'By Heaven Inspired': a marble bust of Handel by Roubiliac rediscovered.

Author:Wilson, David
Position:George Frideric Handel, Louis Francois Roubiliac - Cover story

The 250th anniversary of the death of the German-born British Baroque composer, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), has been marked by the recent rediscovery of an important lost portrait of him in marble by the great 18th-century sculptor from France, Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62), who almost certainly arrived in England in 1730 and stayed there until his death. Roubiliac is particularly well known for his handling of marble, and his portrait busts and monuments are among the most outstanding works of European sculpture of the 18th century. While the bust (Pls 2, 3), which is published for the first time here, seems not to have been known to scholars working on Roubiliac, its existence had been recorded in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century: the absence of any published image of the bust before now may, however, have contributed to these references being overlooked. The bust depicts Handel bareheaded and incorporates in its socle (base) the epithet 'By Heaven Inspired'. The bust was based partly on a face mask of the musical genius that was once thought to have been taken, presumably, within hours of his death, but is more likely to have been taken in Handel's lifetime. Save for the figure of the composer on Roubiliac's marble monument to him in Westminster Abbey (Pl 1) and a plaster medallion profile portrait of Handel in the Sir John Soane Museum, (1) the portrayal of the composer bareheaded in the rediscovered marble bust differs from Roubiliac's other portraits of Handel, all of which depict the sitter in either a soft cap or a full wig.

In the mid 1980s John Mallet and Malcolm Baker identified a terracotta bust that is directly related to the rediscovered marble (although it had been argued that the terracotta was only a cast, presumably from a mould taken off an un-located model by Roubiliac), and while a white bust of Handel portrayed without a wig or cap had been recorded in the Royal Collection at Buckingham House (later Buckingham Palace) by William Pyne in 1819, neither its relationship to the terracotta bust nor its authorship was clear. It is now possible to state that the bust recorded by Pyne was not by the same sculptor who made the terracotta, and that the latter, far from being only a cast made from a mould, is in all probability the original model by Roubiliac for the rediscovered marble bust.

Roubiliac and Handel

The association between Roubiliac and Handel was probably the sculptor's most important professional relationship, and it was certainly his most enduring. It commenced with his statue of Handel for Vauxhall Gardens, 1738, which effectively launched Roubiliac's career as an independent sculptor following the extensive public praise the statue (Pl 4) received immediately upon its installation. (2) It ended with Roubiliac's monument to Handel, which was among the last major commissions Roubiliac received or accepted, finally being 'opened' in Westminster Abbey in July 1762, six months after the sculptor's death and more than three years after the death of Handel.

The monument was commissioned by Handel's executor who had been given discretion in the composer's Will to order a monument, although it is possible that Handel and Roubiliac had previously discussed its design. The monument was erected high up in a screen in the south transept of the Abbey, in the company mainly of divines and theologians, and not among the musicians on the other side of the south transept, 'perhaps a sign of Handel's reputation as a religious composer'. (3) David Bindman and Malcolm Baker have commented:

The 1738 statue for Vauxhall shows the composer as a passive and genial recipient of the music of the heavens emanating from Apollo's lyre, and much of the wit of the conception comes from the domestic languor of his attitude. The full-scale wall monument of 1761 (Westminster Abbey) also expresses the idea of heavenly reception through the body and mind as one, but this time Handel is an alert and aspiring figure intently drawing down the music of Messiah from the lyre-playing angel, who can also be read as a projection of his own devout and exultant thoughts ... the head seems to exist on a higher spiritual plane than the meticulously rendered but earth-bound body, as if inspiration has come suddenly, leaving the lower part of the body in a phase of action before the thought, came. (4) The head in the monument may well have been modelled with reference (possibly with some modifications) to the face mask (Pl 5), which originally had been thought to be a death mask, (5) leading to the suggestion that a terracotta bust of Handel, which is undoubtedly related to the rediscovered marble bust of the composer discussed here, was posthumous. (6) It has, however, recently been pointed out that the face in the mask is too young to be that of the composer at his death, and that it bears a remarkable similarity to the face of the composer in the Vauxhall monument made some 24 years earlier. (7) This raises the possibility that the terracotta and its associated marble bust of Handel were made during his lifetime, although there is a record from 1834 of Roubiliac having made a death mask of the composer. That mask, if it were ever actually taken, has not been located and no image of it exists, so there remains at least a possibility that the bust was based on a death mask.

