Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and the Portrait Bust in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Already frequently used to represent authors in antiquity, portrait busts became the most familiar and widely disseminated images celebrating famous writers during the eighteenth century. No literary figure was more esteemed than the poet Alexander Pope, and his sculpted portraits exemplify the celebration of literary fame at a period when authorship was being newly conceived, and the portrait bust was enjoying new popularity. This exhibition explored the convergence between authorship, portraiture, and the sculpted image in particular by bringing together a wide range of works that foregrounded Pope’s celebrity status.

The exhibition’s focus was on a series of busts made in Britain by the French émigré sculptor Louis François Roubiliac, including signed and documented versions spanning the years 1738 to 1760. Among the most compelling and iconic images of the poet, the early versions of Roubiliac’s bust were likely to have been made for Pope’s close friends and served to articulate those important friendships. The exhibition also featured a number of adaptations and copies of Roubiliac’s model, which was widely replicated. In bringing together autograph busts and copies, the exhibition explored not only the complex relationship between these various versions but the hitherto little understood processes of sculptural production and replication in eighteenth-century Britain.

Complementing the sculptures of Pope were busts of other sitters with whom Pope’s image was associated; a selection of painted portraits of the poet by artists such as Jonathan Richardson the Elder, Jean-Baptiste van Loo, and Sir Godfrey Kneller; and 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 included was little-known material about W. K. Wimsatt, Sterling Professor of English at Yale, who in the 1960s, along with other important Yale literary scholars, notably Maynard Mack, helped make the university a major center for the study of eighteenth-century literature (and Pope in particular). Wimsatt spent twenty-five years researching the poet’s portraits, an achievement celebrated in this exhibition.

View works from the collection included in this exhibition here.


Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and the Portrait Bust in Eighteenth-Century Britain was co-organized by the Center and Waddesdon Manor (The Rothschild Collection), where it was on display from June 18 to October 26, 2014. It has been curated by Malcolm Baker, Distinguished Professor of the History of Art at the University of California, Riverside, and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The organizing curator at the Center was Martina Droth, Associate Director of Research and Education, and Curator of Sculpture; and at Waddesdon, Juliet Carey, Curator of Paintings and Sculpture.

Top image
Fame and Friendship: Pope, Roubiliac, and the Portrait Bust in Eighteenth-Century Britain installation, Yale Center for British Art, photo by Richard Caspole