The British Augustan Oligarchy in Portraiture: Michael Rysbrack and His Bust of the Earl of Orkney

By Wilson, David | British Art Journal, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The British Augustan Oligarchy in Portraiture: Michael Rysbrack and His Bust of the Earl of Orkney


Wilson, David, British Art Journal


Background

on 30 January 2009 Sotheby's New York sold an important, unsigned, marble bust (Pl 1) of George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney (1666-1737), by Michael Rysbrack (1694-1770). (1) The bust, now on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, was carved in London c1733. The bust is affixed to a circular waisted socle with a square base inscribed 'Georgius Comes D Orkney filius quintus Gulielmi Dux Hamiltoniae Aetatis sui 67 AD 1733' ('George Earl of Orkney fifth son of William Duke of Hamilton aged 67 1733').

In his portrait (Pl 2) painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller around 1704, probably some months after the Battle of Blenheim, in which Orkney took part, the dark and handsome lieutenantgeneral displays the Order of a Knight of the Thistle, which had been bestowed on him in February 1704. Orkney was a general serving under John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, in the War of the Spanish Succession (17011714). In that war a number of European powers, including Austria, England, Portugal and the Dutch Republic, combined to stop a possible unification of the Kingdoms of Spain and Dance under a single Bourbon monarch, which would have upset the European and colonial/imperial balance of power. (2) The war is associated with the military leadership of figures such as the Duc de Villars, the Jacobite Duke of Berwick, Prince Eugene of Savoy, and Marlborough, but Orkney was instrumental in some of the war's greatest military successes and deserves to be much better known as a first-rate general and military strategist. (3) He also personally served George I and late in life was the first British military officer accorded the rank of field marshal. (4)

In his bust by Rysbrack, Orkney is depicted as a Roman military commander, (5) with close-cropped curly hair and furrowed brow, his breast plate (cuirass) partially covered with a heavy cloak attached with a clasp on his right shoulder. In her monograph on Rysbrack (Pl 3) in 1954, Marjorie Webb listed the busts by him that had been recorded by the 18thcentury chronicler of the arts George Vertue and by others, and noted those whose location was then unknown. (6) In his 1732 Notebook Vertue included a list of more than 60 busts by Rysbrack, including 'Ld. Orkney a Moddel'. (7) Mrs Webb had recorded this bust as missing. (8) Two years later, in 1956, in a short article in Country Life magazine, she identified the present bust of Lord Orkney as the marble version of the model recorded by Vertue, (9) which remains untraced. Before its translation to marble, the bust was presumably first modelled in clay from life and then fired in a kiln to produce terracotta, as was Rysbrack's custom, and that procedure seems to be indicated by Vertue's notes. In her article in Country Life, Mrs Webb recorded that the marble bust was in the possession of one John Teed. Between its discovery in 1956 and 1959 (not, as Sotheby's stated, between 1957 and 1972) the bust was acquired by Denys Sutton, the art historian and editor of Apollo magazine 1962-87, who died in 1991.

The question of authorship

Although, like many of Rysbrack's marble portraits, the bust of Orkney is unsigned, it is closely related to many of the sculptor's notable portraits, and Mrs Webb's statement in 1956 that the bust was by Rysbrack was accepted without comment by Dr Margaret Whinney of the Courtauld Institute in 1964 and affirmed in 2000 by Professor Malcolm Baker. (10) Curiously, despite these statements of Rysbrack's authorship made by three leading authorities in the field of 18th-century British portrait sculpture (one of whom had written a book on the sculptor and his oeuvre), Sotheby's were not prepared definitively to ascribe the bust to Rysbrack. Instead they were only willing to attribute it to him, apparently because of a suggestion that Rysbrack's fellow emigre from Antwerp, Peter Scheemakers, who was also working in London from around 1720, was more likely to be the sculptor than Rysbrack. …

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