In 1741 George Vertue, the 18th-century chronicler of the arts, recorded that 'Mr. Rubbilac Sculptor ... had Modelld from the Life several Busts of portraits extreamly like ... Mr. Isaac Ware Architect Mr Handel -&c. and several others'. (8) A marble bust of Handel in the Royal Collection (PI 7), which bears the inscription 'HANDEL / AETATIS SUAE 54 / MDCCXXXIX', is signed on the side of the support 'ROUBILIAC E', and depicts the composer in soft cap, was given to George III, together with a harpsichord and the majority of the composer's manuscripts, by J.C. Smith the Younger (1712-95), the composer, organist and conductor, who had been Handel's pupil and his amanuensis during the years of his blindness from 1752. (9)

Handel's association with the British Royal family began when he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover (the future George I) in 1710, and it strengthened in 1723 when he was appointed Composer to the Chapel Royal. His greatest Royal patron was, however, George III (1738-1820, ascended the Throne 1760), who admired the music of Handel above that of all other composers, and was in due course to be a prime promoter of the Handel Commemoration at Westminster Abbey in 1784. As Prince of Wales, George had often met the great composer, and Handel himself is said to have remarked of the young Prince, 'While that boy lives, my music will never want a protector'. (10)







In addition to the 1739 bust, Roubiliac produced a number of medallion portraits depicting a bewigged Handel in high relief, in both terracotta and bronze, and his posthumous sale catalogue records a number of these as well as plaster casts of, and moulds for, them. (11)

The parallels between the Handel monument in Westminster Abbey and Roubiliac's rediscovered marble bust of Handel are immediately apparent. In both cases, the composer is portrayed somewhat informally, bareheaded and without the soft cap that was usually placed on the head after the removal of the wig. Not only is the head on the bust very similar in its features to the head from the monument, its face 'a strong likeness of its original', (12) but it rests upon a socle shaped to resemble the base on which the full-scale figure of the composer in the monument stands. Moreover, the socle of the marble bust is inscribed 'By Heaven Inspired', possibly being intended to reflect Handel's suggestion that Messiah was the product of an inspiration of sorts ('I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God himself'), the words on the socle perhaps designed to perform a function not unlike that performed in the monument itself, where the positioning of Handel with the musical instruments, the score of the sacred Messiah open at the passage 'I know that my Redeemer liveth', and the harp-playing angel above dictating his musical composition, signify 'the divine inspiration of the Christian artist. Handel is shown as a man of faith rejoicing in the certainty of redemption. (13) Thus the inscription on the socle of the marble bust achieves the intention fulfilled in the monument, which is not only to portray Handel in his private persona, engaged merely in an act of composition, 'but in the personal experience of spiritual revelation.' (14) Even the lettering of the inscription for the base of the bust is carved in the same font used for that on the monument and possibly might be contemporaneous with it.


The terracotta bust discovered in the 1980s

The discovery by Mallet and Baker of the terracotta bust (Pl 8) at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Ancaster, was recorded in the 1985 catalogue of the exhibition on Handel at the National Portrait Gallery, London. albeit expressing some reservation in attributing the terracotta to Roubiliac, an attribution that was independently supported by Baker, (15) the exhibition catalogue noted:

The face bears a striking similarity to the death mask taken by Roubiliac while the form of the draperies ... may be compared with Roubiliac's contemporary bust of Joseph Wilton at the Royal Academy [Pl 9]. The likelihood is that this bust of Handel was made in Roubiliac's studio while he was working on the monument. (16) Given the more recent view that the face mask represents a much younger man than Handel at the time of his death, and that a cast of the face was incorporated in the terracotta bust, it can no longer be argued that it is more likely than not that...

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