under an Italian, Bartolomeo Cavaceppi. And in addition to these Continental credentials, Nollekens lacked the personal attributes which the king admired. Where Bacon was known for his sobriety and his piety, indeed, he was mocked for it by his fellow artists, Nollekens was a Catholic and not even a devout one—a circumstance the king noted when Nollekens failed to keep his summons to Buckingham House on a feast day, and then discovered the sculptor had not even been to Mass but had gone to see the lions at the Tower instead.9 Nollekens also had a reputation for miserliness, his personal habits were uncourtly, and he became highly displeasing to the king. He could be garrulous irrespective of the rank of his sitter and when George III sat to Nollekens, the sculptor spat on the clay to keep it wet. Cunningham and Smith tell us that Bacon, by contrast, took pains to bring a silver syringe and a basin of water when the king sat to him so that he could wet his clay without offending royal delicacy by using his own saliva. In short, while the two busts in 1774 offered new approaches to sculptural portraits, one represented cosmopolitanism, the other native achievement. Nollekens’ here fell short. His all antica bust and his personal identity lacked Bacon’s more solidly British credentials and he never earned the favour of the court. Bacon’s modern bust and his person, by contrast, were models of a new ideal of British self-sufficiency and exemplary of a new national school of sculpture that found all it needed within the British Isles.

  1. Ozias Humphry to Henry Spicer, 30 August 1774, Royal Academy of Arts, HU/2/14.↩︎

  2. The London Chronicle, 10 May 1774.↩︎

  3. John Thomas Smith, Nollekens and His Times: A Life of that Celebrated Sculptor and Memoirs of Several Contemporary Artists, from the Time of Roubiliac, Hogarth and Reynolds to that of Fuseli, Flaxman and Blake (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1895), vol. 1, 91.↩︎

  4. Public Ledger, Dublin, 3 May 1774.↩︎

  5. The Morning Chronicle, 26 April 1774.↩︎

  6. The Morning Chronicle, 27 April 1774.↩︎

  7. Richard Cecil, Memoirs of John Bacon, Esq. R.A.: With Reflections Drawn from a Review of his Moral and Religious Character (London: L.B. Seeley, 1822), 40.↩︎

  8. Cecil, Memoirs of John Bacon, Esq. R.A., 7.↩︎

  9. J.T. Smith, Nollekens and His Times, vol. 1, 66.↩︎

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