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In Handel’s bedroom – with images of Handel’s statues in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and Westminster Abbey and above all the white marble bust of Handel – the creator of these art works is very much present; it is the French-born sculptor Louis-Francois Roubiliac, who came to London in 1730.
When you enter Handel’s bedroom, on your right you find a mezzotint by David Martin based on an oil painting by the Flemish painter Adrian Carpentiers. It shows the sculptor at work on a statuette of his Shakespeare statue. Touching the eye of the figure with a modelling tool, his head covered by the fanciful loose head-dress affected by poets and artists of the period, white shirt open at the neck, left sleeve undone. The statuette he is working on is in fact the terracotta model of his statue of Shakespeare commissioned by Garrick, now in the V&A. In 1758, the life-size marble statue of Shakespeare was installed in David Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare at Hampton near Twickenham. Bequeathed by the actor to the British Museum, it is now at the British Library. At the time, it was one of the most celebrated statues, showing the playwright in the act of inspired composition, just like Handel in the earlier Vauxhall statue.
Roubiliac was born 1702 in Lyons, in 1720 we find him in Dresden, where he worked for Balthasar Permoser, the sculptor responsible for the rich baroque decoration of the Zwinger. Roubiliac received some more training in Paris with Nicholas Couston and came to London in 1730, where he first worked for the sculptor Henry Cheere. He moved in Huguenot circles, married in 1735 in St. Martin Orgar, a Huguenot church. It was Henry Cheere who introduced his assistant Roubiliac to the proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens, Jonathan Tyers, who commissioned the Handel statue for his pleasure garden. The statue caused a sensation and unusually, the work was celebrated not only on account of its subject but also for the ‘finish’d beauties of the sculptor’s hand’. It was praised in poems, one dedicated to Tyers (called “To the master of Vaux-hall Gardens, on his employing the ingenious Mr. Roubillac to carve the statue of Mr. Handel”) went so far as to claim that: “when times remote dwell on Roubillac’s name / They’ll still be just to thee who gave him fame.”
The statue of Handel established Roubiliac’s reputation. He employed a diverse visual vocabulary, had had his Baroque training, but became the chief exponent of the rococo style in Britain. His monuments and busts show a remarkable feeling for character, are full of movement, varied in design and just exquisite.
I had a look at Roubiliac’s oevre and what is remarkable for the time is that his portrait busts were predominantly of writers, professionals, artists and creative figures, those associated with the St. Martin’s Lane Academy (Hogarth, Hayman) or the Italian Opera. It is intriguing to know that he made a bust of Farinelli and one Senesino. The Met in NYC has got the Senesino terracotta model, but the actual marble bust is lost.
Roubiliac received several commissions for large funerary monuments in country churches and in Westminster Abbey, but he associated mainly with writers, fellow artists and philosophers. There are several wonderful busts of Alexander Pope by Roubiliac and of course the statue of Isaac Newton at Trinity College, Cambridge, completed in 1755. Described by contemporaries as the “noblest of all our English statues. There is an air of nature, and a loftiness of thought about it, which no other artist has in this country, I suspect, reached. You cannot imagine anything grander in sentiment, and the execution is every way worthy of it.” Later praised by Wordsworth in The Prelude as the “marble index of a mind for ever Voyaging through strange seas of Thought alone”.
Roubiliac not only made a terracotta bust of his friend Hogarth, now on display in the NPG, but also a terracotta model of Trump, Hogarth’s pug. Porcelain figures of Trump were produced by the Chelsea Porcelain factory and Wedgewood made some versions of it. Roubiliac’s terracotta Trump remained with Hogarth’s widow until her death in 1790, but is now lost.
He was friends with Thomas Hudson, in fact his terracotta model for the Handel Vauxhall statue was owned by Hudson. At the age of 50 the two of them visited Italy – on a belated Grand Tour. We know that from James Northcote, the assistant of Reynolds who writes in The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds about Reynolds’ trip to Italy.
“on his return to England by the way of France, and took the road over Mount Cenis, upon which mountain he very unexpectedly met his old master, Hudson, in company with Roubiliac the famous sculptor, both going to pay a short visit to Rome.” A gathering: the three artists on top of the mountain in France.
Contemporary comments and I think also the portrait by Adrien Carpentiers make clear, Roubiliac was an animated and cultivated man, much liked by his fellow artists and remembered for his wit as well as his passion for his own creative activity. Oliver Goldsmith knew Roubiliac and said that he was fond of music. Apparently, he retained a strong French accent. I imagine sparkling conversations between Handel and Roubiliac when Handel sat for his portrait or when they enjoyed a bottle of wine together. Handel was the A and Ω of Roubiliac’s career, because he came to fame with the Vauxhall statue and his very last piece was Handel’s monument in Westminster Abbey, which was erected in 1762, the year Roubiliac died. He was buried in St. Martins churchyard, his funeral attended by Reynolds, Hogarth, Hudson, Moser, Sandby, Hayman, Wilton, Bartolozzi, Cipriani, Chambers, Hudson – the who is who of British art at the time. But when I went to look for his grave I had to learn that it is not there anymore – the area was damaged in the Blitz 1940.